It's time to review U.S. policy on cluster munitions and join the Convention on Cluster Munitions

The United States was among the first nations to take steps at the national level to lessen the dangers that cluster munitions pose to civilians, focusing on technical measures to improve the reliability and accuracy of the weapons—steps that also made cluster munitions more appealing from a military perspective. In 2001, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen issued a policy memorandum stating that all submunitions reaching a production decision in fiscal year 2005 and beyond must have an unexploded ordnance (UXO) rate of less than 1%.  

The Obama administration has continued to implement the cluster munition policy created under President George W. Bush in June 2008, which requires that the U.S. no longer use cluster munitions that result in more than 1% UXO starting no later than the end of 2018. Until then a "combatant commander" or four-star general must approve any use of cluster munitions that exceed the 1% UXO rate.

The Cluster Munition Coalition U.S. believes that now would be an appropriate time for the Obama Administration to re-examine the U.S. policy on cluster munitions laid out in the 2008 Department of Defense directive by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  

There has been no U.S. review of policy on cluster munitions since the 2011 failure of the U.S. effort to create an alternate international law permitting cluster munitions through the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), to which the U.S. is party. 

U.S. officials sometimes acknowledge the humanitarian rationale for the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which comprehensively bans the weapons and requires their clearance and victim assistance. It is clear that this instrument is helping to thoroughly stigmatize cluster munitions by creating a new international standard rejecting their use in any circumstances. Since 2008, the U.S. has often acknowledged the negative humanitarian impact of cluster munition use, most recently in UkraineLibyaSouth Sudan, and Syria. 

In August 2013, NGOs called on the U.S. to refrain from using any cluster munitions in any possible military action in Syria and in April April 2015 they reiterated that warning, as the U.S. continues to lead the “Operation Inherent Resolve” military action in Syria and Iraq against forces of the Islamic State or ISIL that began in 2014. Several states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions--including the government of Iraq--are participating in this operation and are legally obliged by Article 21 of the convention to promote the convention’s norms by discouraging any use of cluster munitions. 

In addition to undertaking a review of U.S. cluster munitions policy, the Obama administration should consider other measures that could be taken immediately or in the near term, namely: 

  • Issue a declarative statement of intent to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in the future;
  • Participate in meetings of the Convention on Cluster Munitions starting with the First Review Conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia in September 2015, as the U.S. has done for the Mine Ban Treaty since 2009;
  • Accelerate destruction of stockpiled cluster munitions, starting with concrete plans and a timeline; and
  • Commit not to use cluster munitions, especially during joint military operations with states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.