Human rights supporters have reason to celebrate with the announcement that the Convention on Cluster Munitions was approved this week in Dublin by 111 nations, banning cluster bomb production and use and requiring signatories to destroy all stockpiles within eight years. Cluster bombs are unnecessary weapons that rain bomblets on an area, and many of these bomblets don’t explode. The unexploded munitions turn into de facto landmines, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths.
The bad news is that the ban is undermined in two ways. It contains a provision that allows signatories to cooperate militarily with countries that do not support the agreement and who may use cluster bombs in the future, such as the US. Despite the provision, the UK government is going a step further than legally required and will ask the US to remove its cluster bomb stockpiles from military bases in Britain. Even more regrettably, the US and many of the other major producers and users of cluster bombs declined to sign the agreement:
In addition to the United States, Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan — all of them major producers or users of the weapons — did not sign the agreement or participate in the talks…
…In staying away from Dublin, U.S officials argued that the talks were not the right forum in which to address the issue and that cluster bombs remain an important part of the country’s weaponry. "While the United States shares the humanitarian concerns of those in Dublin," said Navy Cmdr. Bob Mehal, a Pentagon spokesman, "cluster munitions have demonstrated military utility, and their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk."
The U.S. military says that it keeps the weapons in its arsenal as a defense against advancing armies, a strategy closely linked to conventional Cold War approaches to conflict, and that it has not used the bombs since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. U.S. officials argue that technological advances will ensure that future cluster bombs reliably explode or quickly disable themselves, so they will not be a hazard to civilians later.
Israel carried out the largest recent use of cluster bombs, dropping large numbers on southern Lebanon in its 2006 war with Hezbollah militiamen. Many of the bombs did not explode immediately and have left a lasting humanitarian hazard.
Advocates of the ban said they hope the agreement, which was supported by rich nations and poor from Scandinavia to Africa, will have the same effect as the 1997 ban on land mines, reducing use even among non-signatory countries.
Peace Action West has been working to pressure Congress to restrict the use of cluster bombs, and we made some progress last year. The omnibus spending bill passed at the end of last year included language that prohibited the export of cluster bombs with a “failure rate” above 1%, hopefully minimizing any danger to civilians.
This is yet another opportunity for the US to use its power and influence in the global community to improve security and human rights. Hopefully the next administration will be more willing to engage in this kind of positive movement and improve our influence in the international community.