NEW YORK – The continuous use of cluster bombs — many of them manufactured by the United States — in several conflicts around the world, shows a disregard for human rights and tarnishes the image of those countries that make, sell and use them. Because of the high number of civilians who are frequently their victims — including children who unknowingly pick them up — they should more appropriately be called “cowards’ bombs.”
Cluster bombs eject explosive bomblets designed to kill personnel and destroy vehicles over a wide area. Even though all weapons are dangerous, cluster bombs are a particular threat to civilians because they affect a wide area and leave behind a significant number of unexploded bomblets, which can maim civilians — many of them children — for decades after the end of a conflict. They are also very costly to find and remove. Unexploded bomblets may linger for years after a conflict has ended.
Nations that ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions adopted in Dublin, Ireland, in May 2008, are prohibited from using them. This convention entered into force and became binding international law on Aug. 1, 2010. The Convention on Cluster Munitions bans the stockpiling, use and transfer of virtually all existing cluster bombs, and provides for the clearing up of unexploded munitions.
As of October 2015, a total of 118 states have joined the convention, as 98 parties and 20 signatories. Many of the world’s major military powers, including the U.S., Russia, Brazil and China, are not signatories of that treaty. The treaty’s obligations became legally binding after 30 states ratified the convention, and subsequently for all other ratifying states.
In May 2008, then-Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Stephen Mull stated that the U.S. military relies upon cluster munitions as an important part of their defense strategy. “U.S. forces simply cannot fight by design or by doctrine without holding out at least the possibility of using cluster munitions,” he said.
Since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, at least 30 countries have produced cluster munitions, among them China, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, North Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. As of November 2015, at least 61 countries have stockpiles of cluster munitions.
Presently 26 countries have subscribed to the Wellington Declaration, agreeing in principle that their stockpiles of cluster munitions should be destroyed. Despite these lofty declarations of intent, however, at least 17 countries have used cluster munitions in recent times. Among those countries are France, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sudan, Syria, the U.K. and the U.S.
Because of the high number of civilians killed or maimed by these munitions their use has been condemned by many groups and organizations such as the U.N., the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Cluster Munition Coalition, and Doctors Without Borders.
Handicap International, which since 2005 has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to support its campaign to ban these weapons, says that 98 percent of their recorded cluster munitions casualties are civilians, and 27 percent of them are children.
The last reported use of these munitions is the war against the Houti forces in Yemen. Although Saudi Arabia has denied using them, Human Rights Watch has stated that it has evidence that cluster bombs provided by the U.S. have been used by Saudi Arabia. As long as the U.S. continues making and selling these weapons, it cannot claim it adheres to basic human rights principles.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and frequently writes on human rights and foreign policy issues.