The Power of Norms

Unexploded Cluster Munitions

Unexploded Cluster Munitions

The Convention on Cluster Munitions, which has now been adopted by 108 states, officially came into force on August 1. The Convention bans the stockpiling, use and transfer of most cluster bombs, and provides a mechanism for clearing unexploded cluster munitions.

Cluster munitions have long been the target of humanitarian organizations. Because cluster munitions release a large number of (often brightly-colored) bomblets scattered across a large area, many of which remain unexploded for long periods of time, cluster munitions often wind up affecting civilians. Indeed, according to Handicap International, 98 percent of people injured by cluster munitions are civilians, and nearly one-third are children.

Although the Convention will not enter into force, many of the world’s largest military powers, including eh United States, Russia, and China, have refused to sign the treaty. The United States maintains that cluster munitions are “legitimate weapons” with “a clear military utility in combat.” But despite U.S. resistance, Anna MacDonald, the head of Oxfam’s Control Arms Campaign, asserts that the convention will be important in limiting the use of cluster munitions in conflict. According to MacDonald, “it’s instructive to look at the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. The United States didn’t sign up for that either but it hasn’t produced or used landmines since the treaty came into force.”

This is an interesting assertion. What MacDonald and other campaigners are hoping for is that the United States and other non-signatories comply with emerging international norms limiting the use of cluster munitions even if they refuse to sign the treaty enforcing their ban. There is some evidence to suggest states behave in this manner. The landmine treaty, as MacDonald suggests, provides one (admittedly limited) example. States also regularly behave this way with respect to international human rights law, as the extensive literature from the field of new institutionalism demonstrates. The real question is whether or not states will comply with informal (and non-binding) norms in the context of national security.

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