US embraces cluster munitions

By agency reporter
December 4, 2017

The United States’ move to end its longstanding policy not to use unreliable cluster munitions and to destroy its stocks completely disregards the widely accepted international ban on these weapons, Human Rights Watch has said.

The US is not one of the 102 states parties to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits these weapons and requires clearance of their explosive remnants as well as assistance to victims. But the decision reverses the US commitment not to use cluster munitions that fail more than one per cent of the time, leaving deadly unexploded munitions that can kill for years.

“After spending hundreds of millions of dollars researching alternatives to cluster munitions, the US has decided it can’t produce ‘safe’ cluster munitions so it will keep using ‘unsafe’ ones,” said Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, which chairs the Cluster Munition Coalition. “The Trump administration is embracing repugnant weapons rejected by the international community, a move that could embolden others to use cluster munitions that have caused so much human suffering.”

Cluster munitions can be fired from the ground by artillery systems and rockets, or dropped from aircraft. They typically open in the air, dispersing multiple bomblets or submunitions over a wide area. Many submunitions fail to explode on initial impact, leaving unexploded duds that can act like landmines for years to come unless cleared and destroyed.

A Department of Defence policy memo signed on 30 November, 2017, by Deputy Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan, indefinitely delays implementation of a ban on using unreliable types of cluster munitions that was due to take effect on 1 January, 2019.

This new policy replaces a Department of Defence policy directive on cluster munitions issued in June 2008, during the administration of President George W. Bush, that required the US to remove all except a tiny fraction of its cluster munitions from active stockpile by the end of 2018 for eventual destruction. The 2008 policy required that the US not use cluster munitions that result in more than one per cent unexploded ordnance (UXO) from 2019 onward. Senior Pentagon officials told Human Rights Watch after the 30 November announcement that the 2008 policy deadline for removing cluster munitions from active stocks had been “an aspirational goal.”

The new policy allows US military commanders to approve use of existing cluster munitions “until sufficient quantities” of “enhanced and more reliable” versions are developed and fielded. The new policy also facilitates US acquisition of cluster munitions from foreign sources to replenish stocks.

But it retains restrictions on US exports of cluster munitions under existing US law, allowing the US to export only cluster munitions that do not result in more than one  per cent unexploded ordnance, and requiring the recipient to make a commitment not to use the cluster munitions in civilian areas.

The US maintains that cluster munitions have military utility, but, with the exception of a single strike in Yemen in 2009, it has not used them since 2003 in Iraq.

According to a 25 August Department of Defence letter seen by Human Rights Watch, approximately 3.7 million cluster munitions, containing 406.7 million submunitions, have been destroyed from stocks since 2008. Approximately 3.7 million “additional excess and obsolete” cluster munitions, which equates to 324.3 million submunitions, have been removed from the active inventory and await demilitarisation.

By comparison, 29 states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions have completed destruction of their stocks, a collective total of 1.4 million cluster munitions and more than 175 million submunitions. Germany held the largest stockpile among states parties and in November 2015 completed the destruction of 573,000 cluster munitions and 62 million submunitions.

The Cluster Munition Coalition is a global coalition of nongovernmental organisations co-founded and chaired by Human Rights Watch that works to ensure that all countries join and adhere to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.

“Allowing the US to again use notoriously unreliable cluster munitions is a gigantic step backward for efforts to protect civilians from the unacceptable harm caused by these weapons,” Wareham said. “It is an insult to the victims of these weapons, especially those who have fought to ban cluster munitions.”

* Human Rights Watch


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