An unexploded M77 DPICM submunition found in Dughayj village in northern Yemen after attacks by Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces in mid-2015 using US-made M26 cluster munition rockets. © 2015 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The United States should reverse its ill-considered 2017 policy to continue to use, acquire, and stockpile unreliable cluster munitions and join the treaty banning these indiscriminate weapons, Human Rights Watch said today. August 1, 2020 will mark 10 years since the treaty took effect and became binding international law.

“The Trump administration is out of step with NATO and other allies, as support for the treaty banning cluster munitions only grows stronger,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition. “The US should reconsider its embrace of these widely rejected weapons, which have caused so much human suffering, and join its allies in the ban treaty.”

Cluster munitions can be fired from the ground by artillery systems like rockets and projectiles or dropped from aircraft. They typically disperse in the air, spreading multiple bomblets or submunitions indiscriminately over a wide area. Many fail to explode on initial impact, leaving dangerous duds that can kill and maim, like landmines, for years to come unless cleared and destroyed.

The US did not take part in negotiations for or sign the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which comprehensively bans cluster munitions and requires clearance of cluster munitions remnants within 10 years and assistance to victims.

The 108 states parties to the treaty include France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and 20 other NATO member states as well as other key allies, such as Australia and Japan. Another 13 countries have signed, but not yet ratified. There have been no reports or allegations of new use, production, or transfers of cluster munitions by any state party since the treaty took effect in 2010.

Under a previous 2008 US Defense Department policy, the US was supposed to stop using cluster munitions that result in more than 1 percent unexploded ordnance from 2019 onwards. However, a Defense Department policy issued on November 30, 2017 permits the US military to use all of the millions of cluster munitions in existing stocks “until sufficient quantities” of “enhanced and more reliable” versions are developed and fielded. The policy also facilitates US acquisition of cluster munitions from foreign sources to replenish stocks.

“Just because the US can develop, acquire, and use cluster munitions doesn’t mean it should,” Goose said. “Since the treaty took effect, new use of internationally prohibited cluster munitions has been widely condemned, which shows the stigma against the weapons is growing.”

The US maintains that cluster munitions have military utility, but it has not used them since 2003, in Iraq, with the exception of a single attack with cruise missiles equipped with cluster munition warheads in Yemen in 2009. The Obama administration never revised the 2008 policy directive on cluster munitions, but suspended US cluster munition deliveries to Saudi Arabia in 2016 after evidence emerged of civilian harm from a Saudi-led coalition operation in Yemen.

In 2020, new use of cluster munitions has been recorded only in Libya and Syria. Neither country is a party to the ban treaty. In January, Syrian government forces used cluster munitions in an attack on a primary school that killed 12 civilians. In December 2019, Human Rights Watch documented cluster munition use by the Libyan Arab Armed Forces or their international supporters.

Switzerland is scheduled to host the milestone Second Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Lausanne on November 23-27.  

The Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) is a global coalition of nongovernmental organizations co-founded and chaired by Human Rights Watch that works to ensure that all countries join and adhere to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.

According to the CMC’s annual Cluster Munition Monitor report, 35 states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions have completed destruction of their stocks, which collectively totaled nearly 1.5 million cluster munitions and more than 178 million submunitions.

“All countries that have not done so should relinquish these unacceptable weapons and join the ban treaty now,” Goose said. “Waiting 10 years shows shameful disregard for the well-being of civilians caught up in armed conflict.”