Global Policy Forum

Cluster Munitions at a Glance


By David Houska

Arms Control Association
February 2008

Cluster munitions, also called cluster bombs or CBUs, are gravity bombs, artillery shells, and rockets that fragment into small bomblets or grenades. Some cluster munitions disperse only two bomblets while others can spread up to hundreds of submunitions over a large area. These weapons are designed for use against massed formations of troops and armor or broad targets, such as airfields. Cluster submunitions, however, sometimes fail to explode on impact and can kill or maim civilians who later come into contact with them. These unexploded submunitions may remain dangerous for decades. Independent estimates assess that unexploded cluster submunitions over the last 40 years have caused as many as 100,000 civilian casualties.

Although cluster munitions first saw use in World War II and more than 50 countries have since acquired stockpiles of such arms, efforts to regulate or ban the use of cluster munitions gained greater attention and momentum after the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, a Shiite organization that the United States identifies as a terrorist group. Israel's extensive cluster munitions use in the last 72 hours of that conflict resulted in an estimated one million unexploded bomblets scattered across southern Lebanon, arousing some strong condemnation. Jan Egeland, then-UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, blasted Israel's use of cluster munitions as "shocking and completely immoral." UN agencies reported at the end of May 2007 that unexploded ordnance, including some from cluster weapons, had led to 203 civilian casualties in southern Lebanon.

Two international processes are now exploring restrictions on cluster systems. One involves the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), and the other, known as the Oslo process, is a voluntary collection of states led by Norway aiming to ban cluster munitions that "cause unacceptable harm to civilians."

The CCW Process

The CCW regulates certain indiscriminate or inhumane conventional weapons, such as landmines, incendiary weapons, and blinding lasers. In 2003, CCW states-parties approved a new protocol on so-called explosive remnants of war—abandoned or unexploded artillery shells, rockets, grenades, landmines, and other ordnance. Each CCW state-party that agrees to be bound by that new protocol is obligated to clean up such battlefield remnants after hostilities end. While the protocol addresses unexploded cluster submunitions, it does not restrict their initial use.

At a November 2006 CCW Review Conference, a group of states, including Austria, the Holy See, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden, sought CCW negotiation of a new protocol on cluster munitions. The CCW operates by consensus and some other countries, most notably Russia and the United States, opposed such talks. The states-parties, however, agreed to convene a June 2007 group of governmental experts meeting to study the matter. Those experts recommended that CCW members at their upcoming annual meeting in November 2007 launch negotiations on cluster munitions. CCW countries responded by agreeing to begin negotiations on a "proposal to address urgently the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions, while striking a balance between military and humanitarian considerations." The first meeting of that effort occurred Jan. 14-18, 2008, and the United States and the United Kingdom are pressing for conclusion of an instrument by November. China and Russia are two key possessors of cluster munitions that have questioned the utility of new cluster munition restrictions.

The Oslo Process

Frustrated with the slow-moving CCW approach, Norway at the November 2006 conference announced an alternative effort to negotiate a treaty on cluster munitions. The inaugural meeting of that effort convened February 2007 in Oslo. Of the 49 governments attending the conference, 46 ultimately signed the "Oslo Declaration" to "conclude, by 2008, a legally binding instrument that will…prohibit the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians."

Much of the debate among participating governments over the future treaty has centered on two issues. The first is whether future use restrictions should take effect immediately or, as Germany has argued, be phased in to allow time for the development of alternative weapons. The second is whether the treaty should outlaw all cluster munitions or permit some exemptions for certain types or for their use in certain circumstances. Sweden has called for a treaty balancing "legitimate humanitarian and military interests," while the United Kingdom has sought exemptions for systems equipped with self-destruct or self-deactivation devices that are supposed to render unexploded munitions harmless after a short period of time. Other countries, such as Norway, Ireland, and Mexico, favor a total ban. The Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), an international group of non-governmental organizations supporting a total ban, counts 94 countries as participating in the Oslo process. Still, 138 governments sent representatives to a December 2007 meeting of the initiative, which is aiming to conclude a treaty this year.

The Relationship between the Two Processes

The relationship between the CCW and the Oslo processes is complex. Some states, such as Germany and the United Kingdom, are participating in both processes. At the urging of such states, the Oslo Declaration included language calling on governments to "continue to address the humanitarian challenges posed by cluster munitions within the framework of international humanitarian law and in all relevant fora." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon maintains the two processes should be viewed as "complementary and mutually reinforcing." But some fervent cluster munitions opponents have derided the CCW process a distraction and a detriment to the Oslo process. Steve Goose, a co-chair of the CMC, called the CCW a "pitfall" and a "dead end process."

U.S. Cluster Munitions Policy

The United States is a producer and exporter of cluster bombs and has a stockpile of 5.5 million cluster munitions containing hundreds of millions of bomblets. In 2001, the United States adopted a policy that all cluster munitions produced domestically after late 2004 must have submunitions with failure rates of less than one percent. As with all U.S. arms exports, transfers of cluster munitions are governed by conditions restricting their re-transfer and use by importers. One such agreement applies to U.S. cluster munitions shipped to Israel. Although secret, the agreement is generally understood to prohibit the use of cluster munitions in populated areas and against targets that are not clearly military. Following the 2006 conflict in Lebanon, the Department of State's Office of Defense Trade Controls opened an investigation into whether Israel had violated the agreement. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said that the preliminary report, delivered to the president and Congress in January 2007, found that "there may likely could have been some violations." Should the United States sanction Israel for misusing cluster munitions it would not be the first time. The Ronald Reagan administration suspended cluster munitions sales to Israel between 1982 and 1988 following Israel's widespread use of such arms during an earlier invasion of Lebanon.

The United States for some time had opposed negotiations on cluster munitions. At the November 2006 CCW Review Conference, Washington insisted that governments focus on implementing existing protocols and "not on negotiating new rules on cluster munitions." But at the June 2007 CCW experts meeting the United States did an about face and said it would be willing to negotiate on cluster munitions. Ronald Bettauer, head of the U.S. delegation, attributed the reversal "to the importance of this issue, concerns raised by other countries, and our own concerns about the humanitarian implications of these weapons." The United States, however, maintains it has come to no conclusion on where the negotiations should lead and cautions that the outcome should "protect civilians while taking into account security requirements." Some U.S. lawmakers have successfully pressed for changes to U.S. cluster munitions policy. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) spearheaded legislation last year to institute a one-year prohibition against the U.S. sale or transfer of cluster munitions unless the bombs have submunitions with a maximum failure rate of one percent and are used against only "clearly defined military targets" in locations unpopulated by civilians. Those restrictions will expire Oct. 1.

Other Countries and Cluster Munitions

The original Oslo Declaration encouraged nations to "take steps at the national level" to address cluster munitions. Six countries (Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Norway, and Switzerland) have instituted various types of bans or moratoria on cluster munitions. At a May 2007 meeting, Peru announced that it will seek to turn Latin America into a cluster munitions free zone.

More Information on UN Security Council
More Information on General Analysis on Small Arms and Light Weapons
More Information on Small Arms and Light Weapons


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.