International Law

The US Government Has Failed The World On The Ubiquitous Use of Cluster Bombs

In conflict zones spanning the globe, several factions are utilizing various types of “cluster munitions”.

Unlike ordinary explosives, which are a one and done affair, cluster munitions are a type of warhead that is far more insidious. They disperses bomblets, thus peppering an area with the loaded munitions.

This is problematic due to the tendency of some of the bomblets to not detonate immediately.

These unexploded ordinance can later detonate, and shred civilians in their wake.

Laos for instance has suffered heavily from unexploded cluster bombs in the decades since the American war in Vietnam.

As a result the UN passed a resolution banning the use of cluster munitions in 2008.

As is often the case, the United States is not a signatory to the convention, but has desisted from using cluster munitions, and the White House has blocked the sale of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia, who has been using them in the war in Yemen.

This was after damning accusations by Human Rights Watch, claiming that Riyadh was even using cluster bombs in urban areas.

However, Saudi Arabia is joined by: Russia and Ukraine, the Libyan National Army, Sudan, and Russia and Al-Assad in Syria, who are potentially field testing a new variety of cluster bomb, according to War is Boring.

The American Government, has been largely silent on the use of cluster munitions.

While the sale of cluster munitions blocked by the President was nearly unnecessary due to a close fight in the House, this slight reaction was only triggered following Saudi airstrikes on urban centers.

A slap on the wrist for a customer and ally, but no condemnation for the many other actors who use cluster munitions on civilian centers.

Whilst the United States is not a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Bombs, this would not be the first time the United States has acted to enforce international law it is not a de jure party to.

The dispute in the South China Sea is one largely over the arcane minutia of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which the United States is not party to, due to vague arguments regarding sovereignty.

Nevertheless, the United States largely abides by the conditions of UNCLOS, and has demonstrated its determination to not recognize China’s maritime claims, based on the text of UNCLOS.

In the words of the late International Law scholar Lewis Henkin;

“Almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time.”

If the cost of doing business is to adhere to certain laws and norms, then states will adhere to those laws and norms in all but extraordinary cases.

It then should be surprising that the United States has not used either the Convention on Cluster Munitions, or its own invented doctrine of no use in civilian areas, as a rhetorical stick to hit its adversaries hard and often.

Fear of hypocrisy has not deterred the American Government from criticizing bad actors before, and even more so when decades of damage to civilian populations is guaranteed by inaction.

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Photo Credit: Mario Micklisch/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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