President-Elect Barack Obama has said he supports initiatives to minimize civilian casualties from conventional weapons, including cluster munitions. A spokesperson for Obama told his hometown newspaper this week that the president-elect will “carefully review the new treaty and work closely [with] our friends and allies to ensure that the United States is doing everything feasible to promote protection of civilians.”
President Obama would be in good company if he decides to sign the treaty. Because of cluster bombs’ impact on noncombatants, Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and hundreds of humanitarian groups around the world have condemned the use of these weapons. A group of retired British military officers was influential in persuading the British prime minister to agree to give up cluster bombs.
The Foreign Ministers of Britain, Australia, Canada, France, and Germany — all fighting alongside U.S. troops under the NATO led mission in Afghanistan — signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions today.
Cluster munitions are fired from aircraft or artillery and spray smaller “bomblets” over an expanse the size of two football fields. Many do not explode on impact but remain in fields and parks as landmines, waiting to be found by unsuspecting civilians. Many of the unexploded munitions look like harmless objects, such as toys or cans of food.
“Like the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions is establishing a powerful norm that cluster bombs are no longer an acceptable weapon of war,” said Lora Lumpe, coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Bombs, who is attending the Oslo treaty signing. “U.S. participation in this treaty would contribute a great deal toward stigmatizing the use of these weapons and saving lives of civilians.”
The United States has been the world’s largest producer, stockpiler, and user of cluster munitions. It has used cluster bombs in civilian-populated areas of three countries in the past decade, and the millions of cluster bombs that the United States dropped in Laos in the early 1970s are still killing and wounding people.
The Pentagon has opposed an outright ban on the weapons, arguing that their military utility outweighs the humanitarian concerns. In July, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates issued a new policy asserting that the United States would continue to use its arsenal (containing at least 750 million submunitions) for the next 10 years before replacing the weapons with more reliable and precise alternatives. However, the administration has not yet explained why Great Britain and other major allied powers can abandon these munitions on December 3, while the U.S. cannot.
“This treaty signing means a lot to me and the other victims and family members who have lost loved ones to these weapons,” said Lynn Bradach, whose son Travis, a U.S. Marine, was killed by a U.S. cluster submunition in Iraq in 2003. “I am saddened that my government is not here, but President-Elect Obama can help move our country toward the position of its major military allies and restore our moral leadership in the world community by pledging to stop U.S. production, export, and use of cluster bombs,” she added.