More than 100 governments, including all major NATO allies, met on May 19 to begin two weeks of negotiations in Dublin, Ireland to finalize a global treaty banning cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. The U.S. government will not be there, and is exerting pressure on allies to weaken the treaty. Washington claims that future joint military operations will be undermined if allied governments prohibit the use of these weapons.
Cluster weapons open in mid-air dispersing dozens to hundreds of small submunitions over an area that can be as large as several football fields. According to the most comprehensive research to date, the vast majority of confirmed casualties from this type of weapon have been civilians. In the past 10 years, the United States has used cluster bombs in civilian-populated areas of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. These weapons also have an established track record of killing and injuring U.S. soldiers. During Operation Desert Storm, U.S. cluster submunitions were responsible for more U.S. troop casualties (80) than any Iraqi weapons system.
“Cluster munitions do not know when the war has ended,” said Mark Engman, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. “Children stumble over them long after the conflict has ended or pick them up thinking that they are toys.”
The treaty will prohibit use, production, and export of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. It will also require the destruction of stockpiles and provide assistance to victims and affected communities. Most of the debate at the negotiations will focus on the question of what constitutes “unacceptable harm,” with some countries lobbying for the exclusion of more “precise” cluster munitions with self-destruct mechanisms.
As the largest producer, stockpiler, and user of these weapons in history, the United States has a moral responsibility to take part in this effort to protect civilians from unintended – but avoidable – harm during armed conflict and afterwards. Also AWOL from the negotiations are China, Russia, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, India. While all of these countries stockpile cluster munitions, only Russia and Israel have used them. Despite their absence, half of all producer, stockpiler and cluster bomb victim nations are at the table. Moreover, as the Mine Ban Treaty has demonstrated, even if the United States, Russia, and China don’t sign up, a new global norm banning cluster munitions will likely curb the use of these weapons.
Meanwhile, national efforts continue to advance. Last year Congress passed a one-year moratorium on exports of cluster munitions. Congress can help move the United States closer toward the position of the world community and its major military allies by supporting the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act. This draft law would prohibit the U.S. military from using cluster bombs in areas that are normally populated by civilians, and it would prohibit the use of weapons that leave behind an unacceptably large number of landmine-like submunitions. (As written, the law would prohibit use of all but a very tiny fraction of U.S. cluster munitions.) Senators Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy introduced the bill in February 2007, at the same time the Norwegian government launched the global treaty negotiations. Nearly one-quarter of the Senate is on board, and it continues to gather co-sponsors as constituents press the issue.
The pope, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Christian relief group World Vision, among others, have joined in condemning the use of these indiscriminate weapons. It is time for the U.S. government to get on board.