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Cluster Munitions and the Ukraine Conflict: Weighing Humanitarian Implications

In a significant move, President Joe Biden's administration has approved an $800-million military aid package to Ukraine, which includes the supply of cluster munitions. While the intention behind this decision is to bolster Ukraine's defense capabilities during the ongoing conflict, it has sparked debates regarding adherence to international agreements like the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) among U.S. allies, including Canada and NATO member states.

Cluster munitions are a type of weapon that raises concerns due to their indiscriminate nature. They have a wide area effect, often comparable to an average city block, making it more likely to cause damage to both military targets and surrounding civilian areas. Consequently, the use of cluster munitions can result in severe harm to civilians, infrastructural damage when conflict zones border civilians areas. and the presence of unexploded ordnance that poses risks even after the conflict has concluded. This high failure rate is the primary reason why the treaty to ban cluster munitions was signed by so many states.


The 750 pound M43 BZ cluster bomb had a 16 inch diameter and a 66 inch length. This cluster bomb was designed to hold three stacks of 19 M138 bomblets. The bomblets each held about 6 ounces of the incapacitating agent BZ, also known as 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate
U.S. Army. Chemical Weapons and Munitions, U.S. Army Technical Manual (TM 43-0001-26-2), April 29, 1982, via, p. 1-5. Source: Wikicommons


Human rights advocates began raising alarm bells around the use of cluster munitions as early as the 1970s and 1980s, during conflicts in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The devastating impact of these weapons on civilians and the environment brought attention to the urgent need for addressing their use. During conflicts like the Vietnam War, the Lebanon War, the Gulf War, and the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Chechnya, the use of cluster munitions resulted in significant humanitarian consequences.

In response to these concerns, the global push to address the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions gained momentum in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Oslo Process, initiated in 2007, led to the negotiation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). This treaty, adopted in 2008 and entering into force in 2010, aims to comprehensively address the issue and prohibits the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munition.

Marchers at the May 2008 Dublin Diplomatic Conference on Cluster Munitions that produced the Convention on Cluster Munitions. (25 May 2008 - source: Wikicommons)


Today, over 100 countries, including Canada, have signed the CCM, which specifically prohibits the use of cluster munitions. However, the U.S., Ukraine, and Russia have not yet become parties to this agreement.

President Biden's administration justified the decision, noting that Russia is already using cluster munitions in the conflict. They argued that Ukraine needs artillery to sustain its operations and that the cluster bombs provided would have a lower failure rate compared to Russian versions, potentially deterring further aggression from Russia.

Despite the reasoning behind the decision, concerns have been raised about the alliance's unity on the matter of providing cluster munitions to Ukraine. Former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy has called on Canada to lead the opposition against supplying cluster weapons to Ukraine. He emphasizes that while Ukraine does need military aid, it should not come at the cost of violating international standards and undermining its moral authority.

Canada has long maintained a strong stance against cluster munitions, as demonstrated by the recent unanimous passing of a bill in the House of Commons to defund companies involved in building cluster bombs. However, the Canadian government's position on the U.S. decision remains unclear. Advocacy groups, such as Mines Action Canada, are urging the Canadian government to oppose sending cluster munitions to Ukraine and to stand firm in adhering to international agreements.

The decision by the U.S. to supply cluster munitions as part of military aid to Ukraine has raised significant concerns over the adherence to international agreements, particularly the Convention on Cluster Munitions. With Canada having a principled stance against cluster munitions, the call for opposition to this move is growing stronger. It is crucial for the involved parties to carefully consider the potential humanitarian and diplomatic implications of supplying such weapons in a conflict that demands a measured and responsible approach to prevent further harm to civilians and uphold global norms.


Morow, A., & Bailey, I. (July 7, 2023). "U.S. to Supply Ukraine with Cluster Munitions Despite Allies' Weapons Ban." The Globe and Mail.,not%20even%20effective%20war%20tools (Accessed July 23, 2023)

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