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Ukraine’s Right to Use Cluster Munitions

Critics of cluster munitions are negating Ukraine’s right to self-defense.

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In its recent attack on the Russian city of Belgorod, Ukraine has been accused of using cluster munitions, a weapon that many states and NGOs regard as unacceptable. Ukraine faced stinging criticism for acquiring that weapon earlier this year, often from people who claim to support its right to self-defense.

In July 2023, when president Biden announced that the U.S. would send cluster munitions to Ukraine, many voices criticized his decision, despite nominally supporting Ukraine in its fight against the Russian aggressors. Why then do they oppose the munitions, instead of fully embracing Ukraine’s right to self-defense?

Cluster munitions are bombs that target larger areas by scattering many smaller “bomblets.” Why do the critics object? “At a time when the United States and its allies often claim — inaccurately — to carry out precision killing with ‘surgical strikes,’ cluster bombs are imprecise by nature,” complains Khury Petersen-Smith from the Institute for Policy Studies. The worry is that such imprecise weapons could kill innocent people.

Critics point to another problem with cluster munitions: some of the smaller bombs are duds that fail to explode. Later, they “act like landmines, posing a threat to civilians for years and even decades.”

For these reasons, many believe that no one should use this weaponry, including Ukraine. (Russia has used them extensively.) “Both sides should immediately stop using them and not try to get more of these indiscriminate weapons,” claims Mary Wareham from Human Rights Watch. Biden’s decision was also criticized  by Amnesty International.

Instead, they claim, the U.S. and Ukraine should ratify the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions that bans using, producing, stockpiling, or transferring cluster munitions, already signed by over one hundred countries.

This is morally outrageous.

Ukraine is the victim of Russia’s aggression, and thus it is morally entitled to do everything in its power to defend itself, deploying the weapons it judges most effective.

While Ukrainians are fighting for their survival in response to an unjustified invasion, “human rights” organizations tell them that they can do so, but only under specified conditions. While Russia is destroying everything — not only military bases, but also the infrastructure, cities, towns, and even villages — and while Russian soldiers commit heinous and despicable crimes (in documented massacres and bombardments of Bucha, Irpin, and Mariupol), they tell the Ukrainian forces not to use a very effective weapon against trenches, artillery, and vehicle convoys.

What we all should acknowledge — and most of us do — is that Ukraine has a moral right to self-defense. But nominal supporters of Ukraine who would deny it this effective weapon are in reality negating this right. If allowed to fight only under these constraints, Ukraine would no longer be acting by right, but by permission. Consequently, such critics are disarming Ukraine and demanding that its forces become martyrs sacrificing themselves on the altar of international conventions about the conduct of war.

Contrary to what the critics of cluster munitions would like to believe, war is not a medieval tournament with set and predetermined rules of conduct. It entails the use of physical force where what is at stake is a nation’s sovereignty or even existence.

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But, some say, Ukraine should forego this weapon because unexploded “duds” might go off accidentally  in a future peacetime and harm Ukrainian civilians.

This perspective ignores how many Ukrainian lives will be taken if Russia is not stopped and the Ukrainian counter-offensive fails. Think how many Buczas and Irpins this would allow. It is also relevant that this land will not be Ukraine’s if Russia is not defeated. Given Ukraine’s purpose of saving the lives of its citizens, it has every reason to offset risks (as it has announced); for example, by keeping a record of where such munitions are used and, postwar, systematically clearing away any unexploded duds.

'Contrary to what the critics of cluster munitions believe, war is not a medieval tournament with set and predetermined rules of conduct. It entails the use of physical force where at stake is a nation’s sovereignty or even existence.' Share on X

Because Ukraine has a right to self-defense, the Ukrainian forces not only have a right to use cluster munitions, but they have a moral obligation to do so if it’s a necessary means to protect their country. While civilian casualties are regrettable, they are exclusively the responsibility of the aggressor: Russia.

Ukraine, fighting for its survival against an unjust attack, deserves our moral support of its right to self-defense. But the critics of Ukraine’s use of cluster munitions fail to grasp that supporting this right means doing so on principle. Fortunately, the Ukrainians understand that war is not a game and are using cluster munitions against the aggressors. I, for one, fully support their moral right to use this. And if you believe in their right to self-defense, you should too.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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Ziemowit Gowin

Ziemowit Gowin, PhD candidate in philosophy, is a junior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and web editor of New Ideal.

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