Why won't the U.S. join the move to get rid of cluster bombs?

This week the United States missed an opportunity to show international leadership and its commitment to humanitarian values. While more than 100 nations agreed to ban cluster munitions in Dublin, Ireland, the U.S., in the questionable company of Russia and China, refused to join with them.

The new treaty commits countries not to use these weapons, which disperse hundreds of small “bomblets” over a wide area. By definition they cannot be targeted precisely – they are the opposite of a “smart bomb” – and often cause significant civilian casualties.

Many of the bomblets fail to explode on impact and remain dangerously unstable for decades – acting like de facto landmines. Hundreds of people continue to be injured and killed by cluster munitions dropped by the U.S .in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos more than 30 years ago.

“With this treaty we have outlawed every existing type of cluster munition that has ever been used,” said Simon Conway, co-chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition, which led the campaign. The treaty “will help to internationally stigmatize the weapon and prevent countries that have not signed up from using them.”

“This is a victory for humanity,” said Thomas Nash, coordinator of the Cluster Munition Coalition.

Grethe Osthern of Norwegian Peoples Aid, one of the world’s leading charities involved in clearing landmines and cluster munitions, agreed, saying, “The world is a safer place now.”

However, the Bush administration has decided to opt out of this noble cause.

“We do not believe abandoning cluster munitions is tenable from a military standpoint or that banning them, without the participation of those states most likely to use cluster munitions, is the option that will have the greatest positive humanitarian impact,” U.S. diplomat Alejandro D. Wolff told a U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday.

Not everyone in the halls of power in Washington agrees with this logic.

“There is no doubt that cluster munitions have some military utility. The same could be said of landmines, or even poison gas. But anyone who has seen the indiscriminate devastation cluster munitions cause across a wide area must recognize the unacceptable threat they can pose to civilians,” said U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who argues the U.S. should back the new treaty. He has recently sponsored a law to ban the export of cluster munitions.

“At the end of the day, I believe we should be guided by the conviction that this is, above all, a moral issue. Weapons that are inherently indiscriminate, whether by design or effect, should have no place in today’s world.”

In the days leading up to the landmine ban 10 years ago, campaigners used the analogy of a train leaving the station. They argued that to show commitment to a more just and peaceful world, a country had to get on board, or else it would be left behind with the stragglers – among the embarrassing company of Burma, Cuba, Libya, Iran and other “rogue states” against the ban.

Unfortunately the U.S. never got on board that train, and this week it missed another one. This is disappointing, for it will do nothing to improve America’s image in the world. We all know millions of Americans care deeply about protecting the vulnerable and building a better world. By failing to sign this treaty, the Bush administration has silenced their voices.

If you are one of those people who care, make sure your elected officials and the presidential candidates hear about it. Check out the U.S.Campaign to Ban Landmines (www.banminesusa.org) and the Cluster Munitions Coalition (www.stopclustermunitions.org) to see what you can do.