The Biden administration’s decision to send ATACM rockets loaded with cluster munitions to Ukraine ignores the many decades of human suffering caused by these indiscriminate weapons. It also disregards a strong international consensus that acknowledges that there is no responsible use of cluster munitions. This is not acceptable. We need a new policy.
My wife and I began learning about cluster bombs more than 40 years ago while working in Laos with Mennonite Central Committee. On trip after trip throughout the countryside, we met families whose lives had been shattered by unexploded cluster bombs that still lurked in gardens, paddy dikes, school yards or pastureland.
In 2000, I met Mr. Phou Vieng who was not even safe in his own home. As he attempted to anchor his bedposts in the earthen floor, his digging tool struck a buried cluster bomblet which exploded and tore off an arm and leg, nearly killing him.
This cluster bomb had been dropped from an airplane, at least 25 years earlier during the U.S. air war (1964-1973). Like countless other victims of cluster bombs whom we met, Phou Vieng was not the target. Rather, unexploded cluster bombs had turned Laos into a lethal landscape of roulette which terrorized Phou Vieng when he was merely trying to create a comfortable place to sleep.
And so it is with cluster bombs wherever they are used. They violate the most central principle of international humanitarian law. They fail to distinguish between military targets and civilian life in two significant ways. First, they are difficult to target precisely, creating a large “footprint” of harm that often includes civilians. Second, many do not explode on impact, but persist over time, maiming and killing whoever disturbs them long after wars end.
The fact that cluster bombs are small and numerous makes them especially pernicious. The size of a baseball, a size-D battery or a long soda can, they can easily hide in the natural environment. The ATACM rockets sent to Ukraine carry 950 submunitions, more than 10 times the number carried in the DPICM artillery shells which had been sent earlier. This will greatly increase the quantity of U.S.-sourced unexploded ordnance in Ukraine. Even relatively low dud rates can leave behind a trail of lethal ordnance that can take many years to find and safely destroy.
To its credit, the U.S. government is a strong contributor to clearance work in Laos and other places. Through this work U.S. officials have heard many tragic stories like those of Mr. Phou Vieng. Yet despite clear knowledge of the indiscriminate effects of these weapons, the U.S. used cluster munitions in Iraq (1991, 2003-2006), Kuwait (1991) Yugoslavia (1999) and Afghanistan (2001), causing many more casualties.
The U.S. did not participate in the negotiations that resulted in the Convention on Cluster Munitions. In these meetings, U.S. officials would have heard compelling testimony by victims of cluster bombs from places like Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, Lebanon, and the former Yugoslavia, to name a few. They would have met Soraj Habib who lost both legs to a U.S. cluster bomb in Afghanistan. He implored the delegates in Dublin, Ireland to “let the children have peace and a life without cluster munitions.”
The U.S. would also have heard the principled statements of many of its allies about why war cannot be waged without restriction, and why cluster munitions must be banned in order to protect civilians. They would have seen the Convention on Cluster Munitions, not as an impractical impediment to U.S. national defense strategy, but as a landmark treaty borne from decades of human trauma, determined to preserve life, safety, and the integrity of international humanitarian law. Sadly, amid these intense meetings which put the protection of civilians at the center of the debate, the U.S. was absent.
Now U.S. cluster munitions are falling on Ukraine’s soil alongside those from Russia. The Ukraine Foreign Ministry, along with experts from GLOBSEC estimate that 30% of Ukraine territory is now contaminated by mines and unexploded ordnance, turning once productive land into a place of fear and harm. When this war ends, the enormous, costly, and dangerous task of clearing the land can begin. How many lives will be lost or filled with trauma in the decades that follow?
The important role of clearance work cannot be overstated, but it is only a partial formula for protecting civilians during and after warfare. To truly protect civilians, indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions must be prohibited at the level of policy. In shipping ATACMs to Ukraine, the U.S. ignores decades of evidence that demonstrate this principle. The U.S. should reverse course, accede to the CCM treaty, and destroy its stockpiles of cluster munitions. This will not undo the past, but surely for the sake of humanity, we must resolve not to repeat it.
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