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What are cluster munitions, which Biden is ready to send to Ukraine?

After months of debate within his administration, President Biden has agreed to approve the supply of long-sought cluster munitions to Ukraine – circumventing legal restrictions.

Ammunition is banned in much of the world. Here’s what to know about them – and why they’re so controversial.

What are cluster munitions?

Dating back to the 1940s, cluster munitions disperse submunitions over large areas.

The ordnance is launched using the same artillery that the United States and other Western countries have sent to Ukraine since the start of the war, including howitzers.

The United States has a stockpile of cluster munitions, but it is known to have used these weapons in combat in Iraq in 2003, according to the Associated Press.

The United States does not supply Ukraine with cluster bombs to be dropped from aircraft.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch released new evidence suggesting that Ukrainian forces have already injured civilians using cluster munitions – which Russian forces have used far more widely, also causing civilian deaths.

Why is the United States supplying them to Ukraine?

In the face of dwindling Western stockpiles of artillery shells and entrenched Russian forces, Ukraine’s counter-offensive to bring the country back to pre-invasion borders has progressed more slowly than officials Westerners had hoped.

Amid Ukrainian frustration with Western expectations in the absence of artillery superiority and yet-to-be-delivered fighter jets, Zelensky pushed the U.S. government to use long-range weapons. submunitions, saying they are the most effective way for Ukrainian forces to push quickly through Russia’s expansion. deadly trenches and minefields.

Biden approves supply of cluster munitions to Ukraine

Why are cluster munitions controversial?

More than 120 nations have joined a convention pledging not to use arms because of their indiscriminate nature. Not only do they fall over a wide area, causing potential civilian casualties during conflict, but many submunitions fail to explode on impact. This means they can continue to kill or maim people long after a war is over.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said in 2010 that between 10 and 40 percent of ammunition released from cluster munitions used in recent conflicts did not detonate immediately, posing a major threat to civilians.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, development, stockpiling or transfer of munitions. However, Russia, Ukraine and the United States are not signatories to the agreement.

For the past seven years, Congress has stipulated that cluster munitions with a failure rate greater than 1% cannot be produced, used, or transferred.

But the ammunition in question, the M864 artillery shell, dates back to 1987 – and could have a 6% “dud” rate, according to the Pentagon’s latest public assessment from more than two decades ago. The Pentagon says it has more recent valuations of 2.35% or less — though that’s still above the Congressional limit.

In a report released Thursday, Human Rights Watch accused Moscow and Kyiv of using weapons since the February 2022 invasion, causing civilian deaths and serious injuries.

In one incident early in the invasion, Ukrainian authorities and witnesses claimed the Russians used the munitions in an attack on a train station that killed 50 people.

Strike at train station in eastern Ukraine wreaks havoc among civilians

Mary Wareham, acting weapons director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that weapons “are killing civilians now and will continue to do so for many years to come.”

Who else uses cluster munitions?

Evidence suggests that Russia has used cluster munitions to a greater extent than Ukraine since invading the country last year.

Human rights organizations documented and strongly criticized the extensive use of cluster bombs by the United States during the early years of the invasion of Afghanistan.

Israel fired millions of cluster munitions into Lebanon in 2006, during a brief conflict with Hezbollah, which also fired cluster munitions into Israel. The United Nations estimated that of the 4 million submunitions fired by Israel, up to 1 million failed to explode by the end of the conflict, killing Lebanese civilians.

The ordnance has been used by Russian and Russian-backed Syrian forces in Syria, destroying cities like Aleppo and killing civilians during the country’s civil war.

Human Rights Watch has documented Saudi Arabia’s use of US-made cluster munitions against Houthi rebels in Yemen, a move the group says puts civilians in an already deadly region at risk due to unexploded ordnance.

Karen DeYoung, Alex Horton, Missy Ryan, Claire Parker and William Neff contributed to this report.


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