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Unease grows over US sending cluster bombs to Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 22: U.S. President Joe Biden meets with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) in the Oval Office of the White House on May 22, 2023 in Washington, DC. Biden and McCarthy were meeting to discuss raising the debt limit in an effort to avoid a default by the federal government.   Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
US President Joe Biden says it had taken him "a while to be convinced to do it", but he acted because "the Ukrainians are running out of ammunition". Photo: AFP

Several allies of the US have expressed unease at Washington's decision to supply Ukraine with cluster bombs.

On Friday, the US confirmed it was sending the controversial weapons to Ukraine, with President Joe Biden calling it a "very difficult decision".

In response, the UK, Canada and Spain all pointed out that they were opposed to the use of the weapons.

Cluster bombs have been banned by more than 100 countries because of the danger they pose to civilians.

They typically release large numbers of smaller bomblets that can kill indiscriminately over a wide area, while those that fail to explode pose a danger for decades after a conflict ends.

Biden told CNN in an interview on Friday that he had spoken to allies about the decision, which was part of a military aid package worth US$800 million (NZ$1.3 billion).

The president said it had taken him "a while to be convinced to do it", but he had acted because "the Ukrainians are running out of ammunition".

The decision was quickly criticised by human rights groups, with Amnesty International saying cluster munitions pose "a grave threat to civilian lives, even long after the conflict has ended".

On Saturday, some Western allies of the US refused to endorse its decision.

When asked about his position on the US decision, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak highlighted the UK was one of 123 countries that had signed up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the production or use of cluster munitions and discourages their use.

Spain's Defence Minister Margarita Robles went further, telling reporters her country had a "firm commitment" that certain weapons and bombs could not be sent to Ukraine.

"No to cluster bombs and yes to the legitimate defence of Ukraine, which we understand should not be carried out with cluster bombs," she said.

A casing of a cluster bomb rocket lays on the snow-covered ground in Zarichne on February 6, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A casing of a cluster bomb rocket lays on the snow-covered ground in Zarichne on 6 February, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: AFP / Yasuyoshi Chiba

The Canadian government said it was particularly concerned about the potential impact of the bombs - which sometimes lie undetonated for many years - on children.

It also said it was against the use of the cluster bombs and remained fully compliant with the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

"Canada is fully compliant with the Convention and we take seriously our obligation under the Convention to encourage its universal adoption," it said in a statement.

The US, Ukraine and Russia have not signed up to the convention, while both Moscow and Kyiv have used cluster bombs during the war.

Meanwhile, Germany, which is a signatory of the treaty, said that while it would not provide such weapons to Ukraine, it understood the American position.

"We're certain that our US friends didn't take the decision about supplying such ammunition lightly," German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit told reporters in Berlin.

Ukraine's defence minister has given assurances the cluster bombs would not be used in urban areas and only to break through enemy defence lines.

The munitions have caused controversy over their failure - or dud - rate, meaning unexploded small bombs can linger on the ground for years and indiscriminately detonate later on.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the American cluster bombs being sent to Ukraine were far safer than those he said were already being used by Russia in the conflict.

He told reporters the US ones have a dud rate of less than 2.5 percent, while Russia's have a dud rate of between 30-40 percent, he said.

Biden's move will bypass US law prohibiting the production, use or transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than 1 percent.

Paramedics evacuate a heavily injured man after a cluster bomb strike in Kramatorsk in the Donbas region on March 18, 2023.
Paramedics evacuate a heavily injured man after a cluster bomb strike in Kramatorsk in the Donbas region on 18 March, 2023. Photo: AFP / Aris Messinis

The US Cluster Munition Coalition, which is part of an international civil society campaign working to eradicate the weapons, said they would cause "greater suffering, today and for decades to come".

The UN human rights office has also been critical, with a representative saying "the use of such munitions should stop immediately and not be used in any place".

A spokesperson for Russia's defence ministry described the move as an "act of desperation" and "evidence of impotence in the face of the failure of the much-publicised Ukrainian 'counter-offensive'."

Russia's foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova also said Ukraine's assurances it would use the cluster munitions responsibly were "not worth anything".

Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously accused the US and its allies of fighting an expanding proxy war in Ukraine.

Ukraine's counter-offensive, which began last month, is grinding on in the eastern Donetsk and south-eastern Zaporizhzhia regions.

Last week, Ukraine's military commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny said the campaign had been hampered by a lack of adequate firepower. He expressed frustration with the slow deliveries of weapons promised by the West.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the US president for "a timely, broad and much-needed" military aid package.

- This story was originally published by the BBC.