Controversial Cluster Munitions and International Law

Controversial Cluster Munitions and International Law


The recent decision by the United States to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions as a part of a new military aid package aimed at supporting Ukraine’s efforts against Russia has ignited a heated debate.


GS – 03, GS – 02 (International Treaties & Agreements)

Mains Question:

  • Discuss the implications of the use of “Weapons of Mass destruction” considering the historical context, international legal frameworks, and the potential humanitarian consequences. (150 words)

Cluster munitions:

  • Cluster munitions, also known as cluster bombs, are weapons that release multiple explosive submunitions, or bomblets, upon deployment.
  • These bomblets detonate upon impact with the ground.
  • They cause harm to individuals in the vicinity and around.
  • Major concern associated with these are, some bomblets remain inactive for years, behaving like hidden landmines and posing ongoing threats to civilians.
  • While the move to provide Ukraine with these weapons is seen as bolstering their war capabilities, it is also raising concerns about the potential humanitarian repercussions.

Dimensions of the Article:

  • Cluster Bombs’ Checkered History
  • The Convention on Cluster Munitions
  • International Law and Cluster Bomb Use
  • United States’ Role and Moral Responsibility

Cluster Bombs’ Checkered History:

  • Cluster bombs have a long history dating back to the Second World War.
  • These weapons have been used in various scenarios- the U.S. engagements in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
  • According to the Cluster Munition Monitor, the toll of cluster munition-related casualties has reached a staggering figure between 56,000 to 86,000 people since the 1960s.
  • Such weaponry has been a source of concern for civil society organizations, prompting the formation of an international treaty known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in 2008.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions:

  • The enactment of the CCM was a pivotal milestone in addressing the issue of cluster bombs. Although the treaty boasts participation from 112 countries, including key NATO members such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, significant global players like the U.S., Russia, China, Israel, and India have yet to sign the agreement.
  • The CCM holds provisions that prohibit the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions.
  • Countries that are party to the treaty are also obliged to dispose of existing stockpiles and establish victim assistance programs.

International Law and Cluster Bomb Use:

  • While Russia and Ukraine may argue that they are not bound by the CCM due to non-membership, a closer examination of international law suggests otherwise.
  • International law governing armed conflicts prioritizes distinguishing between combatants and civilians and differentiating military objectives from civilian entities.
  • A core norm of customary international law is the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks. This means that the use of force must be precise, targeting military objectives rather than civilians.
  • Also, the principle of proportionality dictates that the use of force should not cause excessive civilian harm compared to the anticipated military benefits.
  • Both Russia and Ukraine, being parties to Additional Protocol I of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, are subject to these fundamental international humanitarian law norms.
  • Cluster bombs, given their indiscriminate nature, violate these principles, as they fail to differentiate between combatants and civilians or between military and civilian entities.

United States’ Role and Moral Responsibility:

  • Regarding the U.S., supplying cluster bombs to Ukraine, despite not being a violation of international law, remains a questionable action.
  • Arguments have arisen that U.S.-manufactured cluster bombs have a low dud rate, reducing the likelihood of unexploded bomblets. This, arguably, aligns with the principles of proportionality and discrimination.
  • However, the broader point remains that the supply of such weaponry should be universally prohibited, as envisioned by the CCM. This requires all United Nations member-states to join the treaty and eliminate cluster bombs globally.


The decision to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine has brought the controversial issue of these weapons to the forefront. While international legal frameworks do hold countries accountable for their actions, it is imperative to recognize that the use of cluster bombs, whether by signatory or non-signatory states, raises ethical and humanitarian concerns. The international community must continue its efforts to reduce the use of cluster munitions and work towards their complete eradication. This commitment is essential to creating a safer and more secure world for all.