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Is the Tide Turning on US Cluster Bombs?

The US’ continued support of Ukraine has put the morality of cluster munitions squarely in the spotlight.

Words: Heather Brandon-Smith, Ursala Knudsen-Latta
Pictures: Ioann-Mark Kuznietsov

Unfortunately, today’s world map does not lack for active war zones. 

Armed groups and government forces are engaging in violence and destruction in Gaza and Israel, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Azerbaijan/Armenia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and too many other countries to list. And with the increasing proliferation of weapons around the world, unfortunately, this is all too predictable.

History has shown that when governments and armed groups get a gun, a bomb, or a sword, eventually, they are going to use it. This sadly holds true for indiscriminate weapons, such as cluster munitions, which disproportionately harm civilians. 

Cluster Munitions to Ukraine

In the war in Ukraine, cluster munitions are being used by both Russia and Ukraine right now. While Russia has deployed significantly more, with their own domestic supply, since July of 2023, the Ukrainians have deployed American-made cluster munitions. This is enabled partly by the fact that Russia, Ukraine, and the United States are not signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits all use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of these weapons. 

Cluster munitions are shells that contain hundreds to thousands of smaller bomblets that disperse into the air and scatter over areas the size of several football fields. These weapons were designed to destroy groups of unarmored military targets. However, their lack of precision targeting capabilities increases the risk of their falling into civilian areas and makes it difficult to decontaminate bombed areas. The risk is so pronounced that in 2022, 95% of cluster munition casualties were civilians, with two-thirds of that number being children. The extreme threat to civilians that these weapons pose outweighs any potential military benefit. 

By transferring cluster munitions to Ukraine, the United States has made itself complicit in the ongoing and inevitable future civilian casualties in the already war-torn country.

By transferring cluster munitions to Ukraine, the United States has made itself complicit in the ongoing and inevitable future civilian casualties in the already war-torn country. The United States should be preventing, not facilitating, civilian harm around the world. The Biden administration’s July 2023 decision to begin sending stockpiled cluster munitions to Ukraine further exacerbated this problem, including the years that will need to be spent trying to find and defuse the smaller bomblets.

Despite the mess that is Congress of late, there is some good news and reason for hope. There is small but growing bipartisan momentum on the Hill to stop the export of these weapons. In 2023, proposals to stop their export received a full House vote on three separate occasions. While none of these measures was adopted, the number of members voting yes steadily grew. In total, some 214 House lawmakers voted for at least one of the amendments seeking to stop the export of cluster munitions. Perhaps just as important, the number of Democrats and Republicans voting in favor is incredibly balanced (100 to 114, respectively), a rare achievement in today’s partisan politics. 

An Opportunity To Do The Right Thing

A total of 123 countries have prohibited the production, use, or transfer of cluster munitions by joining the Convention on Cluster Munitions, including the vast majority of NATO member states. Despite this global consensus on their inhumanity, the United States remains an outlier in allowing the continued transfer and use of these immoral weapons. 

When the United States continues to act against the global norm prohibiting their production, use, and transfer, it creates more space for actors like Israel, Syria, and Russia to use them with impunity. The United States has a moral obligation to reinforce, not further erode, global norms against indiscriminate weapons.

The war in Ukraine and the United States’ continued support of the Ukrainians has put the conversation around the morality of cluster munitions squarely in the spotlight, at least in Congress and in the White House. Now is the moment for Congress to capitalize on this momentum and make lasting changes to policy on these indiscriminate weapons. 

The United States can no longer cast a blind eye to the children and other civilians being maimed and killed by our weapons. We must sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions and stop the use, production, and export of these horrific weapons.

Heather Brandon-Smith, Ursala Knudsen-Latta

Heather Brandon-Smith is the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s (FCNL) deputy director for foreign policy. Ursala Knudsen-Latta is the Legislative Manager for Peacebuilding at FCNL.

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