U.S. Limits Clusters; Global Efforts Ongoing

Jeff Abramson

The United States in March made permanent a ban on the transfer of nearly all of its cluster munitions, and Congress is considering limitations on the use of the weapons. Internationally, Laos, the world's most cluster-impacted country, ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) as other countries continued discussing a potential alternative agreement within the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

On March 11, President Barack Obama signed the fiscal year 2009 omnibus appropriation bill that included a provision to bar U.S. transfer of cluster munitions unless the arms have a 99 percent or higher functioning rate and agreements exist that they will only be used against military targets where civilians are not known to be present. This effectively prohibits the transfer of nearly the entire U.S. arsenal comprised of an estimated 700 million or more submunitions. The law makes permanent what had been only one-year provisions, first included in omnibus legislation for fiscal year 2008.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) introduced bills in February that would bar U.S. use of cluster munitions unless they meet the same guidelines. Similar legislation introduced in the previous Congress failed to win passage. Current U.S. policy requires approval from a combatant commander before cluster munitions that have a failure rate of greater than 1 percent may be used. (See ACT, September 2008.)

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse over broad areas small submunitions that sometimes fail to explode initially, later injuring or killing military forces and noncombatants. In 2008, 94 countries signed the CCM, which bars the use of nearly all cluster munitions and obligates countries to destroy stockpiles and conduct clearance efforts. (See ACT, January/February 2009.)

At a UN meeting March 18 designed to promote the CCM, Laos announced its ratification of the agreement, bringing the total number of ratifying states to five. Thirty ratifications are needed for the treaty to enter into force. (See ACT, December 2008.)

Laos is the world's most cluster-affected country, suffering from a U.S. bombing campaign that dropped more than 270 million submunitions between 1964 and 1973, with as many as 30 percent of those submunitions failing to explode as intended. Laos has not joined the 1997 Mine Ban Convention, citing difficulties in meeting that treaty's 10-year clearance requirement. The ability of Laos to meet similar cluster munitions timelines, once the treaty enters into force, will be uncertain. The country will likely need to request an extension, as 15 countries did last year when they faced their 10-year clearance deadlines under the Mine Ban Convention. (See ACT, January/February 2009.)

At the UN event, the Democratic Republic of Congo signed the CCM, bringing the total number of signatories to 96. Tunisia signed in January.

Many of the major producers and stockpilers of cluster munitions that have not signed the CCM participated in discussions on the weapons held Feb. 16-20 under the CCW. (See ACT, December 2008.) They are scheduled to meet for the final time April 14-17 in Geneva, but expectations are low that an agreement will be reached within the group.

In the United States, leaders of 67 national organizations called on the Obama administration to review U.S. policy on landmines and cluster munitions. In discussing the new limits passed into law, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who helped write the provision, said, "Like Congress's initiative to ban the export of anti-personnel landmines, this can be a catalyst to prompt a review by the Pentagon of U.S. policy, with a view to rapidly ending the use of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to innocent civilians."