When you’re a member of a club that includes Saudi Arabia, Iran, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Russia, China, Equatorial Guinea, and Turkmenistan, you may very well be doing something you shouldn’t be doing. And that is the motley crew the United States finds itself alongside in refusing to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty prohibiting the use, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster bombs.
Cluster bombs scatter hundreds of fist-sized “bomblets” over a large area. But up to 30 percent of the bomblets don’t explode, which means they litter war zones for years after the bombing is done. They are then often accidentally detonated by civilians — including curious children who pick them up thinking they’re toys. In Vietnam alone, as many as 300 people are still killed every year by them. Some 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos in the 1960s and 70s, which means there are as many as 80 million bomblets that may have been left unexploded. Up to 4 million cluster submunitions were dropped in Lebanon by Israel in 2006, meaning as many as 1.2 million may have been left unexploded.
The numbers of civilian casualties cluster bombs cause even decades after being dropped — often more than are killed by land mines — ought to mean that cluster munitions are relegated to a bygone era of indiscriminate war. Their continued use is met with almost universal revulsion, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions banning their use has 113 signatories. Even countries that haven’t signed the treaty are still bound by customary international humanitarian law, specifically that “the use of weapons which are by nature indiscriminate is prohibited.”