Trump’s Troops: Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State (2)

January 25, 2017

How about with regard to the use of cluster munitions?” the senator asked.

Well I’d have to examine what our past policy has been. I don’t want to get out ahead, if we’ve made commitments in this area, I don’t want to get out ahead of anyone on that.Rex Tillerson at his Senate Confirmation Hearing

Rex Tillerson was asked during his Senate confirmation hearing about the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s military campaign against Yemen. The coalition has violated the laws of war, for example by bombing civilian targets, as has been extensively documented. ‘Civilian targets’ always sounds so abstract — to be clear, we’re talking about hospitals, schools and markets, among others. PAX and our partner organizations, not to mention the European Parliament, have for some time been calling for a weapons embargo against Saudi Arabia. In the United Kingdom, the government has been taken to court on the grounds that weapons shipments to Saudi Arabia are a violation of the UN Arms Trade Treaty. But Mr. Tillerson has a solution: just provide the Saudi’s with better intelligence. Sure.

Clearly intelligence is not the problem. What about the cluster munitions the Saudi-led coalition is using in Yemen? Some background: cluster bombs contain countless smaller explosive submunitions, or bomblets. Everyone present in the area during an attack runs the risk of being wounded or killed. Many of the bomblets do not explode on impact, and remain where they fall as de facto land mines, claiming victims years if not decades later. It is precisely because cluster munitions predominantly kill or maim civilians – estimates say about 90 percent of the victims of cluster munitions are civilians – that this type of weapon was banned in 2008. At present, 119 countries have banned cluster munitions.

OK, now back to the cluster bombs used in Yemen. What is the US’s position on this? Tillerson did not say anything about that. Quite reasonably, he said he had to do his homework first. He has to check what past policy has been regarding these internationally banned weapons. Because, he said, “I don’t want to get out ahead, if we’ve made commitments in this area…” A sensible answer. As it turns out, the US does have ‘commitments’.

It is well known that the US is not particularly keen when it comes to international treaties. So it’s no surprise that the country has not joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), the treaty which, among others, categorically forbids the use and production of cluster munitions. Nevertheless, does have a national cluster munitions policy in place which led to the US restricting delivery of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia last year.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International exhaustively documented victims of the use of cluster munitions by the Saudi-led coalition. Some of these people appear to have fallen victim to cluster munitions manufactured in the US. Since 2007, US export policy has allowed the export of these weapons under certain conditions.

Firstly, the cluster bomb has to have a so-called ‘failure rate’ of less than 1%. In other words, not more than 1% of the bomblets can remain unexploded after impact. Another condition is that these weapons cannot be used in so-called ‘civilian areas’. There is only one type of weapon that, according to the US, meets the 1% failure rate criteria: the Sensor Fuzed Weapon (SFW). (Of course, whatever the US might think about it, the SFW is banned by the CCM.)

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen uses the SFW in civilian areas. In short, a violation of US export criteria. After international consternation, the Obama administration  expressed concern, and in May of last year the US announced it would halt shipments of the SFW to Saudi Arabia. A positive development, applauded by civil society organizations of the Cluster Munition Coalition.

But now that Trump is behind the desk in the Oval Office, what if Tillerson wants to reverse this decision? That would be tough. The SFW’s manufacturer, Textron, has taken care of that. The American conglomerate saw that the market for cluster bombs was shrinking, and worldwide criticism of these weapons was increasing. Additionally, financial investors, predominantly in Europe, had placed Textron on their do-not-invest list, because of Textron’s production of cluster munitions. Last summer, Textron indicated it will stop producing the SFW.

With or without Textron’s decision, if the US were to renew cluster munitions shipments to Saudi Arabia, it would come under harsh international criticism. The cluster bomb’s time has passed, also for the United States. Of course, after doing his homework, I`m sure Rex Tillerson will come to the same conclusion.

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