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.

The United States has repeatedly said that it will not sign the CCM, claiming that its "national security interests cannot be fully ensured consistent with the terms of the CCM." In a leaked cable from 2008, the U.S. outlined its views on the CCM more fully, arguing that cluster munitions provide a "vital military capability" -- that being the ability to attack troop or tank formations that are too widely spread out for a single bomb, as the U.S. did in Iraq in 2003. The cable continued, "No other weapon offers an equivalent combination of range, destructive power, and responsiveness as cluster munitions. Moreover, there are no easy substitutes for these area-effect weapons, and alternatives (e.g., carpet bombing, massed artillery barrages) have very pronounced and potentially more adverse humanitarian consequences." Instead, the U.S. has pushed hard for a CCW amendment that aligns with current U.S. policy and that would require states that want to use cluster munitions to upgrade to more reliable versions. That mostly means requiring they include submunitions that explode at least 99 percent of the time, leaving fewer behind to explode later. This sounds good in theory, but is somewhat misleading; the failure-to-explode rate is generally determined through controlled tests. Actually using them in non-lab environments, such as deserts or mountains, can result in a higher rate of unexploded ordinance.

Advocacy groups have done little to shift the geopolitics -- at least on the surface. The Cluster Munition Coalition, a non-profit that supports banning the weapons, has been emphasizing the incredible damage cluster munitions do, often to civilians, and the number of states that have signed on to stop them. Needless to say, peer pressure and pictures of limbless children have not convinced the biggest stockpilers and the most frequent users of cluster munitions -- the United States, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan among them --  to agree to a blanket ban. Nevertheless, the moral weight that the CCM carries, combined with increasing public awareness of the civilians injured and killed by unexploded submunitions, has made the use of cluster munitions less palatable. International condemnation of their use in recent years, such as Qaddafi's use in Libya, has been swift.

The CCM may never be acceptable to the U.S. or to other states that see cluster bombs as crucial for their military needs. At the same time, the CCW amendment draft as it stands may never be acceptable to Norway and other CCM signatories that regard protecting of civilians as the higher priority.  As a result, there's not much hope of reaching consensus at the CCW annual review meeting in November. After four years of intense debate, another year of discussion is probably not going to make the difference. Meanwhile, some states might be holding off on committing to the stronger CCM because they worry the weaker CCW might ultimately prevail. This means that, ironically, the best thing the U.S. might be able to do for the fight against cluster munitions is to let that weaker agreement, the CCW, lapse. Even without U.S. support, the stronger CCM treaty will do the most to reduce the dangers that these weapons pose to the world. But we'll have to get out of the way first.