Russia has not only caused civilian casualties with its use of cluster munitions in Georgia, but it has also blatantly disregarded the international decision to ban the weapons. In the process, Russia has demonstrated that states around the world cannot become complacent about the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which 107 of them adopted in May. They must sign and ratify the treaty as soon as possible so that its obligations enter into force and its stigmatization power grows.
Russian cluster bombs killed eleven civilians and injured dozens more in two air strikes on August 12, 2008, according to Human Rights Watch. Some survivors suffered massive trauma to their abdomens and limbs. Two foreign journalists were among the casualties. Cluster munitions - large weapons containing dozens or hundreds of smaller submunition - endanger civilians because of both their broad area effect and the large number of explosive duds they leave behind. Photographs show local residents handling duds from these strikes so, without risk education, additional casualties are sure to occur. Furthermore, Russia is believed to have hundreds of millions of stockpiled submunitions, which it could use at any time if left unchecked. Georgia also stockpiles the weapons. The casualties reported in Georgia so far and the potential for so many more are reminders of the need for a treaty that bans cluster munitions.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions is the best tool for preventing future harm. It prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of the weapons and establishes important remedial obligations such as victim assistance and clearance. Once the treaty enters into force, upon thirty ratifications or accessions, it will prohibit state parties from launching strikes like those launched by Russia. It will also require stockpile destruction within eight years. States committed to ending the humanitarian harm of cluster munitions, like that which occurred in Georgia, should join the Convention on Cluster Munitions as soon as possible.
Although cynics argue that military powers, including Russia, will not ratify or accede to the convention, even those states can be influenced by its provisions. The Mine Ban Treaty shows that the stigma of a weapons treaty can be powerful. China and the United States are not party to the Mine Ban Treaty, but they have not used mines since that treaty took effect. The Convention on Cluster Munitions should have a similar impact if states widely join it. It was already adopted by more than 100 states, including large numbers of users, producers, and stockpilers of cluster munitions. By signing and ratifying the treaty, those states can signal to Russia and others that use of these weapons is considered internationally unacceptable as well as unlawful.
States should condemn Russia's attacks on Georgia and call on both sides of that conflict not to make further use of their stocks of cluster munitions. Otherwise they tacitly support Russia's conduct. States must also, however, take steps of their own to help ensure there are not future casualties. In particular they must publicly pledge to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Oslo in December and to ratify the new instrument as soon as possible after that. Russia's attacks should provide the international community an impetus for action.