United States: Biden sends cluster munitions to Ukraine

July 24, 2023
Cluster munitions
Source: hiroshimapeacemedia.jp

United States President Joe Biden’s administration has made a deliberate and calculated decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine.

Ukraine is running out of artillery ammunition at the front, in spite of Washington sending Ukraine two million artillery shells. These have not meant any meaningful advance in the Ukrainian counter offensive. Biden hopes that these cluster munitions will turn the tide.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pushed for these weapons for months.

Californian Democratic congress representative Barbara Lee — who supports Ukraine in the war — warned that deploying these weapons will harm the US’ moral standing in the world. She joined 19 other representatives in signing a letter opposing Biden’s actions.

2008 ban

Cluster munitions explode in the air, and scatter small lethal “bomblets” over a wide area. Some of these bomblets do not explode, but present an ongoing danger long after a war — for years and decades — to civilians, especially children, who come across them.

A treaty banning their use: the Convention on Cluster Munitions, was established in 2008. To date, 123 countries have signed on, including Germany, France, Britain and 15 other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The US, Russia and Ukraine have not signed on, and the US actively opposed the treaty at the time.

Lee said: “[M]any of us have urged the administration to sign on to this Convention. And so I’m hoping that the administration would reconsider this because these are very dangerous bombs … and this is a line that I don’t believe we should cross.”

Canada, Britain, Germany and Austria have said they will abide by the ban, and Spain said the cluster munitions should not be used by Ukraine under any circumstances.

The Convention doesn’t just prohibit the use, production, stockpiling and transferring of the munitions, it prohibits assistance with those banned activities by other signatories. We can only hope that NATO signatories will abide by this provision.

Cambodia and Laos, which are still littered with unexploded cluster bombs the US dropped during the Vietnam War, have also raised alarm.

The Laotian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on July 11 that it opposed Biden’s move, “as the world’s largest victim of cluster munitions”.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said: “It would be the greatest danger for Ukrainians for many years or up to a hundred years if cluster bombs are used in Russian-occupied areas in the territory of Ukraine.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that, in Laos alone, 11,000 people were killed or maimed during and since the war ended 48 years ago, and between 9‒27 million unexploded bomblets remain today.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, plus 36 other human rights organisations, have also condemned the US’ move.

Biden has sought to pretty up the decision. Among other claims the Pentagon said the bomblets won’t kill many civilians, since less than 3% of the bomblets will remain unexploded. It gives no evidence for this claim, and has said in previously published reports that the figure is 14%.

Mary Wareham, the advocacy director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, criticised the US decision. She told DemocracyNow!  that Biden’s decision is “appalling”. “[W]e do not say that lightly, after issuing 10 reports detailing the extensive use of cluster munitions rockets and missiles by Russian forces since the very first day of the conflict.”

Wareham said Ukrainian forces had also fired cluster munitions “into a city in the east called Izium over a period of nearly six months during 2022 when it was under Russian occupation”.

She said in one strike, “a woman cooking outside [in] her garden was killed together with her young daughter and her mother, and neighbours outside their apartment building … These are all casualties from the time of use [the initial release of the bomblets], which is one reason why cluster munitions are prohibited.” The other reason is the long-term casualties due to the unexploded bomblets.

Human Rights Watch reported in a May 2023 background briefing that since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian armed forces have used cluster munitions in attacks that have caused hundreds of civilian casualties and damaged civilian objects, including homes, hospitals and schools. Russian cluster munitions attacks have been credibly alleged in at least 10 of Ukraine’s 24 regions, according to HRW.

Biden: ‘Do as we say, not as we do’

The Institute for Public Accuracy’s Norman Solomon told DN!: “Last year the White House said that the use of cluster munitions [by Russia] deserved to be in the category of a war crime. Now they’re saying [cluster munitions are] ‘Just fine. No Problem’.

“This is a willingness to engage the world and say, ‘We get to define what lives matter and what lives don’t’. This is the message coming from the Biden administration, especially in the last few days, that we are supporting the human rights of civilians in Ukraine and elsewhere, except when they don’t matter, because we have a tactical, strategic reason otherwise.

“Part of the messaging is, ‘Oh, if the Ukrainian government kills Ukrainian civilians, that’s OK, because that’s for their own good’…

NYT condemns decision

A New York Times editorial said: “In the face of the widespread global condemnation of cluster munitions and the danger they pose to civilians long after the fighting is over, this is not a weapon that a nation with the power and influence of the United States should be sending.”

Regarding the US' opposition to the 2008 Treaty, the NYT said: “This editorial board argued at the time: ‘As the main holdout, the United States gives cover to countries like Russia and China, which also rejected the ban. The treaty is weaker for it: together these three nations have more than a billion cluster munitions stockpiled, far more than the number of weapons expected to be destroyed [by the Treaty’s signatories].’”

Since the conflict began, the US has steadily increased its participation in the war. “Line after line has been crossed”, said the NYT, “with Washington and its allies agreeing to provide sophisticated weapons like the Patriot air defense system, the HIMARS long-range rocket launcher, the Abrams tank, and soon, the F-16 jet fighter.

“There is legitimate debate about whether this amounts to the sort of mission creep that occurred in conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Sending cluster munitions to Ukraine amounts to a clear escalation of a conflict that has already become far too brutal and destructive.”

The editorial concluded: “The rain of bomblets may give Ukraine a military advantage in the short term, but it would not be decisive, and it would not outweigh the damage in suffering to civilians in Ukraine, now and most likely for generations.”

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