Bonnie Docherty, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative
This post also appears on the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program’s website.
Ten years ago tonight, I watched my laptop intently as the minutes, then seconds, ticked closer to midnight. A countdown clock on the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) website marked the time until the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force.
I held my breath as the clock read … 3-2-1 and cheered when it finally reached 0. At the stroke of 12 a.m., the treaty, for which I had advocated since 2001, became binding law on the 38 states that had already joined it. I celebrated the moment by emailing friends and former students with whom I had campaigned for the convention. Around the world that day, representatives of CMC, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations from more than 100 countries, held celebrations with the theme “beat the drum to ban cluster munitions.”
The anniversary of this milestone provides an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The treaty, which now has 108 states parties and 17 signatories, has saved civilian lives through its prohibitions and remedial measures. It has spawned other humanitarian disarmament campaigns to reduce arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm. And it has created a new generation of disarmament and human rights advocates.
Cluster munitions, large weapons that disperse dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions over a wide area, inflict unacceptable harm during attacks and after. Because they cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians, they cause significant civilian casualties when used in populated areas, as they often are. In addition, many submunitions fail to explode on impact, becoming de facto landmines that continue to kill and injure civilians for months and years to come.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions, adopted in 2008, prohibits the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of these weapons. It also requires states parties to destroy stockpiles, clear explosive remnants, including unexploded submunitions, and assist victims.
More work is needed to achieve CMC’s mission: “to eradicate cluster munitions … and put an end to the suffering they cause.” In recent years, states not party have used cluster munitions in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. Additional resources are needed to bolster victim assistance and clearance of contaminated areas.
But the stigma against these weapons is strong, and the treaty has had a significant humanitarian effect. According to the Cluster Munition Monitor, 1.5 million stockpiled cluster munitions, containing 178 million submunitions, have been destroyed, and large areas of land have been cleared of cluster munition remnants. The treaty’s Second Review Conference, scheduled for November, will set goals for the next five years.
The impact of the Convention on Cluster Munitions extends beyond mitigating the harm from one class of weapons. Along with its predecessor, the Mine Ban Treaty, it has served as a model for numerous other efforts to reduce the suffering caused by arms. The Arms Trade Treaty was adopted in 2013. Negotiations for a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas are expected as soon as the pandemic allows for an in-person multilateral meeting. Momentum for a treaty banning fully autonomous weapons and maintaining meaningful human control over the use of force is growing.
At the December 2008 signing ceremony of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, participants debated whether the humanitarian approach to governing arms could be applied to nuclear weapons. Less than a decade later, 122 countries voted to adopt the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions has inspired individuals, particularly young advocates, as well as campaigns. At Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, I have supervised dozens of students on projects related to the creation and implementation of the convention. Many have pursued careers in disarmament or related fields.
To name a few, Chris Rogers, who participated in the convention’s negotiations, has investigated the use of armed drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is currently a human rights lawyer at the Open Society Foundations. Nicolette Waldman, who helped defeat a competing cluster munition treaty in 2011, has researched the effects of the armed conflict in Syria and Iraq for Amnesty International. Anna Crowe, one of Nicolette’s teammates and now assistant director at the International Human Rights Clinic, has led several projects on the Arms Trade Treaty. Thomas Becker, who joined me for a field mission to document cluster munition use in Lebanon in 2006, recently released a report on the Black November massacre in Bolivia for the Clinic.
In the ten years since its entry into force, the Convention on Cluster Munitions has changed the landscape of humanitarian disarmament and the lives of affected individuals and advocates alike. The countdown to midnight on July 31, 2010, was thus not an end but a beginning. The clock simply reversed. It now ticks forward, as the convention’s legacy continues to grow.