U.S. officials invariably stress their commitment to human rights and are extremely quick to condemn other countries for alleged violations. However, Washington’s conduct too often makes a mockery of that supposed commitment. The latest examples of such hypocrisy are two aspects of U.S. policy regarding the Russia-Ukraine war, both involving the provision of highly controversial weapons to Ukrainian forces.
The most recent episode is the Biden administration’s decision to ship cluster munitions to Kyiv. News reports indicate that those deadly items already have arrived in Ukraine, although a meaningful congressional and public debate in the United States was barely underway. Even some NATO allies, including the United Kingdom and Spain, expressed discontent about Washington’s decision.
More than 100 countries have signed a treaty banning such weapons because of their indiscriminate effects on innocent civilians. In its response to Biden’s decision, Amnesty International highlighted the indiscriminate feature of cluster munitions and noted that they have caused “untold harm to civilians across the world.”
Although Washington is not one of the signatories, U.S. officials nevertheless warned shortly after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine that Moscow’s use of cluster bombs could constitute a war crime. Apparently, the same standard does not apply to Washington’s willingness to supply such weapons to a foreign client. Yet cluster munitions have a widespread, odious reputation for a good reason. The use of a single cluster bomb spreads dozens of tiny bomblets over a widespread area, sometimes far beyond any legitimate military target.
A significant number (according to Amnesty International up to 6 percent) of those bomblets are “duds” that do not explode immediately. The New York Times concedes that the rate with older weapons in the U.S. arsenal could be as high as 14 percent. Those duds can lie dormant for months, years, or even decades, posing an insidious hazard to innocent civilians. Worse, their shiny surfaces exert an irresistible attraction to children. Deaths and severe injuries are still taking place in Iraq two decades after the U.S.-led assault on that country. Indeed, horrible maiming incidents are still occurring in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam from cluster bombs that the U.S. military dropped more than a half century ago.
Given that track record, Washington’s possession of such weapons in its own arsenal, much less providing them to Ukraine for use in an ongoing war, is inexcusable. However, U.S. policy regarding another type of munitions given to Kyiv indicates that the apparent indifference of U.S. leaders about the suffering that cluster munitions inflict is not an aberration. Long before that episode, the administration had supplied the Ukrainian military with shells built from depleted uranium.
Human-rights advocates have rightly condemned those munitions. Their toxic qualities pose a long-term health hazard for civilians in targeted areas. The consequences include a noticeable rise in cancer rates over subsequent generations. U.S. forces used depleted uranium weapons extensively in civilian areas of Iraq, leading to nasty results with respect to cancer. A 2020 NIH study showed a similar alarming elevation of cancer rates in Kosovo in areas where NATO forces fired such munitions in the 1999 air war against Serb forces.
The Biden administration’s latest excuses for its actions are cynical to the point of being shameful. When critics pointed out that cluster bombs had horribly deleterious effects on civilian populations, the president and other officials responded that Ukraine was running out of more conventional munitions. Therefore, they contended, the likely outcome would be a Russian victory in the war. That result, they insisted, would be even worse for Ukrainian civilians than the problems that cluster bombs might cause.
Such an uncaring attitude is appalling. One is tempted to ask if Washington would rule out the use of any weapon in the name of preventing Ukraine’s military defeat? Would the United States justify a pro-Ukraine country sending chemical weapons? How about biological weapons? Supplying cluster munitions and depleted uranium shells is just marginally worse. Providing the means to kill or maim innocent civilians is not — or at least should not be — an acceptable American value.
Unfortunately, Congress is not prepared to prevent or repudiate the administration’s looming war crime. The July 13 vote in the House of Representatives on an amendment to the defense bill barring the shipment of cluster munitions to Ukraine failed, with just 98 Republicans and a paltry 49 Democrats voting in favor. Only an aroused, angry public can stem the current course and the lasting shame that will accompany it.