Can the World Finally Find Consensus on Cluster Bombs?

Much of the world has banned the weapons for their dangers to civilians, but the U.S. is among a handful of states resisting their abolition

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A Colombian soldier from a bomb disposal unit inspects a dismantled CB-250k cluster bomb / Reuters

Last week, representatives from 130 governments gathered in Beirut for the second meeting of parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), a 2008 treaty signed by 90 countries in an attempt to abolish cluster munitions. After years of failed attempts to roll back these weapons, the CCM attempts a new approach to limiting cluster munitions, bombs that open mid-flight to release smaller bombs (known as submunitions) over a wide area. Mostly meant to be used against infantry or tanks, they provide a certain economy of force -- one cluster bomb can destroy multiple targets -- but present a substantial risk to civilians during and especially after conflict. Most submunitions are not precision-guided; historically, a high percentage fail to explode, meaning they can remain on or just beneath the ground for years, waiting for some unwitting civilian to disturb them. Most models do not have safety features, such as an automatic self-destruct capability, and so remain in war zones, urban and rural, long after the conflict has ended. There were some real success stories at the convention: nine states parties have completed the destruction of their cluster munitions stockpiles; the United Kingdom and Germany announced that they have each destroyed more than 60 percent, a rapid and substantial reduction for two of the world's biggest stockpilers. However, the world's primary users and stockpilers of cluster munitions, including the United States, remained notably absent from the CCM talks.

The CCM, also known as the Oslo Process, was first proposed as a way to move forward without the United Nations, which has been excruciatingly slow in addressing cluster munitions. Efforts to work cluster munitions into the UN's Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) have foundered due to differing ideas about what types of cluster munitions should be included. Some states, such as Norway, have argued for a blanket ban, while the United States has pushed to have newer, more advanced munitions permitted. Despite almost a decade of debate and review meetings, the lines in this old argument have hardly shifted.

The CCM, however, is a tough document in its demands and obligations. It bans outright the use, manufacture, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions. Additionally, party states are required to destroy their stockpiles within eight years, clear contaminated areas within ten, and provide assistance to victims and affected communities within their borders.

There are several good reasons to ban cluster munitions, but the CCM takes the interesting position of prioritizing humanitarian concerns above military goals. That might seem obvious to most people, but it's a counterintuitive approach in the field of international relations, where states are assumed to act purely in self-interest. Demanding that governments give up a weapon system not because it's in their immediate interest but because too many innocent people are harmed by its use is, to say the least, not standard practice. The United Nations' CCW amendment, meanwhile, sticks to a traditional framework in which military needs ultimately outweigh humanitarian concerns. The CCM assumes that there is no legitimate use for cluster munitions; the CCW assumes there is, but sets limits on what type of cluster munitions can be used.

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Diana Wueger writes on international and domestic small-arms topics at Gunpowder and Lead.

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