The majority of the world agrees that the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions should be prohibited. Most of the world believes that the humanitarian consequences and civilian harm caused by these horrific weapons, which can kill anyone and everyone in their wide path, are unacceptable.
Despite this global understanding, the United States remains an outlier in allowing the continued production and use of these immoral weapons.
Now, some lawmakers are urging the Biden Administration to send cluster munitions to Ukraine, disregarding the global prohibition of these weapons and the significant danger they pose to civilians.
Why Cluster Munitions are Especially Dangerous for Civilians
Cluster munitions are shells that contain hundreds to thousands of smaller bomblets that disperse in the air and scatter over large areas the size of several football fields. These weapons were designed to destroy large unarmored military targets; however, their extreme threat to civilians outweighs any potential tactical benefit.
The lack of precision targeting capabilities of cluster munitions and the sheer size of the areas their bomblets blanket make the likelihood of bombs falling in civilian areas much higher and the marking of the contaminated regions difficult.
We have already seen the devastating impact of cluster munitions on the war in Ukraine. In the very first days of the 2022 Russian invasion, Ukrainian children were killed and wounded when these munitions were scattered 300 meters away from their suspected target. Additionally, cluster munitions often fail to detonate on impact, leaving small but deadly unexploded ordinances on the ground. Many civilians are killed or injured by cluster munitions long after their initial disbursement. Children especially are attracted to the small shiny objects they stumble upon while going about their daily lives years after a conflict has ended. In fact, 96% of victims of cluster munition casualties in 2021 were civilians, and two-thirds of these victims were children.
The U.S. is Failing to Lead When it Comes to Eliminating these Weapons
Despite the inherent risk to innocent civilians, under the current U.S. policy established by President Trump in 2017, the U.S. military may still deploy cluster munitions. However, a Congressional mandate bans the transfer of any cluster munitions with a failure rate greater than 1%, which effectively forbids the transfer of any existing stockpiled cluster munitions.
Of the 123 states who have signed or ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions to eliminate their use, 18 nations are NATO allies. These countries have all agreed to refrain from utilizing, transferring, producing, or stockpiling cluster munitions. While the majority of the world’s nations have vowed never to use these weapons, the United States has failed to take a stand.
The Ukraine Question
Cluster munitions have already been used by both parties in the war in Ukraine. From just February to August 2022, they caused the deaths of over 689 Ukrainian civilians.
Tragically, other nations contaminated by cluster munitions illuminate the potential for harm to civilians and costly clearance efforts for decades to come for Ukraine. For example, in Laos, which was ravaged by cluster bombs more than 40 years ago, 30% of the 270 million bomblets dropped did not detonate on impact. In the war and the decades since at least 29,500 Laotians have been killed and 21,000 injured by unexploded remnants of war.
Despite this history, some members of Congress and Ukrainian politicians are calling on President Joe Biden to send cluster munitions to Ukraine.
The United States cannot allow the injury and death of civilians to be ignored.
The United States cannot allow the injury and death of civilians to be ignored. The Biden administration must continue to deny requests to send these indiscriminate weapons to Ukraine.
For years, FCNL has partnered with the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmine-Cluster Munitions Coalition to call for more restrictions on these weapons, not less. Twice last year, Members of Congress urged President Biden to review the U.S. cluster munitions policy to put the United States on a path to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions by a specific date.
Our allies worldwide are unified in their commitment not to use cluster munitions. The U.S. must lead in strengthening and upholding this norm for the sake of civilians in Ukraine and worldwide.