Law professor returns from bomb-clearing project in South Lebanon

Virgil Wiebe, right, with a director of the Battle Area Clearance Team working in South Lebanon.

Law professor returns from bomb-clearing project in South Lebanon

University of St. Thomas School of Law Associate Professor Virgil Wiebe spent part of his Easter holiday close to the Holy Land working on a project that has been part of his scholarship for the past decade. As a member of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) America board of directors, Wiebe visited South Lebanon where a staff of more than 350 is working to clear unexploded cluster munitions and ordnance left from the 2006 conflict between Lebanon and Israel.

Between July 12 and Aug. 14, 2006, munitions carrying an estimated 4 million cluster bomblets were fired into South Lebanon. It is estimated between 10 and 30 percent of these bomblets, or submunitions, failed to explode. The Mine Action Coordination Center, South Lebanon, has calculated that this contamination has affected 34.5 million square meters of land across South Lebanon, presenting a significant risk to the lives and health of those attempting to return home and rebuild their lives.

“I was impressed by the amount of labor it takes to clear an orange grove both on and below the surface,” Wiebe said, noting that in the grove, searchers had cleared hundreds of submunitions from the surface, but the team also determined that due to soil conditions and recent rainfall the grove would have to be scanned for submunitions that had worked their way into the soil. In that effort a searcher lost part of his foot, demonstrating the deadly stakes of this work.

“I came away with a deeper visceral understanding of how extensive the problem can be,” Wiebe said. The typical bomblet is the size of a D battery with lethal power. As the growing season approaches farmers returning to the fields face unexploded bomblets that can be deadly to clear and difficult to find. Adding to the problem is the population density of the area which ranges from urban to small agricultural.

This was demonstrated in a very real way as Wiebe and the team walked down a road. A video Wiebe shot on the trip showed a man approaching the team, asking for someone to identify and clear a bomblet very near his home.

In the same village, uncleared areas can clearly be seen a few yards from the road with children walking and playing nearby.

Wiebe said he was impressed with the high level of cooperation among the United Nations, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and several nonprofit and commercial clearance firms. They have divided the country into sections for clearance, trying to prioritize the process based on land use, including agriculture.

Farmers need to have fields cleared before they can return to grow crops. Because they depend on the land to feed their families, they are anxious to return and sometimes are willing to take chances.

Immediately following the signing of the cease-fire between Lebanon and Israel on Aug. 15, 2006, MAG deployed Battle Area Clearance Teams to South Lebanon to begin clearing the threat.  Over the past seven months, MAG teams have destroyed more than 13,000 explosive remnants.

Wiebe has been an active participant in efforts to curb the use of land mines and cluster bombs in armed conflicts since the mid-1990s. As a consultant to the Mennonite Central Committee, he has attended United Nations conferences on land mines and conventional weapons, and has addressed diplomats on international humanitarian law matters. 

“What I’m concerned about is escalation,” Wiebe explained about the use of cluster munitions in more than 20 countries. Previous efforts to stop their use of have focused on the fact that they are a "disproportionate" weapon, inflicting far more long-term damage than other types of weapons.

Wiebe’s concern is that when both sides use these types of munitions they may be perceived to be more or less fair. As Wiebe has seen, these munitions are anything but fair. “I’m amazed at how easy it is for conflict to deny access to the land with cluster munitions. Having grown up in Kansas helping my family plant and harvest, I understood the itch to get into the fields.”

A member of the St. Thomas School of Law faculty since 2002, Wiebe teaches immigration law, is director of clinical education and co-directs the university's Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services.  He has written several journal papers in recent years on topics related to cluster bombs.

The complexity of doing this type of work in Lebanon was underscored for Wiebe as he spent a few days longer than the rest of the group in Lebanon. As part of his work with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), he briefed country representatives for MCC about his visit to South Lebanon. The organization funds some mine-risk education.

Wiebe also was able to visit the Home of Hope, a shelter for stateless street children, that is run by the Lebanese Evangelical Institute for Social Work and Development. These children have been abandoned or abused. They cannot prove their citizenship and have no official national identity. Local courts appoint the Home of Hope to care for them in the absence of any other help.

Wiebe is available to talk to groups of individuals and has a variety of pictures, videos and other resources. Those interested are welcome to contact him at (651) 962-4976 or

Youngsters at play in South Lebanon, where Virgil Wiebe of the School of Law visited recently as part of an effort to clear unexploded cluster bomblets.