US Out of Step on Cluster Bomb Ban

New Report Charts Changing Global Opinion Against the Weapon

GENEVA – The prohibition on cluster munitions is firmly taking hold as more countries join the new treaty banning the weapon and hold-out states shift their policies in the right direction, says a report jointly released today by Human Rights Watch, Landmine Action, and Landmine Monitor.

The 288-page report, “Banning Cluster Munitions: Government Policy and Practice,” contains entries on 150 countries. It documents a major shift in global opinion about cluster munitions in recent years, with numerous former users, producers, exporters, and stockpilers of the weapon now denouncing it because of the humanitarian harm it causes. The shift resulted in the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits use, production, and transfer of cluster munitions, requires destruction of stockpiles in eight years and clearance of affected areas in 10 years, and establishes a strong framework for assistance to victims of the weapon.

“In the span of just a few years, many nations have gone from insisting that cluster munitions are wonder weapons vital to their national defense to proclaiming that cluster munitions must never be used again,” said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch and final editor of the report.

Cluster munitions can be fired by artillery and rocket systems or dropped by aircraft. They typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of tiny submunitions or bomblets over an area the size of a football field. These often fail to explode on impact, acting like landmines and posing a danger to civilians for years.

Among the signatories whose policies changed most dramatically are Denmark, France, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Others include Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and South Africa.

A total of 96 countries have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions since December 2008, including 20 of the 28 NATO members. Thirty-five countries that have stockpiled cluster munitions have signed the treaty. “Banning Cluster Munitions” notes that many signatories have already started to destroy their stockpiles, and Spain has completed destruction, the first country to do so since the signing in December. Some of the countries most contaminated by past use of cluster munitions have signed, including Afghanistan, Laos, and Lebanon.

However, some major users of cluster munitions, notably the United States, Russia, and Israel, have not signed the treaty, nor has China, which is believed to have a large stockpile.

“The US is out of step with most of its major military allies,” said Goose. “There should be a NATO-wide policy not to use cluster munitions in joint military operations. The United States should not put treaty signatories in a position where they have to fight alongside US forces that use cluster munitions.”

In its own policy shift, the US agreed last year that most cluster munitions should be banned, but only starting after 2018. At the initiative of the US Congress, the United States outlawed exports of cluster munitions in March 2009.

“Even governments that have not signed the treaty are re-examining their policies on cluster munitions because they know that history will not look kindly on future users, producers, or exporters of this weapon,” said Goose.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions requires 30 ratifications to trigger entry into force six months later. Seven states have ratified so far, including five that led the process to create the treaty (Austria, Holy See, Ireland, Mexico, Norway), and two countries where cluster munitions have been used (Laos and Sierra Leone).

“Banning Cluster Munitions” looks at how governments engaged in the “Oslo Process,” an unconventional fast-track diplomatic initiative started by Norway in November 2006 to create a legally binding treaty to outlaw cluster munitions. The report also shows how civil society groups organized under the umbrella of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) fought for a strong treaty. Charting the evolution of cluster munition policy in 150 countries, the report highlights marked policy shifts by major powers such as France and the UK. The report also identifies difficult issues from the treaty’s development and negotiation that are likely to remain contentious as the treaty goes into effect, including potential use of cluster munitions by non-signatories such as the US in joint military operations with treaty signatories.

The report was written jointly by Human Rights Watch and the UK-based Landmine Action, two nongovernmental organizations that played central roles in the creation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions and serve as CMC co-chairs. The report was produced by Landmine Monitor, the civil society-based research and monitoring wing of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

The release of the report comes at the beginning of a CMC-sponsored Global Week of Action on Cluster Munitions, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the conclusion of the negotiations of the convention in Dublin on May 30, 2008.


Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

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