By Earl Turcotte
It has been reported that Ukraine has asked the United States to provide it with cluster bombs to help counter Russia’s horrific assault on its territory and people. While I believe Ukraine should be provided with robust military assistance to defend itself until a negotiated settlement with Russia can be reached, the further use of cluster munitions would be a tragic mistake.
I say ‘further’ because there have been credible reports, including by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Russia has used at least six types of cluster munitions since its invasion, killing hundreds of civilians and damaging homes, hospitals and schools. HRW also reports that Ukraine itself has used cluster munitions at least once.
Cluster bombs typically contain hundreds of explosive sub-munitions designed to blanket a large area. They are among the most indiscriminate weapons ever conceived—indeed, the polar opposite of a precision weapon. Moreover, up to 40% of sub-munitions fail to detonate upon impact and can pose a lethal threat for decades. Clearance is dangerous and painstakingly slow.
Case in point: half a century after American forces saturated Laos with cluster bombs mainly to disrupt supply lines to the North Vietnamese, and despite heroic efforts by the Government and people of Laos with international support, approximately one-third of the country remains contaminated. Innocent people continue to be killed or maimed on an all too regular basis.
The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that more than 95% of the cluster munition victims throughout the world have been civilians. Most are small farmers in developing countries forced by poverty to cultivate contaminated land, and children who are often drawn to the toy-like appearance of the sub-munitions.
For these reasons, 122 nations, including Canada, negotiated the Convention on Cluster Munitions that bans the use of cluster munitions under any circumstances, for all time. In addition to the categorical prohibitions contained in the Convention, Article (21) imposes a legal obligation upon State Parties to universalize the treaty and discourage the use of cluster munitions by non-party states. It is incumbent upon Canada and all other State Parties, therefore, to do everything in their collective power to prevent the use of cluster munitions by Ukraine, or any other nation.
The point must be made clearly and forcefully that any military benefit cluster munitions might afford Ukraine at this time, would be nullified and far exceeded by their humanitarian impact on the Ukrainian population, now and for decades to come.
Earl Turcotte is a retired diplomat who led Canada’s delegation throughout negotiation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2007-08.