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Putting a stop to
cluster munitions


After decades of failure and persistent civilian suffering caused by cluster munitions, global concern is gaining momentum to put an end to these terrible weapons.


Cluster munitions have killed and injured tens of thousands of innocent civilians since they were first used during the Second World War. Twelve-year-old Ahmed is one of the latest victims. Ahmed lives in Lebanon, where the war in 2006 showed the devastation these weapons cause when used on a large scale. “I was playing football near my home when the ball hit something and exploded,” says Ahmed, who was seriously injured. The United Nations (UN) estimates that 4 million submunitions were dropped in Lebanon, of which 1 million failed to detonate.

“From the perspective of many armed forces, cluster munitions give value for money — they can be mass produced and they provide a fairly easy way of saturating a given area with explosive effect and fragmentation,” explains Ben Lark, mine action coordinator for the ICRC. These deadly weapons are comparatively simple, consisting of canisters that can be dropped from a plane or delivered by a missile or shell. The canister is meant to open in mid-air, ejecting up to 650 smaller bomblets or submunitions packed with explosives that detonate on impact. Often, the bomblets fail to detonate — this type of ammunition is notoriously inaccurate and unreliable.

Who suffers?

“Unexploded submunitions tend to look fairly innocent. They take the form of small, sometimes brightly coloured objects, often lying on the ground,” explains Lark. “When people, particularly children, find them in their gardens or yards, they are likely to pick them up. The result may be serious injury or death.”

When cluster munitions are used in a populated area or miss their intended target, the consequences can be devastating. Those submunitions that detonate spray metal shards all around, while an estimated 10 per cent to 30 per cent or more fail to go off, contaminating large areas of land and threatening aid and reconstruction efforts.

During the Kosovo conflict in 1999, the ICRC collected data showing that cluster munitions accounted for over a third of the almost 500 civilian casualties – about the same number as caused by landmines and all other types of munitions together. Children under 14 were nearly five times more likely to be killed or injured by cluster munitions than by anti-personnel mines.

Action to limit their use

Following the success of the campaign to ban anti-personnel mines, there is a growing international outcry against the use of cluster munitions. “Most of these weapons were designed, produced and bought during the Cold War. Yet they are now being used in completely different scenarios and contexts — in villages, towns, even cities, and in developing countries. Ironically, they are also being used by international forces intervening in the name of humanitarian causes and protection of the population,” explains Peter Herby, head of the ICRC’s Arms Unit.

Surprisingly, no treaty specifically regulates the use of cluster munitions. These devices are classed as conventional weapons, and their use comes under the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL). IHL says that they must not cause damage to civilians that is out of proportion to the military advantage gained by their use. Nor may they be used to hit military and civilian objects indiscriminately. Lastly, all feasible precautions must to be taken to prevent civilians from being killed or injured as a result of their use.

“It is difficult to expect the rules to be implemented scrupulously by states,” says Herby. “Given the unreliability and inaccuracy of this weapon, discriminate and proportional use is next to impossible. We therefore need specific laws regulating its use.”

The Kosovo and Lebanon conflicts proved once again that the use of cluster munitions was inappropriate, prompting the ICRC to call on states to immediately end the use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions, prohibit their use against any military objective located in a populated area, eliminate stocks of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions and, pending their destruction, not transfer such weapons to other countries.

In August 2007, on the basis of these provisions, the ICRC called for a new IHL treaty which includes an important point: “To provide for victim assistance, the clearance of cluster munitions and activities to minimize the impact of these weapons on civilian populations.”

An ICRC initiative in 2000 following the Kosovo conflict met with limited success in the form of a protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), making all parties to an armed conflict responsible for clearing their unexploded ordnance or providing assistance for doing so. They are also required to make information on the types and locations of munitions available promptly. The protocol contains no restrictions on the use of cluster munitions and no requirement to reduce their high failure rates. Nor does it address the high risk or indiscriminate effects of a cluster munitions attack when the submunitions do not detonate, particularly if the attack is carried out on a populated area.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has joined the effort to address these legal shortfalls. The efforts of the Norwegian Red Cross helped convince its government to issue a moratorium on the use of cluster munitions, pending an international ban. “National Societies have a unique insight into the humanitarian consequences of cluster munitions, and therefore have an obligation to lobby decision-makers to make the right choices,” says Preben Marcussen, adviser to the Norwegian Red Cross.

Outright ban

“Cluster munitions contamination was unprecedented following the Lebanon conflict in 2006. Most were dropped in what we believe was the last 72 hours of the war,” says Chris Clarke, head of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre in Lebanon.

The Lebanon situation, coupled with mounting frustration at the lack of progress in the CCW, where unanimous agreement from all participating states is required, prompted an initiative outside the CCW led by Norway. It commits countries to negotiating and adopting a treaty with very high standards. In February 2007, representatives from 46 countries issued the “Oslo Declaration” calling for an international treaty to be concluded by 2008 that will prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

Cluster munitions are now being debated by states, both at the CCW and through the Norwegian initiative. The fact that two sets of rules on cluster munitions are being negotiated at the same time does present potential problems, as neither may gain universal recognition — or worse, states may adopt an “à la carte” approach to the law.

Although it is hard to predict how this will resolve itself, under the Norwegian initiative a significant number of states remain determined to negotiate a regulatory treaty on cluster munitions within a year. While it may be too late for young Ahmed and others who have been injured or killed by cluster munitions, this treaty will remove a major threat to innocent people caught up in future wars and conflicts.







Ahmed, 12, was injured by a cluster munition while playing football in Lebanon.



ICRC Operational response

The ICRC is undertaking preventive “mine action” activities in 27 countries. These are either implemented as part of ICRC operations or are run by National Societies with ICRC support. Activities focus on reducing the impact of mines and explosive remnants of war, including cluster munitions, through data gathering, risk reduction and risk education. In areas of armed conflict, the ICRC provides direct first-aid support to victims and to National Societies’ first-aid services. The ICRC also runs or supports physical rehabilitation services for disabled people in 23 countries.




Small and apparently innocuous, up to 30 per cent of submunitions fail to detonate.



Facts and figures

Thirty-four countries have produced cluster munitions and 75 countries are currently stockpiling them. Existing cluster munitions stockpiles contain billions of individual explosive submunitions. In 2005, the reported active US stockpile contained nearly 730 million submunitions; stockpiles in Russia and China are likely to be comparable in scale.
Countries and territories where cluster munitions have been used: Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Chad, Chechnya, Croatia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Falklands/Malvinas, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Montenegro, Saudi Arabia, Serbia (including Kosovo), Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, United Kingdom, ex-USSR, Viet Nam and Western Sahara.
Source: Human Rights Watch

Estimated global casualties caused by cluster munitions range from 56,218 to 64,982, of which 275 were military, 3,906 unknown, and the remainder civilian.
Source: Handicap International

Marko Kokic
Marko Kokic is ICRC print and photo editor.



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