U.S. walks fine line in (almost) condemning cluster munitions in Libya

In a report being repeated endlessly in Western media, Human Rights Watch claimed last week that “Government forces loyal to the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, have fired cluster munitions into residential areas in the western city of Misrata, posing a grave risk to civilians.”

When asked about this on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said,

I’d have to say I’m not surprised at anything that Colonel Qadhafi and his forces do, but that is worrying information and it’s one of the reasons why the fight in Misrata is so difficult, because it’s at close quarters, it’s in amongst urban areas, and it poses a lot of challenges to both NATO and to the opposition.

Clinton’s tepid response is interesting for a few reasons, not the least of which because she uncharacteristically declines the opportunity to flat-out condemn the enemy for its barbaric tactics.

Instead, she points out that fighting in Misrata is “difficult,” being at “close quarters,” which poses “challenges to both NATO and to the opposition,” i.e., the forces that NATO is supporting in their efforts to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. The implication seems to be that “accidents may happen,” and that both NATO and the opposition should be forgiven if they happen to kill a few civilians.

It should also be noted that she falls far short of condemning outright the alleged use of cluster munitions by pro-Gaddafi forces. It might be said, in fact, that she sidesteps the question altogether.

While Human Rights Watch blames the Libyan side for the cluster bombs, the group has provided no evidence that the Gaddafi regime — or its backers — was responsible. The only “proof” that Human Rights Watch provides is the physical evidence of the bomb itself, which raises more questions than it answers.

HRW researchers inspected a submunition found in the el-Shawahda neighborhood of Misrata on the night of April 14 and determined that it was “a Spanish-produced MAT-120 120mm mortar projectile, which opens in mid-air and releases 21 submunitions over a wide area.”

The Libyan authorities, however, have categorically denied using the weapons. Mussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for Gaddafi, said on Sunday, “Absolutely no. We can’t do this. Morally, legally we can’t do this.”

Ibrahim called on HRW to provide more evidence:

We will never do it. We challenge them to prove it. To use these bombs, you know, the evidence will remain for days and weeks, and we know the international community is coming en masse on our country soon.

It is ironic, to say the least, that while Libya vociferously denies using these weapons, their origin is not in dispute. Being manufactured by NATO ally Spain, it is at least conceivable that they were in fact dropped by the U.S. or NATO rather than Libya, yet this possibility has apparently not been entertained by Western media or Human Rights Watch.

All we have are the claims of the armed rebels attempting to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. CNN quotes an unnamed “opposition spokesman” going by the alias of “Muhammed,” who said today,

The shelling and destruction by Gadhafi’s forces has not stopped since yesterday. They are shelling mortar shells, cluster bombs and splinter mortar shells. The splinter mortar shells explode and throw lethal shrapnel, which has caused most of the tragedies.

There are painfully few independent sources within Libya that can confirm claims by either side, yet the burden of proof remains on the pro-Gaddafi forces, and decidedly not on the U.S./NATO forces. This, despite the fact that all verifiable evidence would seem to point to Western complicity.

While the media dutifully reports that Libya has not acceded to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, it is rarely noted that neither has the United States of America, nor that the U.S. has repeatedly used these weapons and has consistently defended their use.

In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, the U.S. dropped nearly 10,800 cluster bombs on residential areas in the country, according to an investigative report by USA Today. According to the four-month investigation,

The Pentagon presented a misleading picture during the war of the extent to which cluster weapons were being used and of the civilian casualties they were causing. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on April 25, six days before President Bush declared major combat operations over, that the United States had used 1,500 cluster weapons and caused one civilian casualty. It turns out he was referring only to cluster weapons dropped from the air, not those fired by U.S. ground forces.

In fact, the United States used 10,782 cluster weapons, according to the declassified executive summary of a report compiled by U.S. Central Command, which oversaw military operations in Iraq. Centcom sent the figures to the Joint Chiefs in response to queries from USA TODAY and others, but details of the report remain secret.

While the U.S. banned the export of cluster munitions in March 2009, there has been no stated policy change regarding their use, which at least raises the possibility that the bombs found in Libya may have been dropped by coalition forces.

Spain, which manufactured the weapons discovered by Human Rights Watch, is a state party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. It claims that it has never used cluster munitions, although has acknowledged that in the past it produced, stockpiled, and exported them.

The Spanish Ministry of Defense stated that Spain completed the destruction of its stockpile of 5,587 cluster munitions on March 18, 2009, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.

Although Libya did not participate in any of the international preparatory meetings to develop the text of the international cluster munitions ban, it did attend two regional conferences promoting it and endorsed declarations supporting the ban convention.

“Libya chose to attend the formal negotiations in Dublin in May 2008 only as an observer,” says the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, “and thus did not join the 107 full participants in adopting the convention.”

The U.S., on the other hand, has effectively rejected the ban on cluster munitions and opted out of the international negotiations altogether. In justifying the U.S.’s use of cluster bombs and its refusal to accede to the international ban on the weapons, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2008,

The US did not participate in the Cluster Munitions Convention negotiations because we believe that cluster munitions are an integral part of our and many of our coalition partners’ military operations. The elimination of cluster munitions from our stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk. There are no substitute munitions, and some of the possible alternatives could actually increase the damage that results from an attack.

In November 2009, an Obama administration State Department official said that “many States, including the United States, have determined that their national security interests cannot be fully ensured consistent with the terms of the [Convention on Cluster Munitions].”

It is little wonder then that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would decline the opportunity to condemn the alleged use of these weapons by pro-Gaddafi forces. The U.S., after all, is walking a very fine line — on one hand attempting to demonize an enemy, but on the other reserving the right to use the enemy’s tactics, however deplorable.

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