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Even as Ukraine and the United States are locked into a war aimed at evicting Russian invaders from Ukrainian soil, the three countries have one thing in common: they’re among the states that haven’t banned the controversial munitions known as cluster bombs.

Last week, the Biden administration approved the transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine. President Joe Biden legitimized the move in an interview aired on CNN this Sunday in which he disclosed that both Ukraine and the U.S. are running low on 155 mm ammunition. That admission itself was controversial, because it suggested to some, including Biden’s critics on the right, that the Russia-Ukraine war is depleting the very arsenal America needs to deter and combat a rising China.

But cluster bombs are problematic, particularly with human rights activists and others on the left. The reason? They present great danger to civilian populations, especially children.

Cluster bombs give militaries maneuverability. Each munition contains smaller munitions, or submunitions, that are dispersed across a broader range. They’re effective in destroying infrastructure or targeting concentrations of enemy forces. But many of the submunitions fail to detonate. The failure — or dud rate as it’s known — ranges from two percent to closer to 50 percent. U.S. officials contend the dud rate of American cluster bombs is far lower than those of the Russians. But they’re still dangerous, particularly for children, who have too often picked up unexploded ordinance that resemble toys — with deadly consequences.

And that’s why over 100 countries, including every Western liberal democracy except for America, are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the production and use of cluster bombs.

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Ukraine is no liberal democracy. But it is an American ally. And together, they are among the ranks of authoritarian or illiberal countries like China, India, and Russia that haven’t banned cluster bombs. The U.S. has, in fact, used them in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. And it’s provided them to Saudi Arabia, which has used them in Yemen.

When U.S. officials speak of human rights, international law, and a “rules-based order,” it’s worth keeping in mind that superpowers very often make exceptions for themselves.

The Globely News team tracks the leaders, states, networks, ideologies, and technologies that are reshaping the world order. From AI and electric vehicles to the rise of China, we've got you covered.

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