On November 30, the United States reversed a 2008 policy that had ended the use of unreliable cluster munitions, despite the fact that these weapons have killed and maimed thousands of civilian men, women, and children globally. This decision sets a dangerous precedent. Instead of walking away from previous commitments, the United States should get back in step with the 102 other countries — including its closest allies — that have banned these weapons.
Cluster munitions are dangerous to civilians and present problems under international humanitarian law — specifically concerning the principle of distinction and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks. Dropped from aircraft or fired from the ground, each cluster bomb opens up mid-air, releasing hundreds to thousands of sub-munitions. Research has shown that many of these submunitions do not explode on impact leaving a slew of de facto landmines that kill civilian men and women, and — because they often look like small, bright toys — particularly children, long after the close of hostilities.
The CCM prohibits the use, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions. It further requires states to clear unexploded weapons and provide assistance to victims. It is a striking example of collective action specifically intended to reduce the suffering of civilians in war through humanitarian disarmament.
The United States did not ratify the treaty. However, less than a month after the CCM’s adoption, it released a policy stating that the U.S. military would eliminate its stockpiles of cluster munition, but only those with an unexploded ordnance rate above 1 percent. Furthermore, the new policy stated that after 2018, the U.S. military would only employ cluster munitions with an error rate of less than 1 percent. The United States defended its policy on the basis that cluster munitions can comply with international humanitarian law and can cause less harm to civilians than alternative weapons.
But the new policy reverses that. It allows commanders to use older, existing cluster munitions — those with a failure rate greater than 1 percent — “until the capabilities they provide are replaced with enhanced and more reliable munitions,” and it halts the destruction of the stockpile. “Waste not, want not” seems to be the motto now.
Why did the United States change its policy on a weapon that it had already decided is not worth using? The November policy cites “important changes in the global security environment” as the rationale for the change. The Pentagon explains this reversal as a means of preserving “a vital military capability in the tougher warfighting environment ahead of us.” The policy notes the lack of a more reliable munition, and goes so far as to include cluster munitions among its “best available capabilities.”
But the new policy fails to acknowledge the recent increase in the number of civilians harmed by explosive weapons — 177,653 civilian casualties were reported worldwide between 2011 and 2016. The DoD fails to lay out guidelines for the use of these weapons and ways to minimize unintended harm stemming from unexploded ordnance.
Those of us at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) are left to wonder, what is the unique military advantage provided by cluster munitions — a weapon shunned by the international community — that cannot be gained through the use of more precise weapons?
As more countries join the CCM, the United States instead joins company with a handful of outlier states lagging behind on a critical measure to reduce suffering to civilians. Ideally, the United States would ratify the CCM, but that seems unlikely in the near term. In the meantime, the Pentagon should revert to its 2008 policy, which, while still far from international standards, restricted the use of cluster munitions. To do otherwise risks insidious consequences for civilians with little upside for the United States.
Dan Mahanty is the director of U.S. Programs at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC). Julie Snyder is the research and advocacy associate for U.S. Programs and Anna Khalfaoui is a researcher at CIVIC.