The United States recently took a step towards civilizing war, if war can be in any way termed civilized. Last Friday the US Defence Department made history by destroying the last chemical weapon in its military arsenal.
The US Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 and it began the process of safely demilitarizing the weapons. Nearly 90 percent of the weapons were eliminated by 2012 with the last 10 percent requiring a complex approach to neutralizing the chemicals.
There is another international agreement that the Americans have never signed and this is now causing problems with those of its allies who have, including us—the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Nor have Russia and Ukraine signed, and both use them. The US has now set the cat among the pigeons by offering to send some from its large stockpile (they used them in Iraq and Afghanistan) to Ukraine.
Cluster bombs are fired from artillery shells which release dozens of armor-piercing, soldier-killing bomblets which scatter across an area as large as a football field. The odds of dropping explosives into trenches are greatly increased. In Vietnam, the ratio of enemy soldiers killed per shell fired was eight to one for cluster munitions over conventional high-explosive rounds.
What makes them insidious is that many don’t explode initially and remain deadly for decades to be picked up by civilians, particularly children, who think they’ve found a new toy.
Those promised to Ukraine are supposed to have a low “dud” rate—under three percent—compared to an estimated 40 percent for Russia’s. Nonetheless it could still mean a lot of armless or legless or dead Ukrainians kids.
A host of parties are objecting to the Americans’ provision of these weapons to Ukraine including signatories of the Convention, human rights groups and the editorial board of The New York Times.
Prime Minister Trudeau has stated that Canada will continue to strongly argue that cluster bombs should “never be used.” We were one of the countries that led the international effort to ban cluster munitions and will “continue to stand very strongly” on our position.
Of course it is easier to oppose the use of a weapon when, unlike Ukraine, you have not been invaded by a neighbour three and a half times your size. And under attack by a neighbour who is using those very weapons against you.
And while it may result in the loss of innocent Ukrainian lives in the future, if it helps to end the war, or even reduce Russian firepower, it could save innocent Ukrainian lives that are being lost today. Military experts agree that the weapons would be highly effective against Russian forces. And Ukraine is not bound by the convention.
So on what basis to criticize Ukraine? And the US? It has taken a step away from the civilized behaviour it exemplified only last week with the destruction of its chemical weapons, but should it leave Ukraine at a serious disadvantage against its existential enemy? Apparently President Biden thinks not.