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Cluster Munitions at a Glance
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Contact: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107

Updated: November 2012

Cluster munitions, also called cluster bombs or CBUs, are gravity bombs, artillery shells, and rockets that fragment into small bomblets or grenades. Some cluster munitions disperse only two bomblets while others can spread up to hundreds of submunitions over a large area. These weapons are designed for use against massed formations of troops and armor or broad targets, such as airfields. Cluster submunitions, however, sometimes fail to explode on impact and can kill or maim civilians who later come into contact with them. These unexploded submunitions may remain dangerous for decades. According to Cluster Munition Monitor 2010, at least 16,816 cluster munition casualties have been confirmed through the end of 2009. About 14,700 came from unexploded submunitions, and about 2,000 from strikes. Estimated totals, however, are considered much higher, and according to the Monitor, “are likely a better indicator of the true numbers.” Estimates for a global total range from 58,000 to 85,000. Almost all reported cluster munition casualties have been civilians, in large part because of the unwillingness of militaries to provide information.[1]

Cluster munitions have been used during armed conflict in 36 countries and four disputed territories since the end of World War II. Almost every part of the world has experienced cluster munition use at some point over the past 70 years, including Southeast Asia, Southeast Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. Although cluster munitions first saw use in World War II and more than 50 countries have since acquired stockpiles of such arms, efforts to regulate or ban the use of cluster munitions gained greater attention and momentum after the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, a Shiite organization that the United States identifies as a terrorist group. Israel’s extensive cluster munitions use in the last 72 hours of that conflict resulted in an estimated one million unexploded bomblets scattered across southern Lebanon, arousing some strong condemnation. Jan Egeland, then-UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, blasted Israel’s use of cluster munitions as “shocking and completely immoral.”

The CCW Process

The CCW regulates certain indiscriminate or inhumane conventional weapons, such as landmines, incendiary weapons, and blinding lasers. In 2003, CCW states-parties approved a new protocol on so-called explosive remnants of war—abandoned or unexploded artillery shells, rockets, grenades, landmines, and other ordnance. Each CCW state-party that agrees to be bound by that new protocol is obligated to clean up such battlefield remnants after hostilities end. While the protocol addresses unexploded cluster submunitions, it does not restrict their initial use.
At a November 2006 CCW Review Conference, a group of states, including Austria, the Holy See, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden, sought CCW negotiation of a new protocol on cluster munitions. The CCW operates by consensus and some other countries, most notably Russia and the United States, opposed such talks. The states-parties, however, agreed to convene a June 2007 group of governmental experts meeting to study the matter.

On November 25, 2011, after four years of intensive negotiations, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) failed to reach an agreement on a new protocol to regulate cluster munitions. The most significant opposition to the protocol came from a number of nonproducing countries that are signatories to the most comprehensive international treaty on cluster bombs―the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). The International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and many international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also criticized the text at the review conference. The CCM prohibits a much wider array of cluster munitions than the CCW. Major producers of cluster munitions have not signed the CCM, but are party to the CCW.[2]

Convention on Cluster Munitions

Frustrated with the slow-moving CCW approach, Norway at the November 2006 conference announced an alternative effort to negotiate a treaty on cluster munitions. The inaugural meeting of that effort convened February 2007 in Oslo. Of the 49 governments attending the conference, 46 ultimately signed the “Oslo Declaration” to “conclude, by 2008, a legally binding instrument that will…prohibit the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.”

Much of the debate among participating governments over the future treaty has centered on two issues. The first is whether future use restrictions should take effect immediately or, as Germany has argued, be phased in to allow time for the development of alternative weapons. The second is whether the treaty should outlaw all cluster munitions or permit some exemptions for certain types or for their use in certain circumstances. Sweden has called for a treaty balancing “legitimate humanitarian and military interests,” while the United Kingdom has sought exemptions for systems equipped with self-destruct or self-deactivation devices that are supposed to render unexploded munitions harmless after a short period of time. Other countries, such as Norway, Ireland, and Mexico, favor a total ban.

The Cluster Munition Coalition is an international civil society campaign working to eradicate cluster munitions, prevent further casualties from these weapons and put an end for all time to the suffering they cause. Its 350 member organizations in some 100 countries include large international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as smaller nationally based organizations such as the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society and the Afghan Campaign to Ban Landmines.[3]
On May 30, 2008 the Dublin Diplomatic Conference on Cluster Munitions adopted a comprehensive new treaty banning cluster munitions. The 107 states adopted the treaty. The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) is a legally binding international treaty that prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions and requires clearance of remnants and destruction of stocks. It requires states to provide assistance to survivors and their communities and builds on existing international human rights and humanitarian law. The treaty requires states to destroy existing stockpiles within eight years and to clear contaminated land within 10 years. The obligations relating to victim assistance are groundbreaking; they demand the full realization of the rights of people affected by cluster munitions and require states to implement effective victim assistance measures.[4]

The Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed by 94 countries at the Oslo Signing Conference in December 2008, and entered into force on August 1, 2010, after 30 states ratified it by February 16, 2010. In November 2010, the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (1MSP) took place in Vientiane, Lao PDR. For the first time States Parties to the treaty, UN agencies, international organizations, civil society, and cluster bomb survivors got together to share progress and plans for implementation of the Convention, and drew up a blueprint to translate the treaty into action.[5] After holding their First Meeting of States Parties in Lao PDR in November 2010, States Parties convened in Lebanon, another highly contaminated country, for the convention’s Second Meeting of States Parties on September 12–16, 2011. At the meeting, States Parties adopted the Beirut Progress Report, charting implementation of the Vientiane Action Plan, which guides the work of the convention through to its First Review Conference in 2015.

Status of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions

A total of 74 signatories had ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions as of 11 October 2012. States Parties include former producers and users of cluster munitions such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom (UK). 42 countries that have used, produced, exported, or stockpiled cluster munitions have joined the convention, thereby committing to never engage in those activities again. Since the convention entered into force on August 1, 2010, becoming binding international law, states can no longer sign, but must instead accede. Three countries have acceded, all during 2011: Grenada, Swaziland, and Trinidad and Tobago.

A total of 12 signatories have ratified the convention since August 2011, including countries where cluster munitions have been used (Afghanistan and Mauritania), former cluster munition producers (Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland), and countries that have stockpiled cluster munitions (Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Czech Republic, Honduras, Hungary, Italy, Mauritania, Sweden, and Switzerland), as well as Cameroon, Dominican Republic, and Togo.

Unilateral restrictions on use

The US confirmed in November 2011 that its policy on cluster munitions is still guided by a June 2008 US Department of Defense directive requiring that any US use of cluster munitions before 2018 that results in a 1 percent or higher unexploded ordnance (UXO) rate—which includes all but a tiny fraction of the US arsenal—must be approved by a “Combatant Commander,” a very high-ranking military official. After 2018, the US will no longer use cluster munitions that result in more than 1 percent UXO.

Several states that have not joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions have imposed restrictions on the possible future use of cluster munitions. Romania has said it restricts the use of cluster munitions to use exclusively on its own territory. Poland has said it would use cluster munitions for defensive purposes only, and does not intend to use them outside its own territory. Estonia, Finland, and Slovakia have made similar declarations. During the CCW negotiations on cluster munitions, several states that have not signed or ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions publicly stated that they were prepared to accept a ban on the use of cluster munitions produced before 1980 as part of the proposed CCW protocol, including Russia, China, India, and South Korea. The CMC urges that as an interim measure toward joining the Convention on Cluster Munitions, these states should to institute the commitment made at CCW as national policy.[6]

U.S. Cluster Munitions Policy

The United States is a producer and exporter of cluster bombs. It stockpiles cluster munitions containing between 700 million and one billion submunitions.[7] In 2001, the United States adopted a policy that all cluster munitions produced domestically after late 2004 must have submunitions with failure rates of less than one percent. As with all U.S. arms exports, transfers of cluster munitions are governed by conditions restricting their re-transfer and use by importers. One such agreement applies to U.S. cluster munitions shipped to Israel. Although secret, the agreement is generally understood to prohibit the use of cluster munitions in populated areas and against targets that are not clearly military. Following the 2006 conflict in Lebanon, the Department of State’s Office of Defense Trade Controls opened an investigation into whether Israel had violated the agreement. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said that the preliminary report, delivered to the president and Congress in January 2007, found that “there may likely could have been some violations.” Should the United States sanction Israel for misusing cluster munitions it would not be the first time. The Ronald Reagan administration suspended cluster munitions sales to Israel between 1982 and 1988 following Israel’s widespread use of such arms during an earlier invasion of Lebanon.

The United States for some time had opposed negotiations on cluster munitions. At the November 2006 CCW Review Conference, Washington insisted that governments focus on implementing existing protocols and “not on negotiating new rules on cluster munitions.” But at the June 2007 CCW experts meeting the United States did an about face and said it would be willing to negotiate on cluster munitions. Ronald Bettauer, head of the U.S. delegation, attributed the reversal “to the importance of this issue, concerns raised by other countries, and our own concerns about the humanitarian implications of these weapons.” Department of State Legal Adviser Harold Koh stated November 9, 2009, that the United States has determined that it’s “national security interests cannot be fully ensured consistent with the terms” of the CCM. However, the United States has agreed to address the humanitarian aspects of cluster munitions use in the CCW. Koh stated that “the United States remains committed to negotiate a legally binding Protocol on Cluster Munitions in the CCW.”

In a November 25, 2012 statement, the United States said that it would continue to implement the DOD policy on cluster munitions issued June 19, 2008. This policy recognizes the need to minimize harm to civilians and infrastructure but also reaffirms the contention that “cluster munitions are legitimate weapons with clear military utility.” The central directive in the Pentagon’s new policy is the unwaivable requirement that cluster munitions used after 2018 must leave less than one percent of unexploded submunitions on the battlefield. Prior to 2018, U.S. use of cluster munitions with a greater than one percent-unexploded ordnance rate must be approved by Combatant Commanders. This policy is believed to permit the development of a new generation of cluster munitions less dangerous to civilians.[8]

Regional meetings against cluster bombs

On May 30, 2012, a meeting to further the global fight against cluster bombs held in Accra. 34 African countries adopted an action plan with the ultimate aim of a cluster munition-free Africa. The Accra Universalization Action Plan lays out practical steps states should take to promote and achieve continent-wide membership of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which comprehensively prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of these weapons. The document reaffirms the partnership between states, the UN, and civil society to achieve the goals of the treaty and ensure it is fully implemented at the national level.[9]

Research Assistance by Daria Medvedeva


1. Meeting the Challenge Protecting Civilians through the Convention on Cluster Munitions. November 2010. A report by Human Rights Watch. P.69

2. Farrah Zughni. Cluster Munitions Protocol Fails. ACT Dec. 2011

3. Cluster Munition Coalition. http://www.stopclustermunitions.org/the-coalition/members/

4. CMC Briefing Paper on the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Cluster Munition Coalition http://www.stopclustermunitions.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/cmc-briefing-paper-on-ccm.pdf

5. First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Cluster Munition Coalition http://www.stopclustermunitions.org/1msp/

6. Cluster Munition Monitor 2012  September 2012 by Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor  http://www.the-monitor.org/cmm/2012/pdf/Cluster_Munition_Monitor_2012.pdf

7. Landmine and cluster munition monitor. http://the-monitor.org/index.php/publications/display?act=submit&pqs_year=2009&pqs_type=cm&pqs_report=usa&pqs_section=

8. Cluster Munitions: Background and Issues for Congress. Andrew Feickert and Paul K. Kerr http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RS22907.pdf p.4-5

9. Africa unites against cluster bombs. Cluster Munition Coalition http://www.stopclustermunitions.org/news/?id=3679




Posted: November 4, 2012