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The Biden administration will provide controversial cluster munitions to Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In a few minutes, we're going to take a look at why so many people in America are going without stable housing or living on the street. But first, the controversy over cluster munitions. The Biden administration is expected to announce a new $800 million aid package for Ukraine, and the package is expected to include those weapons. Ukraine has been asking for them, but the U.S. has resisted sending them because of concerns about risk to civilians. New research from Human Rights Watch shows that these weapons are being used by Russia and Ukraine and have already led to numerous civilian deaths and injuries. One of the leading voices opposing the use of these weapons is the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition. Sera Koulabdara chairs that group and is with us now to tell us more. Good morning.

SERA KOULABDARA: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So thank you for joining us. So more than 120 countries have signed on to an international ban on cluster munitions. The U.S., Russia and Ukraine are not among them. So could you just briefly describe the dangers that these weapons pose?

KOULABDARA: Yes. That's correct, Michel. So cluster munitions are horrific weapons for many, many reasons. And really, the folks who are making the decision to potentially transfer these weapons know these and still are not adhering to the dangers, the various reports and history that you've mentioned, right? So these cluster munitions are indiscriminate. Once they're scattered, they're scattered through a vast amount of areas, and they have very, very high failure rates, and - which means that these cluster bombs, once they're dropped, they'll continue to impact civilian lives for decades to come, as well as, you know, killing civilians today.

MARTIN: So the U.S. says that the - or U.S. officials say that the failure rate of the weapons that - in the U.S. arsenal, which they would potentially transfer to Ukraine - that the failure rate is much less and that that lessens the danger. Do you not buy that?

KOULABDARA: I would say that, you know, these - the failure rates that are reported from the Department of Defense are not as reliable. And I really point to the 2022 Congressional Research Service reports, right? This outlines that the manufacturers claim that the failure rates are between 2- to 5%. But mine clearance experts, you know, point to a rate that are higher, at about 10- to 30%. You know, I'll also point out that the cluster munitions that are currently in the U.S. arsenal are decades old, meaning that the - there's wear and tear in these weapons, right? That's why they have expiry dates. And once they're kept unused, these dud rates or failure rates will continue to increase. You know...

MARTIN: You know, it just seems like this is all a series of bad choices here. But Ukraine says it needs these cluster munitions for its counteroffensive against Russia, that these areas are already dotted with landmines. And I think the further argument that Ukraine would make is if Russia is using these cluster munitions, why shouldn't Ukraine do the same? And, you know, as I said, it's a series of bad choices in an already terrible and brutal situation. But how would you respond to that?

KOULABDARA: Yeah. You're absolutely correct, Michel. And I would say that I would urge Ukrainian leaders, as well as U.S. leaders, who are making these decisions to look at history and for the United States of America, our own history in countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, to name a few, right? You learn from the impacts and the legacies of wars that this will have on human lives - human lives, you know, lives of civilians who have a name, who have mothers, who have fathers who cares about them. You know, one of the things that I get to do as part of my role at Legacies of War, as well as being chair of the coalition, is meet with countless victims who have been impacted by cluster munitions. And I'll just point to one example in my birth country of Laos. You know, I recently visited and spoke to a gentleman named Father Yang Kum (ph) who lived through the war as a child, who was trying to survive...

MARTIN: OK.

KOULABDARA: ...In a foul trench. And decades later...

MARTIN: OK.

KOULABDARA: ...His son, who just turned 21 years of age...

MARTIN: OK.

KOULABDARA: ...Died while collecting wood and scraps from cluster munitions. So this...

MARTIN: Well, thank you for sharing that story with us, and I'm sure we'll talk more about this. That's Sera Koulabdara. She's the chair of the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition. Sera, thank you for sharing these insights with us.

KOULABDARA: And thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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