Earlier this week, the international NGO Human Rights Watch released a report on an investigation it conducted into the use of cluster munitions by Ukrainian government forces, in which it concluded that the Ukrainian government is in fact guilty of the widespread use of such munitions. Cluster munitions—large explosives that disperse smaller bomblets across a wide area before impact—are banned under the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, due to the devastating impact they can have in the long term. Many of the small bomblets released by cluster munitions don’t actually explode upon impact, and instead remain dormant, creating veritable minefields that pose a great threat to civilian inhabitants of the area in the future. In the case of Ukraine, residential areas in and around the city of Donetsk in rebel-controlled Eastern Ukraine were hit with cluster munitions, as evidenced by injuries and munitions fragments left on streets, buildings, and supermarket roofs.
This report should be quite a troubling one to Western governments. How can they throw their full support behind a government that has now shown its lack of respect for international standards, and perhaps more importantly, for the safety of its own civilians? Unfortunately, the use of cluster munitions is only one of many documented abuses by the Ukrainian government. Indeed, Amnesty International has reported that government forces have carried out many summary executions, or killings without trial.
Recent requests for additional financial support by Ukraine, however, give Western governments an opportunity it would do well to take advantage of. The U.S. and other Western governments should increase pressure on Ukraine to not only put an immediate stop to its use of cluster weapons, but also to sign and ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Such pressure should be applied through the application of stringent conditions to any future financial or military assistance given to Ukraine.
If Ukraine is serious about its efforts to end the conflict in its eastern territory and reunify the country, then it must comply with international norms and take measures to halt the commission of war crimes by its armed forces.
This incident speaks perhaps to a larger issue, however, which is the U.S. and other Western governments’ history of providing assistance to countries and actors who may share the interests of the Western governments, but not the values of their citizens. The commission of war crimes and atrocities by the allies of the U.S. and other Western countries must be met by a firm response, unless they themselves would like to be considered complicit in such atrocities.