World leaders strengthen norms against cluster bombs despite U.S. intransigence

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With world leaders meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia this week to review the implementation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the United States is once again being reminded how out of step it is on international norms in general and on the issue of cluster bombs in particular.

Cluster munitions scatter bomblets over a wide area, posing a grave threat to civilians in conflict zones. When they detonate over civilian areas, they tear to shreds any human being in the vicinity, ripping off limbs, killing and maiming randomly, and causing immense pain and suffering, including to children. After the cessation of conflicts, the weapons continue to pose a threat by leaving remnants that fail to explode upon impact which essentially become landmines.

Cluster bombs

As part of the ongoing global effort to eliminate these heinous weapons, the First Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions is taking place from September 7-11, including participation by stakeholders from States Parties to the Convention, signatory states, observer states, UN agencies, international and regional organizations and civil society. Notably absent is the United States, which along with about 75 other countries in the world, has refused to join the Convention.

The U.S. position is that cluster bombs, despite their indiscriminate and horrific effects on civilians, are a legitimate and necessary component of the Pentagon’s arsenal, and those of its allies such as Ukraine and Saudi Arabia which use them routinely against civilians. The U.S. insistence on maintaining a cluster munitions stockpile and providing them to other countries makes the U.S. a notable outlier in international opinion on these weapons, and is undermining efforts to eliminate them globally.

As Human Rights Watch’s Mary Wareham recently pointed out in a column for Huffington Post:

The U.S. is not a party to the international Convention on Cluster Munitions. But its reluctance to press Saudi Arabia on cluster munition use in Yemen appears to be having an impact on three close allies who are parties to that treaty. Australia, the UK and Canada want to water down language in draft documents to be issued by the First Five-Year Review Conference of the treaty, which opens September 7 in Dubrovnik, Croatia. This issue is fueling a fight that may overshadow the conference.

The advocacy group Cluster Munition Coalition issued its annual report last week finding that cluster bombs had been used in five countries over the past year: Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine and Sudan.

Although the United States may not have actually dropped these bombs directly in those five countries, it is nonetheless largely culpable for their use. As Glenn Greenwald points out in a recent article, “the U.S. has long been and remains one of the world’s most aggressive suppliers of cluster munitions, and has used those banned weapons itself in devastating ways.”

Two years ago, it was announced that Saudi Arabia would by buy 1,300 new CBU-105 cluster bombs from U.S. manufacturer Textron Defense Systems for $641 million. The announcement on Aug. 21, 2013 was criticized at the time as “a regressive step that goes against the norms of the treaty that outlawed these weapons in 2008.”

The U.S. has also personally used cluster bombs as recently as December 2009, when President Obama ordered a cruise missile strike on al-Majala in southern Yemen. That strike killed 35 women and children, and among the munitions used were cluster bombs, including ones designed to scatter 166 bomblets. The U.S. also used them extensively in its invasion of Iraq, where it dropped 10,800 cluster bombs.

“The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery,” reported USA Today in December 2003. “They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation.”

Saudi Arabia’s current use of U.S.-supplied cluster bombs in Yemen is taking a horrible toll on the civilian population there. As Human Rights Watch explains,

Banned cluster munitions have wounded civilians including a child in attacks in Houthi-controlled territory in northern Yemen. .. In one attack, which wounded three people, at least two of them most likely civilians, the cluster munitions were air-dropped, pointing to the Saudi-led coalition as responsible because it is the only party using aircraft. In a second attack, which wounded four civilians, including a child, Human Rights Watch was not able to conclusively determine responsibility because the cluster munitions were ground-fired, but the attack was on an area that has been under attack by the Saudi-led coalition.

These weapons have been supplied to Saudi Arabia by the United States, which knowingly and tacitly supports their use in Yemen. As a recent report in U.S. News made clear,

The U.S. knows the Saudi government has employed cluster bombs in its ongoing war against Shiite Muslim rebels in neighboring Yemen, but has done little if anything to stop the use of the indiscriminate and deadly weapons during what has become a human rights catastrophe in one of the Arab world’s poorest countries.

With watchdog groups warning of war crimes and attacks striking civilians in Yemen, the Pentagon declined to comment publicly on whether it has discussed cluster bombs with Saudi Arabia or encouraged its military to cease using them, deferring all such questions to the State Department. But a Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, tells U.S. News “the U.S. is aware that Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions in Yemen.”

Despite not having ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the United States is still bound by international law to prevent its weapons from being used in violation of international accords such as the Geneva Conventions, as HRW Director Ken Roth recently explained on Democracy Now:

As you note, the fact that the relevant countries have not ratified the cluster munitions treaty, while it would be helpful to do so, it’s not decisive, because all of them have ratified the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit indiscriminate warfare. And cluster munitions are, by definition, indiscriminate. They scatter over wide areas, so they should never be used in civilian-populated areas to begin with. Plus they leave a residue. Not every munition explodes on contact with the ground, and they become antipersonnel land mines for people to just stumble upon and die. So the U.S. should be using pressure on the Saudis not to be using these weapons at all, but certainly not to be using them in populated areas where, as we’re seeing, Yemenis are being killed.

Discussing how out of step the U.S. is with the rest of the world, Roth said, “as most nations of the world want to ban these inherently indiscriminate weapons, the U.S. has a huge arsenal of them, it doesn’t want that arsenal limited, and it hates the idea of treaties that are restraining the Pentagon on humanitarian grounds.”

Yet, in spite of U.S. intransigence, the stigmatization of cluster bombs continues to gain momentum.

As of last month, 117 countries had joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions, of which 95 are States Parties. At the review conference in Dubrovnik this week, participants will be focused on how to expand the universalization of the treaty, promote storage and stockpile destruction, enhance risk reduction education, develop international cooperation and assistance, promote transparency, ensure compliance, develop national implementation measures, and facilitate implementation support.

As the International Committee of the Red Cross explained before the conference began, one of its overriding purposes is to raise the political costs for rogue states such as Saudi Arabia and the U.S. who insist on using these weapons to achieve their geopolitical goals:

[I]f we are to put an end for all time to the suffering and casualties caused by cluster munitions, the stigmatization of these weapons must continue to be strengthened. In the ICRC’s view, any use of cluster munitions by any party is unacceptable. In this respect, I am heartened by the condemnations and deep concern expressed by many States Parties about the use of cluster munitions in recent armed conflicts. The international community must never be complacent about the use of these weapons or their severe consequences in humanitarian terms.

While it may be a long time coming before the United States begins to respect international norms on cluster bombs, its shameful record on this issue should raise doubts any time a U.S. government official speaks about international norms or human rights in any other context. In this way, its isolation could continue to grow and its credibility eroded — at which point it may have to make a choice between its beloved cluster bombs or its position as a world power.

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