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Obama Administration Needs to Take a Stand on Cluster Bombs


In 1994, President Bill Clinton promised to "seek a worldwide agreement as soon as possible to end the use of all antipersonnel landmines". But as officials from around the world met to sign the Ottawa Convention to ban landmines just three years later, no one from Washington joined them. The United States held back because of overblown concerns over the potential impact of the treaty on the defense of South Korea and the use of anti-tank munitions, and has yet to sign the treaty.

As President Clinton's special representative for humanitarian demining from 1998-2001, I helped oversee a massive expansion in American assistance to eliminate minefields, assist accident survivors, develop new demining technologies, and educate potential victims in landmine avoidance techniques - an effort that made the United States by far the largest contributor to these efforts. But these contributions have remained overshadowed by America's failure to join the treaty.

President-elect Obama can avoid a similar fate when it comes to another man-made humanitarian disaster: cluster munitions. Following a lengthy process of global negotiations, a new treaty has been opened up for signature to prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of these weapons. The treaty's goals are realistic and achievable: signatory nations commit to clear affected areas within a decade; to declare their stockpiled cluster munitions and destroy them within eight years; to help poorer affected countries with clearance; and assist the survivors of munitions accidents. In its first few days, more than half the world's nations have signed the treaty.

There are no persuasive arguments for the United States not to join them. Cluster munitions are particularly evil weapons. On falling to the ground, these bombs and shells separate into dozens of small bomblets, exploding on the enemy. With wide and uncertain dispersal patterns, they are almost guaranteed to maim and kill civilians, particularly when used in built-up areas. Up to 40 per cent of the bomblets fail to explode when they land, remaining active on the ground for years after the conflict ends. Bomblets sometimes look like soda cans or shiny metal balls, tempting curious children to towards death or disfigurement. Even experienced demolition experts sometimes fail to defuse these hyper-reactive remains of war, with horrific results.

Despite calls from many quarters -- including American senators such as landmine ban hero Patrick Leahy and cluster-munitions victims -- for the United States to help shape the new cluster munitions treaty, the Bush administration stood back and watched while others took the lead. Indeed, administration officials often sounded like apologists for these weapons, stating that the threat the pose to civilians is "episodic" and "manageable within current response mechanisms." They said it "only" took two years to clear the high-risk affected areas in Kosovo after 1999, but also admitted that even now, some unexploded bomblets remain. At least 30 other countries also face risks from these bomblets and other unexploded ordnance, led by Afghanistan, Albania, Cambodia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Montenegro, Serbia and Vietnam.

The Bush strategy was to try to move the discussion to a conventional weapons forum and urge countries to adopt voluntary pledges to use fewer cluster munitions, to increase reliability of the weapons, and to educate civilians about the risks. Holding one of the largest stockpiles of these weapons, the United States maintains that there is a military utility to these weapons. But this argument is unconvincing: for example, the world long ago banned the use of mustard gas and other biological and chemicals weapons under the understanding that humanitarian concerns often trump military utility.

The Obama administration should change course and sign the treaty. It will take some changes in American military doctrine and practice to eliminate these weapons for the arsenals, but the benefits are well worth it. Few actions will send a more powerful signal to the world of the Obama's re-commitment to multilateral action to address global problems. And while he is at it, the new president could use the same pen to finally get the Untied States into the global mainstream and sign the anti-landmine treaty.

Donald Steinberg is the vice president for multilateral affairs at the International Crisis Group and former US ambassador to Angola.