Since 2008 the motive force for banning these bombs -- known to present a tragic risk of misuse by children -- has been the Convention on Cluster Munitions. As we've posted, that international treaty was adopted at a diplomatic conference in Dublin in June 2008. It opened for signature the following December in Oslo, Noway (thus it's sometimes called the Oslo Convention), and it entered into force in August 2010. Today it has 66 states parties, including not only
► Countries that have suffered conflict, among them Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Tunisia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, but also
► U.S. neighbors like Canada and Mexico,
► NATO members (in addition to Canada) like Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and the United Kingdom, as well as
► Japan and Australia, key Pacific allies of the United States.
An additional 45 states have signed but not ratified.
The United States opposed the Cluster Munitions Convention from the get-go. Back in 2008, some in America contended that countries given to military intervention would not join. The states parties list above reveals that a number of countries do not view intervention and a cluster-bomb ban as mutually exclusive.
Still, State Department Legal Adviser Harold Hongju Koh told reporters earlier this month:
[M]any countries in the world are not parties to Oslo and are unlikely to become so, and that they represent 85 to 90 percent of the world’s cluster munition stockpiles. So a question then becomes: How do you regulate that 85 to 90 percent holders if they’re never going to join the Oslo Convention?
His answer? Urge adoption of a less comprehensive prohibition within the framework of a different weapons control regime. It's the 1980 Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects as amended on 21 December 2001, known for short as the Convention on Conventional Weapons, of which the United States is a member. Koh advocated a draft protocol that would have banned cluster munitions made before, but not after, 1980. (credit for photo at left of Vietnam War-era U.S. cluster bomblet) (The August version of the proposal and an alternative draft plan are available here.) Koh stated at his November 16 press conference:
We see the two as complementary, not as competitive. Nothing that we are saying or supporting would diminish or detract from the Oslo Convention ...
The U.S. official who'd joined Koh at the press conference, Assistant Secretary of Defense Bill Lietzau, agreed.
But a portion of the rest of the world did not see it that way.
The International Committee of the Red Cross had spoken against the protocol the day before the Koh-Lietzau press conference. And this past Friday, concluding the Conventional Weapons Convention 4th Review Conference in Geneva, diplomats rejected the draft protocol even though the instrument had won support from cluster-munitions producers China, India, and Russia, as well as the United States.
A Human Rights Watch representative saw in the result proof of a "powerful alliance driving the Oslo partnership."
Also to be seen is a familiar dynamic: the United States would place itself on the side of disarmament and accountability, yet will not embrace multilaterally approved means toward those ends.
Stating it was "deeply disappointed," the U.S. Mission in Geneva said:
In the wake of this outcome, the United States will continue to implement its own voluntary policy to prohibit by 2018 the use of cluster munitions with more than a one percent unexploded ordnance rate, and we encourage other countries to take similar steps. The United States will also continue to serve as a world leader in addressing the humanitarian impact of cluster munition and other explosive remnants.
In short, on this as on other issues, the United States will go it alone.