Cluster bombs may be on their way out.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives debated an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act that would have banned the U.S. government from selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. Arguing against the measure, Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen worried that it would irreparably “stigmatize cluster munitions.” If so, that is a worthy goal. While the amendment was narrowly defeated, 204-216, the near miss indicates that the global campaign to ban the use or sale of cluster bombs has succeeded in eroding political support for the weapon in the United States. With allegations of cluster bomb use cropping up in several conflicts around the world, such efforts come at a crucial time for determining the future of cluster bombs.

That this amendment would come up for debate before the U.S. House is especially significant, as the U.S. is a key holdout on the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.  This treaty, which prohibits the sale, use, or stockpiling of cluster bombs, emerged from years of activism and a growing consensus that cluster bombs threaten innocent civilians for years after the end of a conflict. Yet the U.S., along with allies such as Saudi Arabia and other key powers such as Russia and China, have refused to join the over 100 signatories to the treaty.

Cluster bombs, which are essentially “canisters packed with small bombs,” pose a grave threat to civilian populations in conflict or post-conflict areas. This threat results in part from the fact that the “bomblets” in cluster bombs often fail to detonate on impact and can lie dormant for years before exploding, killing or maiming anyone who might happen upon them. Critics have called for their ban for years, citing what one defense expert aptly described as their “indiscriminate and barbaric” effects. In spite of these concerns, the United States continues to permit the production of cluster munitions as well as their sale to foreign militaries.

BLU-63 submunitions that broke apart on impact after being dispersed by CBU-58 cluster bombs in the Hayal Sayeed neighborhood of Sanaa on January 6, 2016. © 2016 Private/ Via HRW

BLU-63 submunitions that broke apart on impact after being dispersed by CBU-58 cluster bombs in the Hayal Sayeed neighborhood of Sanaa on January 6, 2016.
© 2016 Private/ Via HRW

While apologists for the production and sale of cluster bombs argue that cluster bombs serve legitimate military purposes, the U.S. Department of Defense has no oversight over their use once they have sold the weapons; as Megan Burke of the Cluster Munition Coalition put it, “once you give a weapon to another country, you lose control over how they use it.” This point was tragically illustrated earlier this year when a Saudi-led coalition dropped U.S.-manufactured cluster bombs in an attack against a residential neighborhood in Sanaa, Yemen. The attack and ensuing outcry led the Obama administration to place a temporary hold on the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia—but only after having already sold the Saudi government millions of dollars worth of cluster munitions in previous years.

Neither is Yemen’s ongoing conflict the only one to feature allegations of cluster bomb use, as whistleblowers and rights groups continue to gather evidence that Russia used cluster bombs against rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. The Russian government has repeatedly denied allegations of cluster bomb use in Syria. Yet the fact remains that the Russian government has not committed to the 2008 Convention that would ban their use, and if the Russian military has used cluster munitions in Syria, it will almost certainly lead to civilian deaths for years to come, even in the event that the conflict is resolved.

The 2008 treaty did not come out of thin air; it resulted from a highly coordinated campaign that raised awareness and pressured governments to take concrete action. While that campaign generated a landmark success in producing a treaty on cluster bombs with over 100 signatories, work remains to be done to prevent key global players such as the United States and Russia from producing, selling, or (above all) using cluster bombs. With numerous conflicts raging that threaten to create or exacerbate already extant humanitarian crises, efforts towards “stigmatizing” cluster bombs could not come at a more urgent moment.

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