Delegates from many of the countries of the world wrote the Convention On Cluster Munitions in 2008, and the treaty was entered  into force in 2010. The U.S. has not signed party to this convention. 

It will probably be many years before the U.S. government will consider signing party to the Cluster Munitions Convention, but I can list reasons that I believe that it would make sense for us to sign party to this treaty and ratify it in 2019 or in the 2020’s.

 Cluster Munitions: Attempting To End A Deadly Legacy

Cluster bombs had originally been invented by the Germans, cluster bombs were first used  by the Luftwaffe in 1940.  Shortly after the Germans had used their first cluster bombs, defense contractors and munitions companies in other countries began to develop comparable technologies. 

Cluster bombs are a very effective weapon. Cluster bombs will usually effectively destroy the intended targets quickly.  However, as soon as cluster bombs began to be used in the 1940’s, a serious flaw with them became very obvious. Because a cluster bomb is not really a single bomb but rather it is a series of smaller bombs which have been linked together, many times one or more of the bomblets that are included within a cluster bomb do not explode upon impact.  Unexploded bomblets will continue to lay resting on the ground or gradually become buried beneath layers of dirt or mud for many decades, and if some of them land in bodies of water, then they will continue to lay on the bed of the lake, river, harbor or sea that they land in.  

There are hundreds, if not thousands of different kinds of cluster bombs, and cluster bombs are made from many different materials.  Older cluster bombs were made entirely of various metals. Newer cluster bombs can be made from either metals, plastics or a combination of metals and plastic.  Bomblets which don’t explode when they are initially dropped will remain buried in the ground for many years or decades, and after many years of exposure to rain, snow or ice, the outer casings of unexploded munitions gradually deteriorate.  When the outer casings of unexploded munitions deteriorate, the inner explosive materials can explode at any time. Unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs become unstable, and they end up causing as much destruction as land mines

Today, in the final year of the second decade of the twenty- first century, people in a number of countries throughout the world still continue to be injured and killed by bomblets from cluster bombs which had been dropped during various conflicts which occurred from the 1960’s through the 2010’s.  In a number of countries throughout the developing world, livestock are also killed when they step on unexploded bomblets from various conflicts which remain just a few inches or a few feet beneath the ground.

The United Nations Mine Action Service and the Mines Advisory Group keep lists which detail the numbers of people throughout the world who are killed and injured by landmines each year.  Because it is often impossible to determine whether someone has been injured or killed by a mine or by an unexploded bomblet from a cluster bomb, people who are injured or killed by bomblets which were left over from cluster bombs are often included in the UNMAS and the MAG’s annual lists of people who are killed and injured by landmines.  People who are killed or injured by bomblets from cluster bombs are listed as victims of undetermined unexploded ordinance in the UNMAS and the MAG’s annual lists.

People in a number of countries had witnessed the damage that unexploded bomblets were continuing to cause in the decades following the ends of conflicts, and people had recognized that if cluster bombs are not eliminated, people throughout the world will continue to be injured and killed by unexploded bomblets throughout the twenty first and the twenty second centuries.  In May of 2007, delegates from numerous countries who were concerned about this issue held meetings in Lima, Peru, and they met again in December of 2007 in Vienna to discuss proposing agreeing to ban or reduce the use of cluster munitions throughout the world. In May of 2008, the same delegates met in Dublin, Ireland, they wrote The Convention On Cluster Munitions, and the treaty was entered into force in 2010.  As of August of 2019, the governments of 108 countries have opted to sign party to this treaty, with 105 of them having ratified it.

When the delegates who were writing the Cluster Munitions Convention were discussing how to proceed with writing the treaty, they modeled the Cluster Munitions Convention partially on the Land Mines Convention of 1997.  The terms of the convention state that the countries who sign party to and ratify the convention cease manufacturing cluster bombs and that they destroy their old stockpiles.  However, the Cluster Munitions Convention also establishes a system of providing medical assistance to people who are victims of cluster bombs. By contrast, the Landmines Convention addresses ending manufacturing of new mines, destroying existing stockpiles and ensuring that the signatory states do not attempt to use mines, but it did not attempt to establish a system of providing medical assistance to victims of mines.  

The Cluster Munitions Convention created the Implementation Support Unit of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.  This committee ensures that the countries which have signed party to and ratified the convention are no longer manufacturing new cluster bombs and that the signatory states are destroying their existing stockpiles. The ISUCCM works in conjunction with the UNMAS and the Mines Advisory Group to locate unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs and then subsequently proceed to safely detonate them.  The ISUCCM is also intended to ensure that the relevant countries are providing medical assistance to the victims of cluster bombs and the ISUCCM also.  

The Use Of Cluster Bombs From The 1940’s Through 2008

Cluster bombs have been used in quite a few conflicts since the 1940’s, I’m not going to attempt to mention all of the wars in which cluster munitions were used.  Sizeable numbers of people are still being injured and killed by unexploded bomblets which were parts of bombs that the U.S. military had dropped in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War during 1960’s and the 1970’s.  The former U.S.S.R. had used them in Afghanistan during the Soviet- Afghan war from 1979- 1989.    Israel has dropped cluster bombs in Lebanon in 1979, during the 1980’s and again in 2006. The U.S. military used cluster bombs in Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003- 2006,  The U.S., the U.K. and the Netherlands used cluster bombs in the Kosovo conflict in 1999, and the U.S. used them in Afghanistan in 2001- 2002.  

The U.K. military had used cluster bombs in the Falklands war in 1982.  There are still unexploded bomblets in the Falklands Islands, but those bomblets are not injuring people anymore because people are not permitted to walk in the areas of those islands where they are located.  Many of the unexploded ordinance from the Falklands have been removed, but there are areas of the islands which are still closed entirely because they are not safe to enter, and could be safe if the remaining ordinance were to be removed.

The United Nations And A Realistic Approach To International Disarmament

The people who wrote the UN Charter in 1945 never expected that the United Nations would solve all of the world’s problems.  The people who wrote the UN Charter thoroughly understood that armed conflicts would continue throughout the duration of the twentieth century, and continue into the twenty first century.  When the representatives from the countries of the world who work at the United Nations write disarmament treaties, they are trying to take a realistic approach to global disarmament.  The primary goal of UN disarmament treaties is to eliminate the most destructive forms of weapons, and many of the UN disarmament treaties focus specifically on the kinds of weapons which continue to destroy humans and animals in the years and decades after a conflict has ended. 

The Cluster Munitions Convention Does Allow For The Continued Legal Use Smaller Cluster Bombs 

The Cluster Munitions Treaty is not intended to entirely eliminate the use of all cluster bombs throughout the world.  The convention allows militaries to continue to use smaller cluster bombs. When this treaty was being written, the representatives from the countries who were involved in writing this treaty had concluded that bombs which are comprised of 9 bomblets (or fewer) and in which each bomblet does not exceed 4.0 kilograms are considered to be small enough that they are not likely to pose significant risks to people in the years after a conflict has ended.   Therefore, bombs which are comprised of 9 bomblets (or fewer) and in which each bomblet does not exceed 4.0 kilograms are still permitted under the terms of this treaty. 

The Effectiveness Of The Treaty Since 2010

Most of the countries which have ratified the Cluster Munitions Convention have been compliant.  The terms of the Cluster Munitions Convention dictate that countries which violate the convention can be subject to sanctions, though the threat of sanctions has probably not been the primary motivation for compliance in many countries.  In many countries, people have seen the damage that cluster bombs wreak in the years after a conflict has ended, and people have recognized that the continued use of cluster bombs will create more problems than they would ever possibly solve.  

So far, this treaty appears to be effectively addressing issues relating to cluster bombs in the 21st century.  There have been no amendments or protocols to this treaty proposed since 2008. 

The Use Of Cluster Bombs Since 2010

This Treaty Was Entered Into Force in 2010.  Since 2010, the use of cluster bombs throughout the world has dropped significantly, but some countries which have not signed party to the treaty do still continue to use them.  In recent years, cluster bombs have been used in Libya in 2011, in Syria in 2012, in 2013 they were used in South Sudan, they were used in the Ukraine in 2014 and cluster bombs were used in Yemen in 2015.  If the unexploded bomblets from those conflicts are not removed, we will continue to read about victims who inadvertently come into contact with the remaining bomblets for many decades.

Why Has The U.S. Government Not Considered Signing Party To This Convention Yet?

The Cluster Munitions Convention was written during the final year of former President Bush II’s presidency.  In 2006, the Bush II administration had discussed the possibility of limiting the U.S. use of cluster bombs in future conflicts, and Barack Obama who had been a Senator at the time did vote in favor of the proposal, but the proposal did not pass.  By the time Barack Obama had become President two years later, he was no longer in favor of eliminating cluster bombs. Neither former Presidents Bush II or former President Obama had seriously considered signing party to this convention.  

This convention also seems to be a low priority for the Trump administration.  People from the Defense Department during the Bush II, the Obama administrations never even mentioned this treaty during any press conferences, and since President Trump assumed office in January of 2017, no one within the Trump administration has yet mentioned this treaty. 

Military officers and administrators within the U.S. Department Of Defense do not want to relinquish the option of using cluster bombs because cluster bombs are a very effective weapon.  I am not an expert in strategic studies, defense studies, nor am I an expert in new forms of weapons which are currently being researched. It does appear to me that in any international conflicts that the U.S. may be involved in during the rest of the 21st century, our military would be able to successfully complete all of their missions using a combination of the smaller cluster bombs which this treaty does allow for in conjunction with the rest of the conventional weapons which the U.S. possesses. 

The 2020 Elections

In contrast to the other  UN treaties and conventions which I’ve written about, it will be extremely difficult for a President to get Congress to approve ratification of this treaty anytime in the near future, so there’s no great mystery as to why we’re not hearing anyone within the Trump administration proposing that the U.S. sign party to this convention.  We’re not hearing any of the people who are presently in the process of campaigning for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President for 2020 proposing signing this convention, and the third party candidates haven’t been mentioning this treaty either. I am well aware that there is almost no possibility that the U.S. will sign party to this treaty anytime in the near future, but this is an issue which is worth discussing.  Unexploded bomblets from numerous conflicts still pose a significant and very real threat to people in a number of countries, and this issue will never be solved until the governments of more countries opt to sign and ratify this convention. 

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...