WASHINGTON – Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) on Sunday asked President Biden to reconsider his decision to send highly lethal – and controversial – cluster munitions to Ukraine as it carries out its counteroffensive against Russia.
“Cluster bombs should never be used – that’s crossing the line,” Lee told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Once you see what takes place – we know what takes place – in terms of cluster bombs being very dangerous to civilians.”
Banned by nearly 125 countries for their propensity to cause indiscriminate death and destruction to non-military targets, cluster bombs release dozens of smaller explosive submunitions that spread mid-air to hit multiple targets, similar to how multiple pellets spread from a single shotgun shell.
The danger, officials say, lies especially in the submunitions, which don’t always explode immediately and can cause damage long after they are deployed if found accidentally by an unsuspecting person.
“They don’t always immediately explode. Children can step on them,” Lee stressed on “State of the Union.”
“That’s the line we should not cross.”
The White House announced it would be sending Ukraine the weapons on Friday after criticizing Russia’s use of them just last year, stating it could constitute a “war crime” if the munitions are used against civilian targets.
The weapons are so fearsome that US law required Biden to get special permission to provide them to Kyiv since Congress in 2010 enacted severe restrictions on transferring cluster munitions to foreign nations.
“I think the president’s been doing a good job managing … Putin’s aggressive war against Ukraine, but I think that this should not happen,” Lee said on CNN. “[Biden] had to ask for a waiver under the Foreign Assistance Act just to do it, because we have been preventing the use of cluster bombs.”
Lee was one of 19 House Democrats who signed onto a statement Friday decrying Biden’s decision as running “counter to Congress’s restrictions on the transfer of these weapons and severely undermines our moral leadership.”
“We can and will continue to support our Ukrainian allies’ defense against Russia’s aggression,” the group said. “However, that support does not require we undermine the United States’ leadership in advocating for human rights around the world, enable indiscriminate harm that will only further endanger Ukrainian civilians or distance us from European partners in the conflict who are signatories to the UN Convention opposing cluster munitions.”
Asked Sunday why Biden chose to send Kyiv cluster munitions as the war passed its 500-day mark, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told ABC News the move was meant to help Ukraine strengthen its ongoing counteroffensive, which “in some ways is not going as fast as [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelensky would like.”
“They are using artillery at a very accelerated rate, as many 1000s of rounds per day,” Kirby said, adding of Ukraine’s forces: “This is literally a gunfight all along from the Donbas, all the way down toward Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, and so they’re running out of inventory.”
Kirby said the US defense industry is “trying to ramp up” the production of the howitzer artillery shells Ukraine uses most often, but said the production rate “is still not where we want it to be.”
“So we’re going to extend these additional artillery shells that have cluster bomblets in them to help bridge the gap as we ramp up production of normal 155mm artillery shells,” he said.
However, Kirby said the White House is “very mindful of concerns about civilian casualties and unexploded ordnance being picked up by civilians,” pledging that the US would also “focus with Ukraine on de-mining efforts” to help prevent the submunitions from harming the public.
“These munitions do provide a useful battlefield capability,” he told ABC’s Martha Raddatz. “I will remind that, while Russia is using them in Ukraine in an aggressive war on another country and indiscriminately killing civilians, the Ukrainians will be using these cluster munitions obviously … to defend their own territory, hitting Russian positions.
“And I think we can all agree that more civilians have been and will continue to be killed by Russian forces – with whether it’s cluster munitions, drones, missile attacks, or just frontal assaults – than will likely be hurt by the use of these cluster munitions fired at Russian positions inside Ukraine,” he added.
Kirby also parroted National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s Friday claims that the American cluster munitions the US intends to send have a far lower “dud rate”– or rate of unexploded ordnance – than that of those Russia uses.
“Russia has been using cluster munitions with high dud or failure rates of between 30 and 40 percent,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House on Friday. ” … The cluster munitions that we would provide have dud rates far below what Russia [has] … [and are] not higher than 2.5 percent.”
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