Democrats slam cluster bomb transfer to Ukraine

The White House has acknowledged the controversial weapons will risk “civilian harm from unexploded ordnance”

Several US Democrats have condemned President Joe Biden’s decision to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine, citing concerns the bombs could maim and kill non-combatants for decades to come.

Following an announcement by the White House earlier on Friday, a number of House Democrats made their opposition known, with Pennsylvania Rep. Representative Chrissy Houlahan saying the move could blur the lines of America’s percieved “moral high ground.”

“A victory for Ukraine is an essential victory for democracies across the globe, but that victory cannot come at the expense of our American values and thus democracy itself,” said Houlahan, an Air Force veteran and the co-chair for a congressional caucus on unexploded ordnance.

Cluster bombs carry smaller explosive submunitions which are scattered across a target area, frequently used against infantry and lightly armored vehicles. However, due to their tendency to leave behind undetonated ‘duds’ – which can remain live in former conflict zones for decades – more than 120 nations have agreed to ban the weapon, including a majority of NATO members. 

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Though Washington has not joined the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, lawmakers passed legislation in 2009 which barred exports of any cluster bombs with a ‘dud’ rate of more than 1%, which applies to most of the US stockpile. While the law effectively prohibited all foreign transfers of the weapon, the White House can waive the restriction at any time.

During a Pentagon briefing on Thursday, press secretary Patrick Ryder was asked to address concerns over cluster bombs, insisting the military would “carefully” select which type of munitions to send. He claimed any transfer “would not include older variants with dud rates that are higher than 2.35 percent” – more than double the limit set by Congress.

Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts also issued a statement questioning the wisdom of providing cluster weapons to Kiev, saying the bombs “disperse hundreds of bomblets, which can travel far beyond military targets and injure, maim and kill civilians – often long after a conflict is over.” Though Washington, Moscow and Kiev have each declined to sign the cluster bomb treaty, he observed that a long list of US allies had already banned the munitions.

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Democrats Ilhan Omar and Sara Jacobs said they will soon introduce legislation that would impose a full-blown ban on cluster bomb transfers as part of foreign military assistance. Jacobs argued the weapons would “prevent the successful economic rebuilding and recovery that’s needed to ensure a prosperous Ukraine and maintain anti-corruption gains,” apparently referring to Kiev’s efforts to crack down on official graft as it seeks to join the NATO bloc.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Friday that US officials “recognize that cluster munitions create a risk of civilian harm from unexploded ordnance,” but defended the move after putting it off “for as long as we could.” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl refused to confirm how many bombs would be provided to Ukraine, but said that there are “hundreds of thousands” of such shells in US stockpiles.

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