Cluster Bombs- Historical Context, Concerns & Conventions

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The recent decision by the United States to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine amidst its conflict with Russia has ignited a significant debate.

This topic of “Cluster Bombs- Historical Context, Concerns & Conventions” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

Cluster Munitions: A Brief Overview

  • Definition: Cluster bombs release multiple explosive submunitions or bomblets.
    • When released, these bomblets explode upon ground impact, resulting in casualties.
    • Many remain unexploded, acting as de-facto landmines for years.
  • Dangers to Civilians:
    • These dormant bomblets are a significant threat, especially to unsuspecting civilians, which can include women and children.
    • Bomblets, due to their dormant nature, can lead to casualties years after the conflict.
  • Usage by Russia in Ukraine:
    • Human Rights Watch reports that Russia has used cluster bombs in cities like Kharkiv, causing civilian casualties and damaging civilian structures.
  • Concern: Introduction of these weapons by Ukraine could escalate civilian suffering.

Historical Context

  • Initial Usage: Cluster bombs date back to the Second World War.
  • Subsequent Usage: They’ve been used by the U.S. in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
  • Casualties: As per the Cluster Munition Monitor, cluster munition-induced deaths in affected countries range from 56,000 to 86,000 since the 1960s.

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Enactment of Convention

  • The International Campaign: With rising cluster bomb use, civil society groups like Human Rights Watch pushed for international regulation.
  • Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM):
    • Enacted in May 2008.
    • Aims at eradicating the use of cluster bombs.
    • Membership: 112 countries, including many NATO members. Notably, the U.S., Russia, China, Israel, India, and Ukraine aren’t signatories.
  • Provisions of the CCM:
    • Article 1 bans the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer.
    • Obligation to destroy existing stockpile.
    • Introduction of a victim assistance program for support and rehabilitation.

Customary International Law (CIL)

  • Treaty Violations: Both Russia and Ukraine, non-CCM members, might seem to be acting within their rights.
  • Indiscriminate Attacks & CIL:
    • Fundamental tenets of CIL emphasize the distinction between combatants & civilians.
    • Prohibits indiscriminate use of force.
    • Cluster bomb use, by nature, contradicts these principles.
  • Codification in Geneva Conventions:
    • Prohibition of indiscriminate attacks is covered in Article 51(4) of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
    • The principle of proportionality, emphasizing balanced use of force, is in Article 51(5) of the same protocol.
    • Both Russia and Ukraine are signatories to these conventions.
  • Implication: Despite not being in the CCM, both countries’ use of cluster bombs is arguably a violation of international norms.

U.S. Stance

  • Supplying Cluster Bombs: Not a clear violation since the U.S. isn’t a CCM signatory.
  • Low Dud Rate: U.S.-made cluster bombs reportedly have a lower rate of unexploded bomblets, which might align more with principles of proportionality and discrimination.
  • Concern: Regardless of dud rate, supplying such weapons remains questionable.

Way Forward

  • Universal Ban: The possession, transfer, supply, and usage of cluster bombs should be universally prohibited.
  • CCM Accession: For global eradication of cluster bombs, all United Nations member-countries should join the CCM.


The use and supply of cluster bombs remain a pressing concern, with serious implications for civilian safety. Despite the existence of international treaties and conventions, adherence and interpretation vary. The path forward requires universal commitment to prioritizing human safety over warfare tactics.

Practice Question for Mains

Why is the US decision to supply cluster bombs to Ukraine a source of concern? What needs to be done? (250 words)

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