Progress on Cluster Bombs

Good news is in short supply. The economy remains bleak. The war in Iraq entered its seventh year last week, and violence reaches new pinnacles in Afghanistan. But there is one bright light amid all this gloom. Real progress is being made to ban cluster munitions. These are canisters of different sizes that release hundreds of bomblets on detonation, scattering deadly devices over an area as large as several football fields.

On the international front, representatives of 75 nations gathered at the United Nations last week to celebrate the Cluster Munitions Convention and call on nations to ratify the treaty. Closer to home, when President Barack Obama signed the omnibus spending bill, he also made strict rules on cluster munitions exports permanent.

While these developments won’t restore life and limb to those killed and injured by these pernicious weapons in the past, together these national and international steps add up to real progress and are a testament to the work of thousands over many years.

UN Treaty Makes Headway

So far, 96 nations have signed the cluster bomb treaty, which prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of the weapon as well as requiring clearance of affected areas, assistance to victims, and destruction of stockpiles. At the UN on March 18, campaigners announced that the Holy See, Sierra Leone, Norway, and Ireland ratified the treaty. Laos, where the United States spread 270 million cluster submunitions during the Indochina War of the 1960s and 1970s and where 350 are still injured or killed every year, ratified the treaty later that week. Twenty-five more ratifications are needed for the treaty to “enter into force” and become internationally binding. With the announcement that parliaments in Austria and Mexico are taking up the matter shortly, the momentum grows.

The main producers of cluster munitions – Russia, China, and the United States – have not signed the treaty. According to the Pentagon, the United States maintains a stockpile of 5.5 million cluster munitions containing about 728.5 million submunitions. Factoring in War Reserve Stocks for Allies (WRSA), Human Rights Watch calculates that the figure is closer to one billion submunitions.

On March 11, Obama signed into law the 2009 budget, which included a provision stating that the United States can only export cluster munitions that leave behind less than 1% of their submunitions as duds. The importing country must also agree not to use cluster munitions where civilians are known to be present. Only a very small number of cluster munitions in the U.S. arsenal meet the 1% dud-rate standard, and so the provision effectively bans export of these weapons. The specific language of the measure requires that “no U.S. military funds will be used for the sale or transfer or cluster bombs, unless: the cluster bombs have a failure rate of 1 percent or less; and the sale or transfer agreement specifies that the cluster bombs will be used only against clearly defined military targets and not where civilians are known to be present.”

Cluster Bombs in Practice

This position represents a major shift from when U.S. forces used hundreds of cluster munitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a Pentagon briefing in November 2001, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeam discussed dropping cluster bombs on Afghanistan, saying that the bomblets are “most effective against troops that are in lightly defended areas.” At that point, the United States had dropped 600 cluster bombs in Afghanistan, according to a later addition to the press briefing transcript.

In April 2003, General Richard Myers asserted that the invading forces used 1,500 cluster munitions in Operation Iraqi Freedom, resulting in only “one recorded case of collateral damage” from the weapons system. Myers went on to relate that “in some cases we hit these targets knowing that there would be a chance of potential collateral damage” and that “war is not a tidy affair, it’s a very ugly affair.”

In December 2003, Human Rights Watch released a report asserting that U.S. and British forces used almost 13,000 cluster munitions containing nearly 2 million submunitions, which killed or wounded more than 1,000 civilians in Iraq.

U.S. military planners subsequently stopped using cluster muntions in Iraq. In addition to cluster bombs causing many more Iraqi civilian deaths, U.S. troops were often victims. Members of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division described cluster munitions as “battlefield losers” in Iraq. U.S. soldiers often had to advance through areas contaminated with unexploded duds. And more and more military officials are speaking out against the weapons. Colonel Dan Smith, U.S. Army (ret.) remarks that “a commander who even considers resort to cluster munitions in a built-up area…has already lost the battle and probably the war” because “counterinsurgency is an effort to win hearts and minds.” Lynn Bradach agrees. Her son, Marine Corporal Travis Bradach-Nall, was killed by a cluster bomb in Iraq. In a December 2008 op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, she writes that “the cost to local civilians is too high and that U.S. cluster munitions also directly endanger U.S. troops.”

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) have worked to keep this issue alive amid a whirlwind of pressing issues and celebrated the passage of their provision by reinforcing the importance of the international work. According to Leahy, “This is a key step for the United States and it reinforces the efforts of other countries to stop the carnage caused by cluster munitions. Like Congress’s initiative to ban the export of anti-personnel landmines, this can be a catalyst to prompt a review by the Pentagon of U.S. policy, with a view to rapidly ending the use of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to innocent civilians.” 

Still, the Pentagon’s policy directive on cluster munitions, released in July 2008, demonstrates there is still work needed to bring U.S. policies in line with Obama’s commitment to protect civilians. The Pentagon policy, developed while President George W. Bush was still in office, asserts that “cluster munitions are legitimate weapons with clear military utility” and goes even further to warn that banning cluster weapons has the potential to pose “negative consequences to civilians because the large scale use of unitary weapons, as the only alternative to achieve military objectives, could result in some cases, in unacceptable collateral damage.”

Lawmakers will also need to challenge the Pentagon’s assertions that technological fixes are a stand-in for international cooperation and treaty-making. But they’re taking it one step further, and plan pushing a bill to set similar standards for the use of cluster munitions by U.S. military forces. This is good news we can build on. In fact, advocates have an opportunity to drive home this message on Monday, March 30, the day campaigners are calling on Congress to “Give Cluster Bombs the Boot.”

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.