Cluster bombs are extremely dangerous weapons. Upon release from an aircraft, a cluster bomb opens in mid-air and disperses many smaller “bomblets” across acres of land. They are especially threatening to civilians compared with conventional explosives for two reasons. First, the bomblets are scattered, not targeted, so any civilians in the vicinity of the blast are as likely to be killed as combatants. Second, many bomblets do not detonate on impact but remain unexploded until they are eventually found – often years after conflict is over – by unsuspecting civilians. According to the Cluster Munition Monitor, civilians accounted for 97% of cluster bomb casualties in 2021, the last year for which data is available.
Concern about these indiscriminate weapons led to the adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions by more than 100 states in 2008. The convention prohibits states party from using, producing, stockpiling, or transferring cluster bombs. It also requires them to destroy any old cluster bombs, clear their territory of undetonated bomblets, and provide assistance to victims of cluster bombs. Despite swift ratification of the convention by its original signatories, it has not achieved universalisation and many states continue to flout its rules.
15 years since its adoption, this year marks a critical juncture in the legacy of the convention. The United States, a state not party to the convention, made headlines in July by announcing that it would send cluster bombs to Ukraine to aid its counteroffensive against Russia. Cluster bombs have already been used by both Russian and Ukrainian forces throughout the war. The response of the international community to these transgressions will determine the prospects for the total eradication of cluster bombs, which is essential to the future security of civilians in conflict.
The Last 15 Years: An Imperfect Record
In the 15 years since the convention was introduced, states party have taken significant steps towards meeting their obligations. There have been no cases of use, production, or transfer of cluster bombs by any state party since the convention entered into force. States party have also collectively destroyed more than 99% of their stockpiled cluster bombs, according to Human Rights Watch. Half of states party under an obligation to clear their territory of cluster bombs have done so, and more than a million unexploded bomblets have been destroyed. Progress on the provision of assistance to victims has been slower. Most survivors live in states with little capacity to support them and rich states party have been slow to contribute to victim assistance programmes, despite their obligation to do so under Article 6 of the convention. Although the convention includes people who suffer psychological and economic harm from cluster bombs in its definition of victims, support for these groups has been especially scarce. Nevertheless, many survivors have been provided with medical care, including prosthetic limbs, and most states party have made efforts to include survivors in the development of policy on victim assistance.
The convention has done little to prevent states not party from using cluster bombs, however. The weapons were a consistent feature of despot Muammar Qaddafi’s military strategy in the Libyan civil war, and continue to be used by President Bashar al-Assad against rebels and civilians in Syria. Saudi Arabia repeatedly dropped cluster bombs into Yemen between 2015 and 2017. Most recently, they have been used by both Russian and Ukrainian forces during the ongoing war, with over 100 documented attacks by Russian forces and attacks by the Ukrainian army on the rise following the arrival of a shipment of cluster munitions from the US. Both sides also deployed cluster bombs during the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Every one of these cluster bombs disperses up to several hundred “dud” bomblets which will remain a threat until they are painstakingly detected and destroyed, or else explode in the hands of a civilian.
The convention has also had some unintended – and dangerous – consequences. Although it has not been totally effective in halting the production of cluster munitions, with at least twelve states still producing them, it has slowed production. As a result, a large proportion of the world’s stockpile of cluster bombs consists of weapons manufactured decades ago. This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, due to advancements in military engineering, modern cluster bombs contain fewer duds than older ones. Second, this discrepancy is compounded by the fact that the number of duds within a cluster bomb increases as the bomb ages and deteriorates if it is not properly maintained. This means that old cluster munitions pose an even greater threat to civilians than their modern counterparts. Some cluster bombs used by Saudi Arabia throughout the 2010s were produced by the UK more than 30 years previously. Likewise, many of the cluster bombs directed at Ukrainian civilians by the Russian military are leftovers from its Soviet-era arsenal.
The Next 5 years: A Critical Test
The international community must unequivocally condemn the use of cluster bombs in Ukraine if the convention is to stand any chance of becoming a globally accepted norm. When most attacks with cluster bombs were perpetrated by Russia against Ukraine, the US and its NATO allies described the use of such weapons as a potential war crime. Now that the US has sent cluster bombs to Ukraine, there is a risk that states will row back on this rhetoric. That would be a mistake. Cluster bombs always endanger civilians and their use invariably warrants condemnation, whoever deploys them. When the war in Ukraine is over, there must be investigations into the use of cluster bombs by both sides and repercussions for any actors found to have breached international law. Even more important, an immense logistical effort will be needed to clear Ukrainian territory of unexploded remnants.
The next convention review conference, in 2025, is an opportunity to put pressure on states party to escalate diplomatic pressure on states not party to the convention. States party are obliged under Article 21 to encourage states not party to ratify the convention and dissuade them from using cluster munitions. Germany, a state party, recently blocked Estonia, a state not party, from sending old German-made cluster bombs to Ukraine – this proactive diplomatic approach should be applauded and replicated. Unfortunately, other states, including the UK, have failed to honour their obligations by equivocating on the acceptability of cluster munitions in conflict.
At the sixth annual meeting of states parties to the convention in 2016, states set the aim of clearing all unexploded bomblets around the globe by 2030. It now seems inevitable that this goal will be missed. The relentless barrage of cluster bombs in Ukraine could take decades to completely clean up. Nevertheless, if the only threat posed by cluster bombs in 2030 is from unexploded remnants, that would be an enormous success for civilians’ safety. The first step towards achieving this revised goal is to hold all those who use, produce, and transfer cluster bombs to account – whoever they are.