President Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal for the first time Wednesday for atrocities in Ukraine, as the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on whether Russian forces have been using cluster munitions in populated areas in Ukraine. Cluster bombs explode in midair and spew hundreds of smaller “bomblets.” The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said their use in Ukraine may amount to war crimes. We speak to Stephen Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, about the use of cluster bombs in the war in Ukraine and how Russia, Ukraine and the United States are not signatories to the international treaty banning cluster bombs. “It’s willing to criticize other peoples’ use but insists on the right to use them itself,” Goose says of the U.S.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
President Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal for the first time Wednesday for atrocities in Ukraine. He made the comment while being questioned by a reporter after a White House event. Biden initially told the reporter Putin was not a war criminal, then reversed course after briefly walking away. Listen closely. There’s a crowd.
REPORTER: Mr. President, after everything we’ve seen, are you ready to call Putin a war criminal?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No. … Did you ask me whether I would call —
REPORTER: Putin a war criminal, sir. Are you ready to call him a war criminal?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Oh, I think he is a war criminal.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on whether Russian forces have been using cluster munitions in populated areas in Ukraine. Cluster bombs explode in midair and spew hundreds of smaller “bomblets.” This is Bonnie Docherty, senior researcher in the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch, testifying in yesterday’s congressional hearing.
BONNIE DOCHERTY: Russia has been using cluster munitions in Ukraine since the beginning of its full-scale invasion. On February 24th, Russian forces launched a cluster munition ballistic missile that struck near a hospital in the Donetsk region, killing four civilians and wounding 10. Four days later, Russian rockets with cluster munition warheads rained submunitions down on three neighborhoods in the city of Kharkiv. And you saw the video of that earlier. One resident told Human Rights Watch, quote, “The bangs lasted for about two minutes. When I went out, I saw three covered bodies lying in the street and one wounded person being taken away by emergency services.”
AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine may amount to war crimes. This is Liz Throssell.
ELIZABETH THROSSELL: Due to their wide area effects, the use of cluster munitions in populated areas is incompatible with international humanitarian law principles governing the conduct of hostilities.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the Biden administration’s mission to the United Nations amended remarks made by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, that she made to the U.N. General Assembly last week, in which she condemned Russia’s use of cluster munitions.
LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’ve seen videos of Russian forces moving exceptionally lethal weaponry into Ukraine which has no place on the battlefield. That includes cluster munitions and vacuum bombs, which are banned under the Geneva Convention.
AMY GOODMAN: Within hours of those remarks, the U.S. Mission to the U.N. edited Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s transcript, changing her comments to read that the weapons have no place on the battlefield if they’re directed against civilians. See, the United States fought against the creation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions and is not among the 110 nations that have ratified the treaty. The U.S. has repeatedly used cluster bombs throughout its history, dropping them over Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq and elsewhere. Under President Barack Obama in 2009, a U.S. cluster bomb attack in Yemen killed 55 people, the majority of whom were women and children. Russia and Ukraine also have not signed on to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
For more, we’re joined by Steve Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, co-founder of the Global Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
Steve, welcome back to Democracy Now!
STEPHEN GOOSE: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: If you can start off by talking about why cluster bombs are so heinous, what this treaty is about, and the fact that the U.S. has not denied it, that they had to amend the comments of the U.N. ambassador, who first said something very logical, that there’s no place for cluster bombs, but then had to remove that tweet?
STEPHEN GOOSE: Yes. Thank you very much for having me on.
The U.S. has had sort of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to cluster munitions, where it’s willing to criticize other people’s use but insists on the right to use them itself, as you say, in multiple locations around the world for decades now. The Convention on Cluster Munitions now has 110 states parties. The U.S., Russia, Ukraine are not among them, but international law still applies to the use of cluster munitions.
And this is an inherently indiscriminate weapon. You asked what is particularly heinous about it. It’s just that it kills civilians at the time of attack, because of the widespread, indiscriminate nature of the weapon, and then it also kills civilians for years to come, as many of these submunitions, the little bomblets that you described, don’t explode on contact but remain armed and act like little landmines that sit there for days, weeks, months, years to come.
AMY GOODMAN: And if you could comment on why the U.N. ambassador — why she had to delete that tweet, or the office?
STEPHEN GOOSE: Yes, this is why I say a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde approach. What she said is not in keeping with what the U.S. generally says about cluster munitions. What she said was the truth, that these weapons have no place on the battlefield. But the powers that be overrode that assessment and said that you shouldn’t use them against civilians. Well, that’s true, but you shouldn’t use them at all. That’s why they’re internationally banned.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Steve, could you speak specifically — of course, we were just speaking to our Syrian guest, Waad. And according to the Cluster Munition Monitor, which is the research arm of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, they found that since 2012, 80% of the casualties from attacks and unexploded munitions, cluster munitions, were in Syria. So, as we mentioned, and you did, too, only 110 countries are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and among them, the ones that are not signatories are Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine. Could you explain why — I mean, there are 195 countries in the world — why so many have refused to sign?
STEPHEN GOOSE: Most — excuse me — most of those who have signed — who have not signed are still obeying the international norm that is emerging against these weapons. You don’t see widespread use of these weapons like you did in the past. It’s only those who are willing to withstand the international condemnation that rains down when these weapons are used. Hundred and ten is a pretty good number. And the degree to which it’s recognized that these weapons shouldn’t be used anywhere, anytime by anybody — the degree to which that’s recognized is quite impressive, in fact.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you talk specifically, Steve, about the use of cluster munitions by Russia in Ukraine?
STEPHEN GOOSE: Yeah. It started immediately upon the invasion. You heard my colleague Bonnie Docherty talk about an attack on February 24th that hit a hospital, landed very near a hospital. And they have continued to use cluster munitions throughout the fighting. In fact, we put out a report just this morning documenting repeated attacks of cluster munitions in a major city in southern Ukraine, Mykolaiv, which killed any number of civilians and injured many more. So, this is not an isolated incident that we’ve seen, but instead a pattern of use.
AMY GOODMAN: And there’s use by all three parties — Ukraine, Russia and the United States. If you could talk about the strike documented by Human Rights Watch that took place in the Ukrainian government-controlled Donetsk region in February 24th, the first day of the invasion, the attack killing four civilians and injuring another 10?
STEPHEN GOOSE: Yes. Well, you’ve captured it there. When you’re striking near — when you’re in civilian areas, you’re almost always going to have multiple casualties that arise. Using them near a hospital is particularly heinous. They’re a protected body under international law. So, the fact that you’re willing to use a banned weapon against a protected place is really egregious.
AMY GOODMAN: So, at this point, Steve Goose, as we wrap up and as we move into the fourth week of this invasion, if you can talk about the importance of countries signing on to these international treaties, whether we’re talking about the International Criminal Court — which the U.S. is talking about a lot, but in fact has not completely endorsed, has not ratified?
STEPHEN GOOSE: That’s right. The U.S. has sort of a treaty phobia approach, that was particularly noticeable under the Trump administration but is still part and parcel of the U.S. international approach. It’s very busy right now trying to build international coalitions against Russia, but at the same time it refuses to join most of its allies in joining important treaties like the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Mine Ban Treaty, that comprehensively bans anti-personnel mines. These are lifesaving conventions. These are conventions that are in keeping with the desire to protect civilians, both during conflict and for years afterwards.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch. We thank you so much for being with us. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.