The Convention on Cluster Munitions

by Janet Munro-Nelson
Posted: November 2008
Updated: 31st August 2011

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On 30 May 2008 in Dublin, Ireland, some 107 countries negotiated and adopted a draft treaty to ban the use of cluster munitions.  The draft of the new treaty, “the Convention on Cluster Munitions” (CCM), was finally agreed after ten intensive days of negotiation between the many representatives present in Dublin.  The final CCM text exceeded expectations by banning the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of certain cluster munitions while also containing strong provisions for victim assistance.  The ceremony to begin the official signing of the CCM took place in Oslo, Norway, on the 3rd and 4th of December 2008.  The CCM came into effect on 1 August 2010 following the ratification by 31 countries.  As of 30 August 2011, there have been 108 countries who have signed the CCM with a total of 61 countries who are now legal parties to the Convention.

The terms, “cluster munition” and “cluster bomb” are used interchangeably in this article.

The history of these negotiations.

The negotiation of a draft treaty banning cluster munitions has taken almost two years by the time it was signed in December 2008.  Norway launched the initiative, known as the Oslo Process, in February 2007 when government talks broke down in the discussion of weapon issues for the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.  The Oslo Process has been led by Norway and other supportive governments and organisations including Austria, the Holy See, Ireland, the International Committee of the Red Cross, New Zealand, Mexico and Peru.  The aim of the Oslo Process was to create, by the end of 2008, a comprehensive international treaty banning cluster munitions.

What are cluster munitions?

Cluster munitions or cluster bombs are terms used for weapons fired from aircraft and artillery that contain dozens or even hundreds of smaller bombs (bomblets).  Cluster bombs are designed to break open in mid-air, releasing the multiple bomblets that fall over a large area equal to that of several football fields.  These cluster bombs are area-effect weapons as their impact is not limited to one precise target such as an individual tank.  Instead, they are designed to blanket large areas with explosives which they do effectively.  The main and critical problem with cluster munitions is that although they were designed to explode on impact, many of them do not.  This means that there are huge quantities of unexploded bomblets that remain active and live long after the conflict is over.

The effect of cluster munitions.

Like landmines, the cluster bomblets pose a lethal threat to civilians living and working in the area.  These bomblets explode when someone simply steps on them, drives over them or picks them up.  Also, during an armed conflict, these bomblets cannot discriminate between armed soldiers or fighters and the civilians.  Because of the danger to civilian populations, cluster munitions should not be used in urban areas.

Unfortunately, in recent times, they have been used in or near populated areas because that is where many of the conflicts are centred.   Widespread contamination of residential, agricultural and industrial land makes it virtually impossible for people to rebuild their lives after a conflict has finished.  For example, farmers are unable to use any of the land covered by these bomblets in growing crops or keeping livestock.

Human rights organisations calculate that of all the civilian deaths due to cluster munitions, one-quarter of these victims are children.  It is children who are the least discriminating and most unaware of the danger of these cluster bomblets.  The small size and unusual shape of the bomblets attract and appeal to children who then pick them up.  When a child picks up an unexploded bomblet, he or she may be immediately killed or may have an arm or leg blown off or may be blinded by the shrapnel.

When and where have cluster munitions been used?

Cluster bombs were first used in World War II by German and Soviet forces.  Cluster bombs have been used in at least 32 countries and areas.  During the late 1960’s and early ‘70s, the United States used massive numbers of cluster bombs in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  From that war, Laos became and remains the most heavily cluster bombed country in the world.  The scale of the cluster bombing in Laos has been likened to the equivalent of a B52 plane-load of bombs every 8 minutes for about 9 years.  Most recently, cluster bombs were used extensively in the 1991 Gulf War, Chechnya, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, in Lebanon in 2006 and in Georgia in August 2008 (by both Georgian and Russian forces).

When cluster bombs were used in armed conflict in Lebanon in 2006, the United Nations estimated that of the some 4 million cluster bomblets dropped or fired during the conflict, up to 1 million of the bomblets remained unexploded when the conflict ended.  In the first 6 months following the ceasefire, some 200 civilians were killed or injured by these cluster bomblets left from the conflict.

What countries have used or are using cluster bombs?

There are 16 countries that have used or are using cluster bombs.  They are:  Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, Georgia, Israel, Morocco, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia (Former Yugoslavia), Sudan, Tajikistan, United Kingdom, and the United States.  Of these 16 countries, 8 attended the Dublin negotiations in May and adopted the resulting draft CCM treaty.  These 8 countries were:  France, Georgia, Morocco, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Serbia, Sudan and the United Kingdom.  Only 3 of the 8 countries went on to sign the CCM on 3rd December :  France, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

What is as important is that 78 countries in the world stockpile cluster munitions in their country.  Stockpiling cluster munitions by these countries means that they each have a supply of readily available and at-hand cluster munitions that can be used at any time.

What cluster munitions are being banned by the CCM treaty?

The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use of some, but not all, cluster munitions.  The CCM provides technical specifications of which cluster munitions are prohibited under the treaty and which ones are not covered by it.   For example, under Article 2 of the CCM, the type of “cluster munition” prohibited includes those conventional munitions “designed to disperse or release explosive submunitions each weighing less than 20 kilograms and includes explosive submunitions”.   Munitions that the CCM does not prohibit are ones having “all of the following characteristics: (i) contains fewer than 10 explosive submunitions; (ii) each explosive submunition weighs more than 4 kilograms; (iii) each explosive submunition is designed to detect and engage a single target object; (iv) each explosive submunition is equipped with an electronic self-destruction mechanism; and (v) each explosive submunition is equipped with an electronic self-deactivating feature.”  This means that the CCM does not ban the use of the new lightweight generation of so-called smart cluster munitions, each carrying fewer than 10 bomblets and designed to self-destruct within a short period after impact, if they have not exploded against a target.  These self-destructing cluster munitions account for only a small inventory, if at all, of the countries’ inventory of cluster munitions.

What does the new Convention on Cluster Munitions cover?

Every country that is a party to the CCM agrees “to never, under any circumstances, use cluster munitions; develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone directly or indirectly, cluster munitions; or to assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited” by  the CCM.  All of the countries signing and ratifying the CCM agree to destroy all the cluster munitions under their jurisdiction and control as soon as possible but within an 8-year deadline.  The CCM further requires that each country agreeing to the treaty is obligated “to clear and destroy, or ensure the clearance and destruction,” of any unexploded bomblets in areas under its jurisdiction or control.  Such clearance should be completed as soon as possible but there is a 10-year deadline to do so.  Also, any country, in a position to do so, is obligated to provide “technical, financial or material assistance” for clearing up any cluster bomblets that remain on the territory of other countries who have signed the CCM.
The CCM also places groundbreaking obligations on all of the countries bound by the treaty to provide victim assistance.  The definition of “victim” in the CCM is deliberately broad to include all persons who are affected including the individual directly killed or injured by the cluster bomb, his or her family and community.  As can be seen by this, the treaty gives human rights a top priority.  The CCM provides that “with respect to cluster munition victims in areas under a country’s jurisdiction or control shall …adequately provide…assistance, including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support, as well as provide for their social and economic inclusion”.   The treaty goes on to outline the procedures for the countries to use in implementing and fulfilling the obligations under it.


This is a significant step forward to eradicate the future use of cluster munitions and to deal with any unexploded cluster munitions that have already been dropped or fired during past and present armed conflicts.  While the CCM prohibits the use and stockpiling of most but not all types of cluster munitions, the cluster munitions covered by the treaty are those that are most dangerous to civilians, lying unexploded over large areas of land long after conflicts have ended.

While 108 countries have now signed the CCM, this leaves many countries, including those with huge arsenals of the prohibited cluster munitions, unwilling to even sign the CCM at this time.  This group includes some of the major military powers:  Brazil, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States.  Weapons experts estimate that the United States, China and Russia each have at least one billion cluster bomblets, dwarfing the stockpiles of countries that have adopted the draft CCM. Of these 108 signatories, it should be noted that as of August 2011, only 61 countries have completed the legal process to become party to this Convention.

Despite the refusal of certain countries to support this ban on cluster munitions, supporters of the CCM expect that this treaty will stigmatise the use of cluster munitions so that those countries that have not signed up will not be able to use them.  They point to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty on Land Mines where the stigmatisation of those countries not agreeing to the Ottawa Treaty has in practice led to the non-use of the prohibited land mines by all countries, with the few exceptions of Burma and perhaps a few Russian units in Chechnya.  In addition to stigmatising the use of traditional cluster munitions, supporters believe that the CCM will push the development and use of smart weapons that will self-destruct on impact or within a certain short amount of time.  As the U.S. Senator Leahy said in Dublin in May, “Anyone who has seen the indiscriminate devastation cluster weapons cause across a wide area must recognise the unacceptable threat they pose to civilians.”

Sources for this article include:
The Cluster Munitions Coalition
New York Times (May 29, 2008)
Convention on Cluster Munitions – UN Treaties

If you want to learn more about the ban on cluster munitions, please go to:
Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC):- 
& Human Rights Watch:-

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