Klobuchar to back limits on cluster-bomb use, activists say


U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has vowed to co-sponsor a bill that would restrict the United States’ use of cluster bombs, rendering as many as a half billion stockpiled weapons off-limits. That’s according to activists who say the announcement — at a meeting with her Wednesday, after months of pressure by Minnesota citizens and peace groups — came as a surprise.

Klobuchar’s staffs in Minnesota and Washington, D.C., were on retreats Thursday and didn’t respond to requests for confirmation.

At the meeting Klobuchar seemed impatient with a presentation on the issue, says Virgil Wiebe, a University of St. Thomas law professor who advises the Mennonite Central Committee, a leader in the worldwide campaign to ban the weapons, by virtue of being one of only two United States aid groups working in Laos after the Vietnam War.

Wiebe says he took a couple minutes to tell stories Southeast Asian and Croatian victims of the so-called submunitions — bomblets packed into a larger missile container that, if unexploded, pose risks similar to land mines when people come into contact with them later.

The reason for Klobuchar’s impatience became clear after Roxanne Abbas of the Minnesota Peace Project posed the question to which activists had long sought a firm answer: What is the senator’s position on the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act of 2009? Klobuchar had already made her mind up.

“I will co-sponsor it,” was the senator’s reply.

There was a pause in the room as activists realized they had achieved their goal.

Klobuchar, they said, had been waiting for the Obama Administration to complete a policy review on cluster bombs, all the while hearing from constituents who want them banned. Her staff had been attentive at earlier meetings, appearing to take copious notes on the issue.

Her decision to act came the day after the Senate lost its leading liberal, Ted Kennedy, whose death Tuesday also meant the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act of 2009 had lost a co-sponsor. The timing of Klobuchar signing on was “purely coincidental,” Wiebe reckons, “but nonetheless fortuitous. In a sense she’s stepping into that gap.”

The bill, authored by Diane Feinstein of California (pdf), is not a complete ban. It prohibits the United States from using the weapons, unless unexploded bombs go off less than 1 percent of the time. That figure depends on how it is measured — for example, in actual war environments or more favorable testing situations. Manufacturers have tried to mollify an increasingly skeptical world market by adding devices meant to de-activate the explosives that don’t fire as planned.

The bill also authorizes the president to lift the ban on use of cluster bombs if “it is vital to protect the security of the United States.”

And it doesn’t tell the military it must dispose of its stockpiles.

Feinstein’s bill represents progress, Wiebe says, but it’s “still behind the curve” when compared to other countries’ efforts. The United States hasn’t signed the Oslo Treaty, an international agreement banning the production, use or trade of cluster munitions that goes into effect at the end of the year.

Klobuchar’s support carries extra significance because Minnesota is home to ATK (formerly Alliant Techsystems), which holds licenses to manufacture cluster bombs, according to Wiebe and as reported by the Minnesota Independent’s Tom Elko last year.

Sen. Al Franken’s staff didn’t return messages for this story. An ATK spokesman didn’t have immediate comment.