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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Russian Cluster Use Alleged; U.S. Clarifies Policy
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Jeff Abramson

In July, the United States clarified its military policy on cluster munitions, weapons that Russia has subsequently been accused of using in Georgia. The developments come amid global efforts to limit the weapons.

On July 9, the Department of Defense released a three-page memo outlining U.S. cluster munitions policy that explicitly claims a military utility for the weapons while also emphasizing a need to "minimize the potential unintended harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure." The policy mandates that by 2018 the Defense Department will not use, sell, or transfer cluster munitions with a failure rate greater than 1 percent. Until then, any usage of weapons not meeting that threshold must be approved by a combatant commander. Since 2005, department policy has prohibited procurement of new weapons that do not meet that reliability level, and current law prohibits their transfer during this fiscal year.

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse small submunitions over broad areas. These submunitions sometimes fail to explode initially, later injuring or killing noncombatants. U.S. policy has focused in part on improving the reliability of these weapons. This stand has been attacked by nongovernmental groups within the Cluster Munition Coalition, who have disputed that levels of tested reliability claimed by the United States and others accurately reflect the realities of actual use. The U.S. policy clarification comes soon after more than 100 countries committed to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which bans cluster munitions that do not meet even more stringent criteria, such as having self-destruct and self-deactivating mechanisms. That treaty, a product of the so-called Oslo process, opens for signature in December. (See ACT, July/August 2008.)

The CCW and Allegations of Russian Use

Instead of joining the CCM, the United States, Russia, and many major producers and stockpilers of the weapons have been exploring a new protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) that would explicitly address cluster munitions. Whether recent claims of Russian use of cluster munitions in Georgia will impact the CCW discussions remains to be seen.

Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization, alleged that Russia dropped cluster munitions in August during its conflict in Georgia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili repeated those claims in a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Aug. 15, a charge denied by Russia. The human rights group cited photographs and interviews with doctors, military personnel, civilian witnesses, and victims in claiming that Russian aircraft dropped RBK-250 cluster bombs, each containing 30 submunitions, on the towns of Gori and Ruisi. In Ruisi, three civilians were killed and five wounded. In Gori, at least eight civilians were killed and dozens injured, including Dutch and Israeli journalists, according to the report.

Russia's state-run news agency RIA Novosti quoted Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the general staff, as denying the claims. He said during an Aug. 15 news briefing, "We did not use cluster bombs, and what's more, there was absolutely no necessity to do so."

A CCW group of governmental experts (GGE), which contains U.S. and Russian representatives, meets again meets Sept. 1-5. In July, the group held its third and longest meeting of the year. During that meeting, a draft discussion text was circulated with a range of options on use restrictions, storage and destruction, and definition of cluster munitions. Some of the alternatives were very similar to the CCM; others were more reflective of the U.S. approach.

The meeting's chair, Danish Ambassador Bent Wigotski, told Arms Control Today in an Aug. 19 e-mail that he senses "strong support from most states, including those not in Oslo, to conclude an agreement, i.e. to adopt a proposal, this year. This support is based on the fact that all major user and producers are participating in the GGE." Key areas he identified for future discussion include general prohibitions and restrictions, as well as protection of civilians and civilian objects and victim assistance.

If the September meeting is not successful, the group is scheduled to meet again in early November, prior to an annual meeting of states-parties Nov. 13-14, where an additional protocol on cluster munitions could be presented for approval.

In the meantime, the Senate may strengthen the U.S. hand at the CCW table by providing its advice and consent to ratification of three protocols and an amendment to the CCW. On July 29, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved by voice vote measures, some of which have been on the Senate's calendar since 1997, that expand the scope of the treaty to intrastate conflict, regulate the use of incendiary weapons, ban the use of blinding lasers, and address the effects of explosive remnants of war.

A committee staff member told Arms Control Today in an e-mail Aug. 15 that the committee will attempt to have the measures debated by the full Senate before Congress adjourns for the November presidential and congressional elections. In an April meeting of the committee, officials from the Departments of Defense and State testified that ratification of remaining CCW measures would aid U.S. efforts to negotiate a cluster munitions protocol in the CCW. (See ACT, May 2008.)