New Treaty Should Prompt New Administration To Review U.S. Policy On Cluster Munitions

By:  Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Dianne Feinstein

“If you had them on your land, if your children faced them, you’d ban them for sure.”  Those are the words of an Afghan boy who lost both legs after picking up an errant U.S. cluster munition in a public park.

It is estimated that nearly 100,000 civilians have been maimed or killed by cluster bombs, which scatter hundreds of deadly munitions over a wide area.  During the past 50 years, vast areas of arable land have been turned into death traps by unexploded duds that remain lethal long after conflict has ended.

The human toll has been terrible:

  • In Laos, approximately 11,000 people, 30 percent of them children, have been killed or injured by U.S. cluster munitions since the Vietnam War ended.

  • In Afghanistan, between October 2001 and November, 2002, 127 civilians lost their lives due to cluster munitions, 70 percent of them under the age of 18.

  • An estimated 1220 Kuwaitis and 400 Iraqi civilians have been killed by cluster munitions since 1991.

On December 3rd, governments began the process of formally signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans these indiscriminate weapons.

While largely unfamiliar to most Americans, this international treaty, which was finalized in May 2008, has the support of a majority of the world’s governments – including many that have used these weapons in combat and those whose civilians have been victimized by their use.

Unfortunately, the United States is not among them.

The current Administration opposes signing the international treaty, and has stated that it views cluster munitions as “legitimate weapons with clear military utility in combat.”

It is time for a new policy.  The Obama Administration should review President Bush’s refusal to join this treaty, as well as the treaty to ban anti-personnel landmines.

A decision to put our nation on a path to sign these treaties would send the welcome signal that the U.S. is ready to act boldly to protect non-combatants, resume its diplomatic leadership in the world, and restore its frayed alliances.

There is no doubt that cluster munitions have some military utility.  The same was said of landmines and even poison gas.  But military experts and civilian leaders from around the world have determined that the harm to civilians outweighs their military utility today.

Reducing civilian casualties is not only a moral imperative; it has become a tactical and strategic one as well.  These weapons turn civilians against us, and threaten the safety of our troops and the success of our mission.  

  • In the 2006 war in Lebanon, Israeli cluster munitions, many of them manufactured in the U.S., injured and killed 200 civilians. 

  • During the 2003 invasion of Baghdad, the last time the U.S. used cluster munitions, these weapons killed more civilians than any other type of U.S. weapon. The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division described cluster munitions as “battlefield losers” in Iraq, because they were often forced to advance through areas contaminated with unexploded duds.

  • During the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. cluster munitions caused more U.S. troop casualties than any single Iraqi weapon system, killing 22 U.S. servicemen.

Efforts to restrict their use had been underway since 2001 in the Geneva-based Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Today, the Pentagon argues that the CCW is still the best forum for negotiating limits on the use of these weapons because other key powers like Russia and China are not likely to sign the treaty.

But it was the CCW’s failure to act, including after the debacle in Lebanon, which led the Norwegian Government to launch a diplomatic effort to “ban cluster munitions which cause unacceptable harm to civilians.”  We commend Norway for its leadership.

We agree with the Pentagon that this treaty should be universal to fully achieve its goals.  But no treaty has become so overnight, and it takes leadership.

Some progress has been made:  NATO forces in Afghanistan adopted a policy prohibiting their use, and the Pentagon prohibits the use of our most common cluster munitions in Iraq.

The Pentagon also recently announced some steps to respond to the global concern about cluster munitions, including that after 2018 it will only use such munitions with a failure rate of one percent or less.

This is a step in the right direction.  However, it presages the use of inaccurate and unreliable weapons, and more unnecessary deaths, for another decade, and it will undermine the treaty. 

In 2007, we introduced the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act, to prohibit the use of cluster munitions with a failure rate of one percent or less, and the use of any cluster munitions in areas populated by civilians.  We plan to reintroduce similar legislation next year.

As long as the U.S. refuses to join the treaty, other nations have an excuse to do likewise.  As the world’s strongest military power, the United States should be helping lead the way to end the needless misery caused by cluster munitions.  The lives of innocent civilians hang in the balance, and there’s no time to waste.  

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[Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are the authors of legislation to set standards on the export and use of cluster munitions; Leahy included provisions drawn from their bill in a State Department budget bill  enacted last year.  Leahy also has long been the leading U.S. official pressing for an end to the worldwide use of anti-personnel landmines.]