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Cluster bombs and Australia’s national interest

By Rod Benson - posted Friday, 15 June 2007

At the same time as the Australian Government is engaged in international talks aimed at securing a global treaty banning cluster bombs, the Defence Department has claimed that limitations on the Australian Defence Force’s capacity to acquire the weapons would be “detrimental to our national interest”.

Cluster bombs, or cluster munitions, are a kind of artillery shell or rocket dropped from the air or launched from the ground. Before reaching its target the shell opens and ejects multiple smaller munitions (bomblets).

Cluster bombs are used primarily to kill enemy infantry, but versions are also used to start fires, pierce the armour of tanks and other armoured vehicles, disable runways, disperse mines, deliver chemical weapons and even disrupt electrical power transmission.


Like land mines, cluster bombs pose an immediate and long-term threat to civilians. They typically affect a wide area, sometimes as much as several football fields, increasing the potential for civilian casualties. Further, multiple unexploded bomblets may lie dormant for some time. The Australian Red Cross estimates that typically between 7 and 30 per cent, but up to 40 per cent in some cases, of cluster bomblets fail to detonate on impact but may explode if disturbed.

According to Handicap International, 98 per cent of its registered cluster munitions casualties are civilians. Many of these are children. In addition to the tragedy of civilian casualties, unexploded ordnance of cluster bomblets can create long-term social and economic problems for countries attempting to recover from war. Countries significantly affected include Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Vietnam and Laos.

Australia possessed limited stocks of cluster munitions between 1970 and 1990 but these were destroyed, and Australia has until now undertaken not to use cluster bombs in armed conflict. On May 8, 2007 Robert Tickner, former federal Aboriginal Affairs minister and now chief executive of the Australian Red Cross, urged the Australian Government to consider the role it might play in supporting a ban on cluster munitions, based in part on his personal experience of the devastation caused by them:

I saw the effects of unexploded cluster munitions while visiting Lebanon in February, and they are truly devastating, and alarmingly random. Sub-munitions were found in houses, backyards, in trees, in orchards and many other places. In one street near a hospital, 800 sub-munitions were found.

I met a farm worker who had been working in a field on September 9, about a month after the conflict had ended. He was leaving the field after work and did not notice the unexploded sub-munition that was hidden under some fallen leaves. The munition exploded, severely damaging his foot and leg, resulting in partial amputation. He did not believe he could return to work as a labourer again, and I can only imagine the fear he must feel knowing that almost anywhere in the fields he once worked could be another remnant of the conflict waiting to release its potentially lethal payload …

To support a ban on the use of these inaccurate, unreliable weapons of conflict would send a clear message to the rest of the world and be a significant step towards ridding it of a weapon that goes on destroying lives long after the fighting forces have packed up and gone home.

But Australian politicians and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) are instead moving in the opposite direction. Australian Democrats leader, Senator Lyn Allison, introduced a private members bill into federal parliament on December 5, 2006, titled the Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Bill 2006, to prohibit the use, manufacture and possession of cluster munitions.

The bill triggered an inquiry by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which tabled recommendations in Parliament on May 31. According to Senator Allison, the Senate Standing Committee selectively ignored 80 per cent of submissions which supported a total ban or far more stringent regulation of the use of cluster munitions, and effectively “gave the cluster bombs the green light”.


Further, the ADF is reported to be acquiring high-precision and self-destructing cluster bombs for use against armoured vehicles.

The preferred supplier of the bombs, Israel Military Industries, claimed that they were “safer than others” and had been used to the “utmost satisfaction of its users”. The ADF opposes legislation to ban cluster munitions on the basis that such a ban could leave Australian troops open to prosecution while serving with allies who have used the bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This action by the ADF may appear to contradict the government’s support in Lima last week for a new international treaty to ban cluster munitions. But as Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Greg Hunt, explained, “We make no apologies for wanting to maintain a capability to adequately and safely protect our defence forces”.

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First published in Soundings No. 58, 5 June 2007.

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About the Author

Rev Rod Benson serves as ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.

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