The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution entitled "Implementation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions” by a vote on December 7 of 140 in favor, while Russia and Zimbabwe voted against it, and 40 states abstained. The United States abstained from both the final and first rounds of voting on Resolution A/70/460.
The non-binding resolution drafted by Croatia and introduced with multiple co-sponsors is the first ever undertaken on the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which held its five-year Review Conference in Dubrovnik in September 2015. The US has never participated in a meeting of the convention--even as an observer--and the brief explanation of the vote provides a rare elaboration of US views on cluster munitions.
The resolution is similar to an annual UNGA resolution on the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which 162 states voted for on December 7. Russia and the US have abstained from voting on that resolution, which is also aimed at promoting universalization and implementation.
The US commented on the cluster munitions resolution in an explanation delivered by disarmament representative Ambassador Robert Wood after the vote. According to the statement, the US abstained because it considers the resolution as applicable only to the 118 states that have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The US also concluded that it "does not accept by this or any other standard that the Convention on Cluster Munitions represents an emerging norm or reflects customary international law that would prohibit the use of cluster munitions in armed conflict."
The US defended the weapons as "an integral part of U.S. force capabilities." It said that cluster munitions "with a low unexploded ordnance, UXO, rate provide key advantages against certain types of legitimate military targets and can produce less collateral damage than high explosive, unitary weapons" when "used properly in accordance with international humanitarian law."
Yet if this is really the case, why didn't the US join Russia and Zimbabwe to vote against the resolution? Why has the US not used cluster munitions in more than 12 years with the exception of a 2009 attack in Yemen?
The statement affirmed US commitment to "reducing the potential for unintended harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure caused by either the misuse of cluster munitions or the use of cluster munitions that generate a large amount of UXO" or unexploded ordnance. It cited the 2008 policy by the Department of Defense that "by the end of 2018 DOD will no longer employ cluster munitions with a UXO rate greater than one percent." It also cited US export law that obliges the US to "not transfer cluster munitions to other countries except those that meet the 1% UXO rate."
Under the 2008 policy, the US has committed to ban and destroy more than 99.9 percent of its cluster munition stocks in 2018, as only a tiny fraction of stocks meet the less than one percent failure rate requirement.
Despite the abstention, the UNGA resolution succeeded in coaxing the US into commenting on the treaty and shone the spotlight on the contradictory US policy at a time when officials don't seem to know what the official line on cluster munitions is supposed to be. Most recently, at the end of October, a Pentagon official decried Russia's use of cluster munitions in its attacks in Syria as "irresponsible" because "these munitions have a high dud rate, they can cause damage to -- and they can hurt civilians, and they're just, you know, not good."
For more information:
- Read the explanations of the vote from the first round of voting on 4 November 2015.