Several days ago, on a sunny morning in southern Lebanon, my clinical instructor, Bonnie Docherty, and I witnessed the explosion of a submunition left from a cluster munition attack in 2006. After the blast, which happened so close to us I felt the earth move as a result of its force, I smiled broadly at Bonnie.
Why was I grinning in response to such a ground-shaking jolt and ear-splitting boom? Because this was no accidental submunition explosion; it was a controlled detonation conducted by the Lebanese military as a part of a clearance campaign for the village area of Nabatieh. The detonation of this dud submunition, which dated to the Lebanon war five years ago, represented one small but necessary step in the effort to eradicate the remnants of war from the area, and to restore the property and livelihoods of the community.
Bonnie and I had traveled to Lebanon to support this effort, serving as representatives of the International Human Rights Clinic, Human Rights Watch, and the Cluster Munition Coalition at the Second Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. At the meeting, which began last Monday and ended Friday, around 600 representatives of states, international organizations, and civil society convened to promote the implementation and universalization of the Convention, which prohibits all use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions.
Cluster munitions are large weapons that release dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions. They cause civilian casualties during attacks due to their wide area effect, and for months or years afterwards because many of them do not explode on impact and become de facto landmines.
Lebanon seemed an especially fitting base for the meeting, since, according to the UN Development Program, Israel dropped an estimated 4.2 million submunitions over the country during the conflict in 2006. These submunitions contaminated approximately 54.9 square kilometers, including residential neighborhoods, homes, schools, hospitals, and farmland. At this point, the Lebanese military, humanitarian organizations like the Mines Advisory Group, and other members of the international community have worked tirelessly to clear more than two-thirds of the contaminated land.
Bonnie and I participated in the field visit to Nabatieh in advance of the meeting, hoping to see first-hand how various actors in Lebanon, are working together to clear land contaminated by cluster munitions.
As the call to prayer echoed through the hills surrounding the village, the military shuttled us first to a mock “CAS-EVAC” drill to show us how they would evacuate a deminer if he or she were injured on the job. Then, after the submunition detonation, they gave us a tutorial on proper equipment and protective clothing for clearance. Finally, since we were in Lebanon after all, we were treated to cheese and zatar sandwiches, strong Arabic coffee, and an impromptu traditional Arabic dance (“debke”) session, where soldiers, NGO workers, state delegates, cluster munition survivors, and doctors held hands and danced their hearts out.
To me, the unexpected and joyous scene looked like a blessing for a community that once seemed permanently damaged by the effects of cluster munitions— that, too, made me smile.
Click here for more from Human Rights Watch on last week’s meeting in Beirut.
Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, recently returned from Afghanistan, where she worked this summer with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. This semester, she is a member of the Clinic and a participant on Bonnie’s cluster munitions team.