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Cluster Munitions

Information about cluster munitions.

Cluster Munitions Ban Marks Progress

Four more countries complete elimination, as states-parties increase to 104.


October 2018
By Jeff Abramson

Delegates of states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, meeting Sept. 3–5 in Geneva, once again condemned any use of the weapons and celebrated successes in the decade since the treaty opened for signature.

Human Rights Watch has said there is evidence that Sudan dropped cluster bombs on civilian areas of Southern Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains in February and March 2015. (Photo: Human Rights Watch)The annual meeting ended a half day early without controversy as states welcomed the March accession of Sri Lanka and Aug. 31 ratification by Namibia, which will become the 104th state-party when the treaty enters into force for it in February. Conference President Carlos Morales Dávila, Nicaragua’s deputy permanent representative to the UN and other international organizations in Geneva, also congratulated Croatia, Cuba, Slovenia, and Spain for reporting completion of the destruction of their cluster munition stockpiles.

Research published by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor program before the meeting found that 99 percent of stocks declared by states-parties had already been destroyed, a collective total of 1.4 million cluster munitions and more than 177 million submunitions. Under the treaty, states have eight years to destroy their cluster munitions. Thus far, no state has missed its deadline.

As it documented beginning in 2012, the program reported ongoing use of cluster munitions by the Syrian government. Fewer incidents were confirmed in 2018, however, likely a result of difficulty in obtaining information and a change in the Syrian civil war as governmental forces recaptured more territory. Fewer casualties from such munitions were cited, with 187 recorded in 2017 in Syria, down from 860 in 2016, although the report said the total was certainly higher “as available data does not capture all the casualties that occurred.”

The report also identified cluster munitions use in Yemen during the latter half of 2017 by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting the Houthi, with such use beginning in 2015. None of the countries involved in the use of cluster munitions in that conflict are parties to the treaty.

As in prior years, states-parties adopted a final report that “condemned any use by any actor” of cluster munitions.

In a video message, Izumi Nakamitsu, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, called the convention an example of “disarmament that saves lives.” She said that the treaty has “had a concrete impact on the ground,” lauding stockpile destruction efforts and progress on clearance of contaminated land. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, at least 93 square kilometers of contaminated land were cleared in 2017 and at least 153,000 submunitions destroyed, an increase of 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively, from 2016.

More than a dozen nonsignatories to the treaty attended the meeting, but the United States continued its approach of not attending. Although it is the world’s largest financial contributor to land clearance efforts, Washington insists that cluster munitions remain relevant military tools. In November 2017, the United States altered a policy that was to take effect at the end of this year barring the use of cluster munitions that result in a more than 1 percent unexploded ordnance rate. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

Next year’s meeting of states-parties is planned for Sept. 2–4 in Geneva, to be led by Aliyar Lebbe Abdul Azeez, Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN Office and other international organizations in Geneva. In 2020, Sabrina Dallafior Matter, the Swiss ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, will preside over the treaty’s second review conference.

Posted: October 1, 2018

U.S. Undoes Cluster Munitions Ban

U.S. Undoes Cluster Munitions Ban

In a policy shift, the United States removed a ban on the use of most of its cluster munitions inventory that was to take effect at the end of 2018. A Nov. 30 memo signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan revised a 2008 policy that called for completely phasing out the possible use of cluster munitions that fail to operate as intended more than 1 percent of the time.

The new policy keeps those weapons in active U.S. stocks until the “capabilities they provide are replaced with enhanced and more reliable munitions.” How that might occur remains unclear. The last U.S. manufacturer who produced cluster munitions that Washington claims meet the 1 percent threshold stopped making them in 2016 and does not intend to renew production, according to The New York Times. The United States stopped buying new cluster munitions for its military in 2007 and, except for a single strike in Yemen in 2009, has not used them since early 2003.

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse explosive submunitions over wide areas. Many submunitions fail to detonate as designed, leaving explosive remnants that later injure or kill civilians. More than 100 countries are states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of the weapons. At the latest convention meeting, treaty members, which include a majority of NATO countries and many U.S. allies such as Australia and Japan, renewed their condemnation of any use. (See ACT, October 2017.)

The new policy retained the previous policy’s requirement for a combatant commander to authorize the use of cluster munitions that would have been phased out. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who in April 2017 introduced legislation that would have barred the use of such weapons, criticized the new policy. “It’s a shame the United States will continue to be a global outlier in using these unreliable and dangerous weapons, and I call on the president to reverse course and reinstate the 2008 policy,” Feinstein said.

Although the policy memo did not list specific places where cluster munitions would be needed, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Dec. 4 said the administration made a “prudent decision to preserve cluster munitions to deter North Korean aggression.”—JEFF ABRAMSON

Posted: January 10, 2018

Cluster Munitions at a Glance

December 2017

Contact: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107

Updated: December 2017

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 2017, at least 21,200 cluster munition casualties have been confirmed globally since the 1990s. About 17,291 came from unexploded submunitions, and about 3,983 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.

Cluster munitions have been used during armed conflict in 40 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.”

Convention on Cluster Munitions

The Convention on Certain Conventional Munitions (CCW) did not restrict the use of cluster munitions. Although a group of states initially sought to establish a new protocol banning cluster munitions in the CCW, years of negotiations in the consensus-based forum failed to produce such a protocol. Frustrated with the slow-moving CCW approach, Norway at the November 2006 review 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 treaty centered on two issues. The first was whether future use restrictions would take effect immediately or, as Germany argued, be phased in to allow time for the development of alternative weapons. The second was whether the treaty should outlaw all cluster munitions or permit some exemptions for certain types or for their use in certain circumstances. Sweden called for a treaty balancing “legitimate humanitarian and military interests,” while the United Kingdom 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, favored a total ban.

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 were groundbreaking; they demanded the full realization of the rights of people affected by cluster munitions and require states to implement effective victim assistance measures. 

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. 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 102 states have ratified or acceded to the Convention on Cluster Munitions to become full states-parties as of 1 August 2017, and 17 states that have signed have yet to ratify. States-parties include former producers and users of cluster munitions such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom (UK). Since the convention entered into force on August 1, 2010, becoming binding international law, states can no longer sign, but must instead accede.

A total of 53 signatories have ratified the convention since August 2010, 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). 

Unilateral restrictions on use

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 and Finland 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 institute the commitment made at CCW as national policy. 

U.S. Cluster Munitions Policy

In June 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense released a directive requiring that any U.S. use of cluster munitions before 2018 that results in a one 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 and that after 2018, the United States would no longer use cluster munitions that result in more than one percent UXO.

However, in a Defense Department memorandum circulated on November 30, 2017, the Trump administration eliminated the 2019 deadline to stop using cluster munitions resulting in more than one percent UXO but retained the requirement for Combatant Commander authorization for their use.

The United States is a producer and exporter of cluster bombs. In 2011, the United States reported that it possessed more than 6 million cluster munitions. 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 likely could have been some violations.” The United States sanctioned Israel for misusing cluster munitions in the past. 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.

While as recently as 2006, the United States opposed negotiating a protocol on cluster munitions at CCW review conferences, in 2007, it changed its position. 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 but that “the United States remains committed to negotiate a legally binding Protocol on Cluster Munitions in the CCW.”

Research Assistance by Daria Medvedeva

 
Conventional Arms Issues

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Posted: December 10, 2017

States Condemn Cluster Munitions Use

The civilian toll grows in Syria, Yemen. 


October 2017
By Jeff Abramson

Reacting to the ongoing civilian toll from cluster munitions use in Syria and elsewhere, states-parties to the treaty banning cluster munitions at their annual meeting in Geneva renewed their condemnation of “any use” of such indiscriminate weapons.

A Syrian man shows a cluster bomb, that releases or ejects smaller submunitions, in the northern Syrian town of Taftanaz, in the Idlib province, on November 9, 2012. (Photo credit: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images)Research published by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor before the annual meeting of states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) identified use of cluster munitions by Syrian forces in joint operations with Russia that had resulted in at least 837 casualties during attacks in 2016. Syria is not a signatory to the treaty, which prohibits all use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of such weapons.

“This meeting is taking place against the backdrop of alarming reports of the toll on civilians caused by the use of cluster munitions in current armed conflicts,” Izumi Nakamitsu, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, said in prepared remarks, which were presented by a spokesperson, Anja Kaspersen, at the Sept. 4 opening session of the three-day meeting. Although absent from a draft report on the conference, states-parties added language similar to previous meetings that “condemned any use by any actor” in their final report.

Aside from Syria, at least another 20 casualties were recorded in Yemen in 2016 during Saudi-led coalition attacks. All told, the report identified at least 971 cluster munition casualties in 2016, more than double the 417 recorded in 2015. The count includes casualties in a total of 10 countries due to cluster munition remnants that exploded after their initial combat use, in some cases decades later. This continues to occur in Laos, where the United States dropped hundreds of millions of submunitions in the 1960s and 1970s during the Vietnam War. The report identified 51 casualties there in 2016.

Since the 2016 annual meeting, Benin and Madagascar have ratified the treaty, bringing the accord to 102 states-
parties and 17 signatories. On Sept. 5, Jurkuch Barach Jurkuch, head of the South Sudanese delegation, announced that his country had decided to accede to the CCM and the Chemical Weapons Convention, where it would become the 166th state-party.

The United States, which is not party to the cluster munitions convention, did not attend the annual meeting. No cluster munitions appear to be part of any military sales under consideration by the United States, including the notional $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia announced by President Donald Trump in March, and there are no indications of U.S. use of cluster munitions since 2009. In 2016 the last manufacturer of cluster munitions in the United States announced it was ceasing production of the weapons. (See ACT, October 2016.) —JEFF ABRAMSON

Posted: October 1, 2017

Cluster Munitions Used in Syria, Yemen

Military forces in Syria and Yemen continue to use inter-nationally banned cluster munitions, according to investigators.

April 2017

Military forces in Syria and Yemen continue to use inter-nationally banned cluster munitions, according to international investigators. Aleppo is “contaminated with significant quantities of unexploded ordnance” from cluster munitions used during the Syrian-Russian joint offensive to retake governmental control of the city in 2016, according to a March 14 report by an investigative body established by the UN Human Rights Council.

In Yemen, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch cited continued cluster munition use by the Saudi-led military coalition, documenting at least four civilians were injured by Brazilian-made cluster munitions during separate attacks in February that hit residential areas and farmland. Despite U.S. efforts to convince the Saudi government to improve its conduct in Yemen, “we get flooded with reports” that they are “not getting better,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing March 9. In December 2016, a coalition spokesperson said it would stop using UK-made BL-755 cluster munitions, which had been supplied before London joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in 2008. In May 2016, the United States suspended cluster munitions transfers to the Saudis.

Last year, CCM states-parties condemned any cluster munition use, specifically mentioning Syria and Yemen. (See ACT, October 2016.) Although Brazil, Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and many other Middle Eastern countries are not party to the convention, the treaty has 100 states-parties and does establish international law banning the use of the weapons. There is no evidence of U.S. use of cluster munitions in its recent operations in Syria or Yemen.

Posted: March 31, 2017

Much more needed from top presidential candidates on arms issues

This guest post is written by Jeff Abramson, organizer for the Forum on Arms Trade and nonresident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association. The assessments here are not endorsed by other experts, the Arms Control Association, the Forum on the Arms Trade, nor the candidates. The next U.S. president will need to make many decisions that are fundamental to how the United States provides weapons and training to other parties, supports (or disregards) agreements to responsibly trade arms and in some cases ban those the international community has deemed unacceptable , as well as how it...

Textron to Halt Cluster Bomb Production

Saudi use in Yemen renews criticism of such munitions.

October 2016

By Jeff Abramson and Alicia Jensen

In a busy period from the end of August through the first week of September, U.S. and global leaders took new steps to condemn the use of cluster munitions, halt their production, and expand efforts to clear land contaminated by their unexploded remnants.

The first of these actions came from the business sector when Textron Inc. announced on Aug. 30 that it would discontinue production of the last cluster munitions manufactured in the United States. The company stated in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it would end production by March 2017, citing “reduced orders” and difficulties in obtaining required executive branch and congressional approval in the “current political environment.”

A Textron executive (2nd from left) presents a sensor fuzed weapon CBU-105, a cluster bomb, to Emirati Major General Mohammed bin Suwaidan Saeed Al-Qamzi, then-commander of United Arab Emirates’ Air Force, (center) during the Dubai Air Show, November 14, 2007. (Photo credit: Haider Shah/AFP/Getty Images)That political environment includes a decision, first reported by Foreign Policy on May 27, that the Obama administration had suspended cluster munition transfers to Saudi Arabia following evidence of civilian casualties from their use in attacks in Yemen. A U.S. House of Representatives action to make that suspension more durable nearly passed in a June vote of 204-216 on an amendment to the fiscal year 2017 defense appropriations bill that would have barred the use of U.S. funds to authorize the transfer of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia.

Under a 2008 policy, the United States only allows the transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of less than 1 percent. Textron’s CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon is the only cluster munition that the United States claims meets that standard. Beginning in 2007, the United States announced deals to sell CBU-105s to India, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates, but has not budgeted new funds itself for purchasing the weapons since then. It is unclear whether Textron may still complete existing orders before ending production and, if so, how many.

The CBU-105 has drawn renewed scrutiny because Saudi Arabia used the munition in its war in Yemen last year, the first documented use by a recipient country. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen, seeking to return former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power in Sanaa. Almost immediately after the coalition began its airstrikes, there were reports about the use of cluster munitions. Many of the cluster munitions were supplied before the year 2000, but field researchers from Human Rights Watch documented multiple examples of CBU-105 submunitions, or “skeet,” from a BLU-108 canister failing to disperse or detonate. 

Those failures have raised questions whether the CBU-105 meets the 1 percent criteria. Further, apparent use of the weapons near civilian areas may violate U.S. end-use restrictions that require cluster munitions “will only be used against clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present.” 

Massachusetts Peace Action and members of other Quaker and peace groups protested production of cluster bombs and sales to Saudi Arabia at Textron’s Weapon & Sensor Systems facility in Wilmington, Massachusetts July 6. (Photo Credit: Karina Aguilar/Massachusetts Peace Action)

Cluster Munitions Condemned

Use of cluster munitions in Yemen, as well as in Syria in the past year, was condemned at the most recent meeting of states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). Held Sept. 5-7 at the United Nations in Geneva, treaty members adopted a political declaration that “condemn[s] any use of cluster munitions by any actor” and specifically lists their concerns “most notably in Syria and Yemen.” 

At least 248 casualties were caused by cluster munitions in Syria and 104 in Yemen in 2015, according to the latest annual report released just before the meeting by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. Preliminary data also suggested that, by the end of May this year, an additional 270 casualties had occurred in Syria. Airstrikes in Syria using cluster munitions have increased as of September 2015 when Russia initiated joint military operations with the Assad regime.

The treaty, which entered into force in 2010, has 100 states-parties and 19 signatories. 

Obama Tackles Past Use

Although not a CCM party nor an observer at states-parties’ meetings, the United States made a major new commitment to address the harm caused by cluster munitions when President Barack Obama visited Laos in early September.

Recognizing the U.S. role in bombing Laos during the Vietnam War, Obama pledged to increase U.S. spending to a total of $90 million over three years to conduct a comprehensive unexploded ordnance survey of Laos and for continued clearing operations, as well as to continue to assist victims. The pledged sum would be twice the yearly amount that has recently been allocated to the project. According to a White House fact sheet, the United States has contributed more than $100 million to such activities in Laos in the last 20 years, helping reduce annual casualties from more than 300 to fewer than 50. 

In a Sept. 7 speech, Obama noted that, during the Vietnam War, “America’s intervention here in Laos was a secret to the American people…. Over the course of a decade, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than Germany and Japan during World War II. Some 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped on this country.” 

Although not addressing broader U.S. policy on cluster munitions, he also said, “I believe that we have a profound moral and humanitarian obligation to support this work.”

Posted: September 30, 2016

Proposed Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia Should be Withdrawn; Future Transfers Put on Hold

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If the U.S. is sincere in its desire to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, it can and should existing U.S. law and its signatory status on the Arms Trade Treaty to encourage better behavior.

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Volume 8, Issue 4, September 6, 2016

During the middle of the summer legislative recess, the Barack Obama administration notified the U.S. Congress Aug. 8 of the proposed sale of $1.15 billion in tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia, starting a 30-day clock for House and Senate review.

Within a week, news broke of yet more civilian deaths at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen, including a strike on a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF); that strike subsequently led the organization to withdraw its staff from multiple facilities in the country. Last week, airstrikes reportedly targeted an imam’s family, killing civilians, including children.

U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams with TUSK equipment (Photo: Wikipedia)In response to the hospital bombing, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said “U.S. officials have regularly engaged with Saudi officials… as well as other coalition members on the importance of mitigating harm. As part of this, we’ve also encouraged them to do their utmost to avoid harm to entities protected by international law such as this hospital.”

If the administration is sincere in its desire to hold Saudi Arabia accountable and leverage such sales in ways that encourage it to change its behavior, President Barack Obama should withdraw this sale and suspend delivery on those agreed earlier, rather than continue to reward Riyadh for its actions. Such steps would reinforce the importance of human rights and international law in U.S. arms transfer decisions.

Congress on Alert

Last week, a bipartisan group of 64 House representatives asked the president to withdraw the Saudi arms sale notification, arguing in part that they had not been given sufficient time to exercise their review responsibilities. That is a wise request, as Congress, which resumes work on Sept. 6, will have a small window of time to consider and vote on legislation in both the House and Senate to block the sale before the 30-day period expires.

After the initial review period, the president can proceed with the arms transfers. Nonetheless, Congress can still act up until delivery, which often occurs years later. If the president fails to withdraw the sale, then Congress should pursue a blocking path.

The Arms Export Control Act was amended in 2014 to allow Congress to request notification at least 30 days before delivery. Such pre-delivery notifications, however, require a joint request of the chair and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) or House Foreign Affairs Committee. SFRC Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) used these provisions for the first time late last year over a separate arms transfer to Saudi Arabia. Once again, they should exercise their authority to receive pre-delivery notification for this deal.

A Better Path

The problems with the proposed arms sales, however, go far beyond the limited time for congressional review. Arming Saudi Arabia only encourages irresponsible behavior and the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons, despite U.S. commitments to take into account such abuse in arms transfers.

The United States has long been a top weapons supplier to Saudi Arabia. The country is the leading developing world arms purchaser (according to a recent Congressional Research Service report), and has increased its arms imports by 275 percent from 2011 to 2015 relative to the previous five years (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute-SIPRI). In addition to the August notification, the administration has recently proposed providing support services, Phalanx weapons systems (February 2016), and more than $1 billion in guided bombs and air-to-ground munitions (November 2015).

The Saudi-led coalition’s actions (as well as those of the Houthi) have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and contributed to massive suffering and displacement. Last week, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, called for independent investigations into abuses in Yemen. In March, he said: “It would appear to be the case that the distinction between legitimate military targets and civilian ones—which are protected under international law—is at best woefully inadequate … . And at worst, we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the [Saudi-led] Coalition."

Internationally, Saudi actions have been widely condemned and are leading to growing censure of arms sales to Riyadh.

On Feb. 25, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution finding that European supplies of weapons to Saudi Arabia violate EU arms transfer rules and seeking an embargo on such transfers. Most European countries have now taken steps to tighten arms transfers and licenses to Saudi Arabia, according to a report issued last month by the ATT Monitor.

In revising U.S. conventional arms transfer policy in January 2014, the president included the goal “Ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.”

The United States is also a signatory to the landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which requires consideration of whether transferred arms would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. Although treaty members last month were unprepared to tackle transfers to Saudi Arabia, the United States should set a better example.

Withdrawing the recently proposed sale to Saudi Arabia and holding delivery on those in the works is an opportunity to signal to Riyadh that it must act responsibly and ensure that future U.S. arms transfers are not used to target civilians and violate human rights.

—JEFF ABRAMSON, non-resident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, and program manager of Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition 

Posted: September 3, 2016

No Further Excuses: Report from Arms Trade Treaty Conference

Rachel Stohl, board member of the Arms Control Association, wonders why more could not have been accomplished at the Second Conference of States-Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty.

Time to Ban Cluster Munitions Transfers, Rethink Approach to Treaty

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How should the United States exercise responsibility in arms deals with Saudi Arabia and other states that fail to adequately guard against civilian casualties in conflict?

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Volume 8, Issue 3, July 13, 2016

The raging civil war in Syria, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the ongoing fighting in Yemen have led to massive civilian casualties. The belligerents target civilian population centers and use certain types of weapons, including cluster munitions, that indiscriminately harm civilians. The situation has led many responsible policy makers to call for adjustments in U.S. policy that would reduce access to these weapons—which the United States has not used this decade—and to hold those who would use them accountable.

A man passes by the remains of an Uragan rocket lying in front of a burning house in Donetsk, Ukraine, on October 5. Uragan rockets can be used to deliver cluster munitions. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)In June, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly voted down an amendment to the fiscal year 2017 defense appropriations act that would have barred the use of funds to authorize or transfer cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia. The congressional action came after Foreign Policy reported just before the Memorial Day holiday that the Obama administration had suspended such transfers, following evidence of civilian casualties from cluster munitions attacks in Yemen. These actions again drew cluster munitions into the U.S. public spotlight, highlighting both the stigma on these weapons and controversy over U.S. military support for Riyadh’s ongoing war in Yemen.

As the end of the Obama administration approaches, it is time for the United States to put in place a policy that would permanently cease transfers of cluster munitions, move fully toward ratifying the international treaty banning these weapons, and exercise greater responsibility for arms deals with Saudi Arabia and other states that fail to adequately guard against civilian casualties in conflict.

Weapons No Longer Used by the United States

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse explosive submunitions over wide areas. Many submunitions fail to detonate as designed, leaving explosive remnants that later injure or kill civilians. In the 20th century, the United States was a leading user, manufacturer, and provider of the weapons, directly using cluster munitions in at least a dozen countries and supplying them to some 30 more. In Laos alone Washington still spends millions of dollars a year—with much more needed—to assist in the cleanup of cluster munitions it dropped more than 40 years ago.

Despite official policy that cluster munitions have military utility, the reality is that Washington is no longer using the weapons. The United States last used them in significant numbers in Afghanistan (2001-2002) and Iraq (2003) and evidence shows that Washington employed as many as five Tomahawk cruise missiles armed with cluster munitions during a December 2009 strike in Yemen. Perhaps due to stigma or the use of other weapons (such as armed drones) no evidence exists of U.S. use of cluster munitions in this decade.

According to the Cluster Munition Monitor, the United States last budgeted funds for U.S. production of new cluster munitions in 2007, but has since sold them to India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates. 

U.S. Cluster Munitions Policy Essentially Unchanged Under Obama

In a questionnaire for Arms Control Today in 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama recognized U.S. “forces have been moving away from using cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines ourselves,” and said “these trends can be accelerated.” 

The Obama administration made significant progress on landmines in 2014 by setting U.S. policy to eventually accede to the Mine Ban Treaty and prohibiting U.S. antipersonnel landmines except on the Korean Peninsula. The Korea exception must be overcome, however, before the United States can fully comply with the ban on antipersonnel mines.

The administration has not however changed its general approach on cluster munitions. The United States continues to follow a 2008 policy that bars the transfer of cluster munitions that fail to operate as intended more than 1 percent of the time, resulting in unexploded ordnance. Until 2018 the policy only allows U.S. use of weapons not meeting that criteria if approved by a combatant commander. After 2018, the United States will no longer use, manufacture, or transfer cluster munitions that fail to meet the 1 percent or less unexploded ordnance standard.

The stigma against cluster munitions has grown considerably since the 2008 policy was announced by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In recent years, senior U.S. officials have criticized others for using cluster munitions in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Washington has voted in favor of UN General Assembly resolutions expressing outrage at the continued use of cluster munitions in Syria, most recently in December 2015. It has also supported UN Security Council resolutions and called on the OSCE to investigate and report cluster munitions use allegations. 

Today, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the weapons, has 100 states-parties and an additional 19 signatories. Twenty-one of NATO’s 28 members are states-parties to the treaty, including Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. So too are traditional U.S. military allies such as Australia and Japan. U.S.-led efforts to negotiate a new protocol on cluster munitions at the Convention on Conventional Weapons failed in 2011. This leaves the 2008 ban treaty as the sole international instrument dedicated to addressing the suffering caused by cluster munitions.

Yet Washington stubbornly continues to ignore the treaty. It abstained on a nonbinding UN General Assembly resolution on the convention in December. Unlike its allies and the majority of the world’s nations, it does not participate in any meetings associated with the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Recent Use by Saudi-led Coalition Highlights Need for New Thinking

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of countries began an air campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, seeking to return former president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to power in Sanaa. Almost immediately after the coalition began its airstrikes, reports emerged about the use of American-made cluster munitions, including in civilian areas in contravention of U.S. imposed end-use conditions. Many of the cluster munitions used in Yemen were supplied in the 20th century. 

However, the more modern CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons manufactured by Textron, the only cluster munitions that meet U.S. export criteria, where also discovered and reported by Human Rights Watch field researchers. They have documented multiple examples of submunitions or “skeet” from a BLU-108 canister failing to disperse or detonate. The failure of these last cluster munitions and their misuse should lead policymakers to permanently end U.S. transfers of cluster munitions. 

More broadly, the Saudi-led coalition’s actions and as well as those of the Houthi have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and contributed to massive suffering and displacement. Saudi actions, including use of cluster munitions, have been widely condemned and are leading to growing censure of arms sales to Riyadh. On Feb. 25, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution finding that European supplies of weapons to Saudi Arabia violate EU arms transfer rules and seeking an embargo on such transfers due to Saudi behavior in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. 

On March 18, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, more widely addressed the conflict and said: “It would appear to be the case that the distinction between legitimate military targets and civilian ones—which are protected under international law—is at best woefully inadequate…. And at worst, we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the [Saudi-led] Coalition.” Civil rights groups in late June called for Saudi Arabia to be removed from the UN Human Rights Council.

Deservedly, Washington’s arms sales to Riyadh are drawing more scrutiny. The United States has long been a top weapons supplier to Saudi Arabia, a country that is the leading developing world arms purchaser (according to a recent Congressional Research Service report), and one which increased its arms imports by 275 percent during 2011-2015 as compared to the previous five years (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute-SIPRI). 

In April, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed legislation that would require that U.S. sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia be subject to a certification process guaranteeing that the Saudis are targeting terrorists and not civilians in Yemen. 

In their review of a November 2015 notification of a potential $1.3 billion sale of advanced air-to-ground weapons to Riyadh, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) invoked a new authority that requires the State Department to notify Congress at least 30 days prior to the delivery of an arms shipment. Such pre-delivery notifications, which were written into the Arms Export Control Act in December 2014 with the Middle East in mind, have not been invoked previously. 

Peace activists demonstrated in front of Textron’s world headquarters in April for its role in supplying cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. (Photo: RiFuture.org/@SteveAhlquist)In March 2015, the U.S. wing of the Cluster Munition Coalition requested that President Obama review the 2008 policy, including the exception allowing for cluster munitions that may result in less than one percent unexploded ordnance, and commit the United States to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

More recently, attention has been focused on the manufacturer itself, Textron, via public protests outside its facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island denouncing its production of cluster munitions after reports of civilian harm from the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s use of these weapons. American banks and financial institutions have also been listed in the “Hall of Shame” by the global Stop Explosive Investments campaign and its June 2016 report detailing institutions that fund companies producing cluster munitions.

Given how out of step U.S. policy on cluster munitions now stands, with the U.S. allowing export of weapons it no longer uses and which its allies condemn, now is the time to end transfers and more seriously consider accession to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. At the same time, the president and Congress can take steps to be much more circumspect in their arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, refusing to allow new supplies until the country shows more responsibility in its military activities to protect civilians and live up to international humanitarian and human rights law.

—JEFF ABRAMSON, non-resident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, and program manager of Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition

Posted: July 11, 2016

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