Susan Aboeid, Human Rights Watch
While much has been accomplished over the years to stigmatize and minimize the use of cluster munitions, more work is needed to ensure the weapons are not used in current or future conflicts.
In September, more than 75 states gathered at the UN in Geneva for the 11th Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions to take stock of their progress and determine next steps. The 2008 convention prohibits the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions. It obligates states parties to destroy stocks, clear contaminated areas, assist victims, submit transparency reports, and adopt national implementation measures such as legislation.
The convention also requires states parties to “meet regularly in order to consider and, where necessary, take decisions in respect of any matter with regard to the application or implementation of this Convention.” This year’s Meeting of States Parties was held, under the presidency of Iraq, against the backdrop of devastating reports of increased casualties from new use of cluster munitions in three countries outside the convention.
According to the Cluster Munition Monitor 2023 report, the annual monitoring report by the Cluster Munition Coalition, at least 1,172 people were killed or wounded from cluster munitions across eight countries in 2022; 95 percent of these casualties were civilians. This was the largest number of recorded cluster munition casualties since the Monitor begin reporting in 2010.
Developments from the Meeting of States Parties, as well as findings from the Monitor released the week before, illuminated not just the achievements of the convention but also what needs to be done to eradicate these unreliable and inaccurate weapons.
Use and Transfer
According to the Monitor, the vast majority of the 916 cluster munition casualties caused by cluster munition attacks occurred in Ukraine, where Russia has repeatedly used the weapon since its February 2022 full-scale invasion of the country. Ukrainian forces have also used cluster munitions.
The Monitor reported that the Myanmar Armed Forces have used a domestically produced cluster bomb since 2021, in the first recorded instance of cluster munition use in the country. The Monitor also documented new cluster munition use in Syria when the Syrian-Russian military alliance attacked four camps for internally displaced people on November 6, 2022.
Regardless of the well-documented civilian harm caused by these weapons, the United States announced in July 2023 that it would transfer an unspecified quantity of stockpiled cluster munitions to Ukraine. Despite widespread outcry from civil society and governments around the world, the cluster munitions were transferred within a week. Videos and photos of their use surfaced almost immediately after the transfer on social media. The US announced another transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine at the end of September.
Concern and Condemnation
The new use, production, and transfer of cluster munitions is testing the strength of the convention’s norms. However, it also presented an opportunity for states parties to uphold their obligations to “discourage States not party to th[e] Convention from using cluster munitions.” Throughout the convention’s four-day meeting, many states expressed concern or condemned the recent use, production, and transfer of cluster munitions and reinforced the stigma surrounding these weapons cultivated over the years by states parties, civil society, and international organizations.
New Zealand started off strong by calling on states to use the meeting to “condemn these weapons unequivocally and recommit to upholding all of our obligations, including with respect to actions by countries not party to this convention.” New Zealand noted the US decision to transfer cluster munitions to Ukraine and said, “[W]e are opposed to any developments that increase the likelihood of cluster munitions being used in any conflict,” concluding with a call “for all transfers and production of these weapons to cease.”
The Philippines reminded states of their “obligation to promote the universalization not only of the Convention as a legal instrument, but also the norms that it seeks to enshrine.” While a majority of states showed reluctance to directly call out the US by name, the Philippines displayed their commitment to the tenets of the convention by stating, “We […] regret the decision of the United States to transfer cluster munitions to Ukraine. We condemn any use of these repugnant weapons by any actor, anywhere, at any time, and under any circumstances including in Ukraine.”
Laos, the state party with the highest number of casualties and the most heavily contaminated by cluster munition remnants, urged the “international community to boost [their] commitment” to the convention in the face of recent challenges.
The final report of the meeting “underscored the obligation of States Parties never under any circumstances to use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer cluster munitions.” It reiterated the previous annual report’s language condemning new use, stating that “the Meeting expressed grave concern at the significant increase in civilian casualties and the humanitarian impact resulting from the repeated and well documented use of cluster munitions since the Second Review Conference [in 2021]. This grave concern applies in particular to the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine.”
There has been progress in the past year in the universalization of the convention and states parties’ compliance with the convention’s obligations to minimize the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions. Over the past year, two new states joined the convention, three states destroyed their remaining stockpiles, and one completed its clearance obligations under the convention.
Just this past year the convention welcomed Nigeria and South Sudan, bringing the total number of states parties to 112. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Djibouti told the meeting that they are working to complete their internal processes of ratification in order to ratify the convention in the coming year.
Three states parties—Bulgaria, Slovakia, and South Africa—announced at the meeting that they had completed destroying their stockpiles, a combined total of 9,582 cluster munitions and 585,422 submunitions. Since the convention’s adoption in 2008, states parties have destroyed 99.9 percent of their declared cluster munition stockpiles. Peru, the only remaining state party with stockpiled cluster munitions, told the meeting that it is on track to destroy its remaining cluster munition stocks ahead of its April 2024 deadline.
At the meeting, Bosnia and Herzegovina formally announced completing clearance of its remaining 0.36 km2 of cluster munition contaminated land in compliance with its Article 4 obligations. According to the Monitor, most of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s contamination is a result of the 1992-1995 conflict with the former Yugoslavia.
The Work Ahead
Mines Action Canada youth fellows closed the Meeting of States Parties with a strong reminder of states parties’ obligations and commitments to the convention. The fellows stated, “As young people from different parts of the world, from countries affected by cluster munitions, donor countries, and those not upholding the norms of the Convention, we are committed to keeping this Convention alive.” They reiterated the UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu’s opening message to “consign these weapons to history,” stating, “there is no room for cluster munitions in the future we are building.”
The resolve of states parties to condemn the recent use and transfer of cluster munitions, destroy their stocks, clear remnants, and continue to welcome new states onto the convention all highlight the strength of the international treaty 15 years after its adoption in Dublin in May 2008. However, there are still strides to be made in terms of universalization to ensure that these abhorrent and indiscriminate weapons are not used in future conflicts. With continued, committed effort from states parties, civil society, and international organizations alike, cluster munitions are well on their way to becoming remnants of the past.