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Has the UK really ruled out cluster munitions?

Munitions for me, but not for thee. Credit: Getty

July 15, 2023 - 8:00am

When Joe Biden announced that he would be sending cluster munitions to Ukraine, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wasted no time in expressing his disapproval. In fact, such was the level of dismay that the US President felt compelled to make a pit stop at Downing Street shortly before the Nato summit later that week. During the meeting, the PM was said to have “discouraged” Biden from sending the weapons, adding that the UK could not “produce or use cluster munitions”.

The UK, unlike the US, is one of over 120 countries signed up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits all use, production, transfer and stockpiling of the explosives. But the careful wording of Sunak’s remarks are as notable for what they don’t say as for what they do.

In fact, the UK served as a key driving force behind specific clauses in the Convention which allow signatory nations to provide training in the use of cluster munitions to allied militaries that are not parties to the CMC, and logistically support their use. From London’s perspective, this would of course include Washington and Kyiv.

A military directive covering assistance on cluster munition use surfaced in 2021, over a decade after the Convention came into force in London — and even then mistakenly, in response to Freedom of Information requests from an independent researcher. A lengthy ensuing battle to keep the information in the public domain was only successful due to the Information Commissioner’s Office intervention.

The directive reveals just how partial and incomplete the munitions ban actually is. It starts by noting that the Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Act 2010 “implements the Convention’s obligations in UK law”, and prohibits cluster bomb use “from taking place at all within the UK, and by all UK nationals anywhere”.

An excerpt from the CDS Operational Directive 09/14

However, it goes on to state that Article 21 of the CMC, which is reflected in the Act, “enables continued international military operations and international military cooperation between signatory and non-signatory States, which might engage in activities prohibited in the Convention”. Moreover, the Act provides “legal defences for UK personnel operating with [cluster munitions] alongside allies from non-signatory states”, such as the US.

These “interoperability provisions” do not authorise the UK to “develop, produce or otherwise acquire” cluster bombs, and British military personnel may not be “part of a crew (within a cockpit) or individual weapons platform that dispenses” these munitions. However, they “ensure that NATO and other coalition operations can proceed without UK personnel being liable to prosecution for undertaking normal operational duties” if cluster munitions are used by non-signatories. 

“Normal operational duties” described in the directive are extraordinarily broad. While the UK armed forces “must not be in a position where they expressly request, or direct” the use of cluster munitions “to achieve a task”, soldiers “engaged in international military operations or international military cooperation” are able to “call for fire support” from an allied military, even if they know that will come in the form of cluster munitions. 

They can refuel and service allied “aircraft, vessels and vehicles”, and “perform logistical planning, handling, storage, maintenance and transport services” for associated materiel, which “may” include cluster bombs. They can also train allied soldiers in their use. 

So, in truth, it seems that the UK armed forces can do almost anything they like with cluster bombs — while evading legal consequences — as long as it’s someone or something else ultimately deploying them. 

Furthermore, US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that in May 2009, then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband approved a loophole that would allow cluster munitions to be stored on British territory, contrary to the Convention’s obligation. Officials in Whitehall manoeuvred to ensure this plan was concealed from Parliament, in case it “complicated or muddied” debate around the CMC. 

This loophole allows Washington to store cluster weapons as “temporary exceptions” and on a “case-by-case” basis for specific military operations. It could well be, then, that US cluster munitions currently stored on British territory will soon make their way to the frontline in Ukraine, for a “specific military operation”. 

In effect, contrary to Sunak’s lofty critical pronouncements, Ministry of Defence doctrine and UK law explicitly allow the British army to facilitate the use of cluster munitions.


Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist.

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Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
11 months ago

The Ukrainians want to use these weapons on their own territory – I really can’t see what the issue is.

D Walsh
D Walsh
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

I think the Ukrainians know now that they won’t be taking back the Donbass, it will be Russia’s mess to clean up

D Walsh
D Walsh
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

I think the Ukrainians know now that they won’t be taking back the Donbass, it will be Russia’s mess to clean up

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
11 months ago

The Ukrainians want to use these weapons on their own territory – I really can’t see what the issue is.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
11 months ago

“Awaiting for approval.” Is that even English, anyway?

Good to see you here, Kit.

D Walsh
D Walsh
11 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Good to see you here, Dave.

D Walsh
D Walsh
11 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Good to see you here, Dave.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
11 months ago

“Awaiting for approval.” Is that even English, anyway?

Good to see you here, Kit.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
11 months ago

Fascinating article.
The two-facedness of the UK government is symptomatic of its enduring and complete emasculation: it won’t stand up to the Americans and it won’t stand up to the humanitarian lobby at home.
At no stage does it attempt to make a decision for itself and then make the case for it. Perfect example of the feminisation of public life.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
11 months ago

Fascinating article.
The two-facedness of the UK government is symptomatic of its enduring and complete emasculation: it won’t stand up to the Americans and it won’t stand up to the humanitarian lobby at home.
At no stage does it attempt to make a decision for itself and then make the case for it. Perfect example of the feminisation of public life.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
11 months ago

A completely sensible approach. Otherwise NATO operations would be rendered impossible if one nation retained cluster munitions.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
11 months ago

A completely sensible approach. Otherwise NATO operations would be rendered impossible if one nation retained cluster munitions.

David Walters
David Walters
11 months ago

Good. The ban is virtue signalling.

David Walters
David Walters
11 months ago

Good. The ban is virtue signalling.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
11 months ago

Is there any old Agent Orange lying about? Perhaps the Americans could send that to Ukraine along with the cluster bombs? But like Russia and the United States, Ukraine has never banned cluster bombs. It is asking for other people’s because it is running out of its own. That is Rishi Sunak’s and Keir Starmer’s side. We should be on neither side.

Ukraine, and its Russian Nazi proxies inside Russia, are also deploying British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles, long-range attack drones, so-called air defence missiles, and depleted uranium, which is a weapon of mass destruction. Ministers of the Crown take to the BBC to mention quite casually that there were more British Special Forces in Ukraine than those of any other NATO member-state. Since when were such matters discussed in public?

Good to see you here, Kit.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
11 months ago

Is there any old Agent Orange lying about? Perhaps the Americans could send that to Ukraine along with the cluster bombs? But like Russia and the United States, Ukraine has never banned cluster bombs. It is asking for other people’s because it is running out of its own. That is Rishi Sunak’s and Keir Starmer’s side. We should be on neither side.

Ukraine, and its Russian Nazi proxies inside Russia, are also deploying British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles, long-range attack drones, so-called air defence missiles, and depleted uranium, which is a weapon of mass destruction. Ministers of the Crown take to the BBC to mention quite casually that there were more British Special Forces in Ukraine than those of any other NATO member-state. Since when were such matters discussed in public?

Good to see you here, Kit.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
11 months ago

Is there any old Agent Orange lying about? Perhaps the Americans could send that to Ukraine along with the cluster bombs? But like Russia and the United States, Ukraine has never banned cluster bombs. It is asking for other people’s because it is running out of its own. That is Rishi Sunak’s and Keir Starmer’s side. We should be on neither side.
Ukraine, and its deeply unsavoury proxies inside Russia, are also deploying British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles, long-range attack drones, so-called air defence missiles, and depleted uranium, which is a weapon of mass destruction. Ministers of the Crown take to the BBC to mention quite casually that there were more British Special Forces in Ukraine than those of any other NATO member-state. Since when were such matters discussed in public?
Good to see you here, Kit.

Arthur G
Arthur G
11 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Depleted Uranium, gives you a clue right there in its name. It’s depleted. It’s only weakly radioactive and is certainly not a WMD.

Arthur G
Arthur G
11 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Depleted Uranium, gives you a clue right there in its name. It’s depleted. It’s only weakly radioactive and is certainly not a WMD.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
11 months ago

Is there any old Agent Orange lying about? Perhaps the Americans could send that to Ukraine along with the cluster bombs? But like Russia and the United States, Ukraine has never banned cluster bombs. It is asking for other people’s because it is running out of its own. That is Rishi Sunak’s and Keir Starmer’s side. We should be on neither side.
Ukraine, and its deeply unsavoury proxies inside Russia, are also deploying British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles, long-range attack drones, so-called air defence missiles, and depleted uranium, which is a weapon of mass destruction. Ministers of the Crown take to the BBC to mention quite casually that there were more British Special Forces in Ukraine than those of any other NATO member-state. Since when were such matters discussed in public?
Good to see you here, Kit.

D Walsh
D Walsh
11 months ago

The West/Ukraine is almost out of ammo, so its cluster bombs or surrender

D Walsh
D Walsh
11 months ago

The West/Ukraine is almost out of ammo, so its cluster bombs or surrender

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
11 months ago

Everyone still waving those blue and yellow flags should know that they are endorsing a party to a war that is willing to use these awful, indiscriminate weapons that main and kill innocent people.

According to Human Tighths Watch: “The quantity of submunitions in each cluster munition, combined with design characteristics and environmental factors, means that some will always fail and become de facto landmines that can be set off later by unwitting civilians. Children are particularly common victims. The shape and
sometimes color of submunitions attracts them because they are curious and believe the weapons are toys. Some models resemble balls while others have a ribbon,
which makes a convenient handle for carrying or twirling 
 The duds have socioeconomic costs because they contaminate agricultural land, making it unfit for planting or harvesting.“

If you supported Princess’s Diana’s campaign to ban landmines but you’re still flying your little Ukrainian flag out of an (understandable) sympathy for a country which has suffered an illegal invasion, I would suggest you need to have a good long, hard look in the mirror. These things will be injuring and killing kids long after you have shuffled off this mortal coil. Sorry if that is upsetting but it’s time to stop this simplistic nonsense now and put the political pressure on for peace. People are suffering and dying pointless deaths in an idiotic war, and it just cannot be allowed to continue like this.

https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/11/22/meeting-challenge/protecting-civilians-through-convention-cluster-munitions

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

A hopelessly emotive response. Any battlefield contains unexploded ordnance that needs to be cleared once fighting stops. Ask anyone living near a WWI battlefield in France.
Cluster munitions are no more indiscriminate than the conventional artillery shells being used by both sides in Ukraine. Targeting civilians is a choice, not a design feature of a particular weapon. Remember, the Ukrainians will be expecting to reoccupy the ground on which they deploy cluster munitions, which gives them a strong incentive to use them in a considered manner.
Likewise landmines, which are a valuable defensive tool, as the Ukrainians are finding in their offensive. You’ll notice the Russians don’t seem to be complying with Princess Diana’s ban – the baddies never play by the rules. All the ban has achieved is to disadvantage our own forces while engaged in mortal combat.
Military law requires the location of minefields to be recorded when they are laid, to allow later clearance. Western forces did this but others – the Argentinians in 1982 and no doubt the Russians today – don’t bother. Hence, as always, the problem is the human being not the weapon.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

A hopelessly emotive response. Any battlefield contains unexploded ordnance that needs to be cleared once fighting stops. Ask anyone living near a WWI battlefield in France.
Cluster munitions are no more indiscriminate than the conventional artillery shells being used by both sides in Ukraine. Targeting civilians is a choice, not a design feature of a particular weapon. Remember, the Ukrainians will be expecting to reoccupy the ground on which they deploy cluster munitions, which gives them a strong incentive to use them in a considered manner.
Likewise landmines, which are a valuable defensive tool, as the Ukrainians are finding in their offensive. You’ll notice the Russians don’t seem to be complying with Princess Diana’s ban – the baddies never play by the rules. All the ban has achieved is to disadvantage our own forces while engaged in mortal combat.
Military law requires the location of minefields to be recorded when they are laid, to allow later clearance. Western forces did this but others – the Argentinians in 1982 and no doubt the Russians today – don’t bother. Hence, as always, the problem is the human being not the weapon.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
11 months ago

Everyone still waving those blue and yellow flags should know that they are endorsing a party to a war that is willing to use these awful, indiscriminate weapons that main and kill innocent people.

According to Human Tighths Watch: “The quantity of submunitions in each cluster munition, combined with design characteristics and environmental factors, means that some will always fail and become de facto landmines that can be set off later by unwitting civilians. Children are particularly common victims. The shape and
sometimes color of submunitions attracts them because they are curious and believe the weapons are toys. Some models resemble balls while others have a ribbon,
which makes a convenient handle for carrying or twirling 
 The duds have socioeconomic costs because they contaminate agricultural land, making it unfit for planting or harvesting.“

If you supported Princess’s Diana’s campaign to ban landmines but you’re still flying your little Ukrainian flag out of an (understandable) sympathy for a country which has suffered an illegal invasion, I would suggest you need to have a good long, hard look in the mirror. These things will be injuring and killing kids long after you have shuffled off this mortal coil. Sorry if that is upsetting but it’s time to stop this simplistic nonsense now and put the political pressure on for peace. People are suffering and dying pointless deaths in an idiotic war, and it just cannot be allowed to continue like this.

https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/11/22/meeting-challenge/protecting-civilians-through-convention-cluster-munitions

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
11 months ago

In old military banter, the ” hew kaye” is a Clusterf..k

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
11 months ago

In old military banter, the ” hew kaye” is a Clusterf..k