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Cluster munitions: horrific weapons that massacre civilians

Explosive weapons
International Laos

Cluster munitions have been banned since 2010 with the entry into force of the Oslo Convention, which prohibits their use, production, storage and transfer. Humanity & Inclusion has made a significant contribution to this progress. Why has the organisation committed to cluster munitions? Anne Héry, advocacy director at HI, answers questions about the impact of cluster munitions in 2017.

Blu-24 cluster munitions dropped on Laod in the 1960s and 70s

Blu-24 cluster munitions dropped on Laod in the 1960s and 70s | © Z. Johnson/HI

Why are cluster munitions banned?

This weapon is by nature indiscriminate, i.e. it does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. And this is contrary to International Humanitarian Law. Therefore, as part of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), HI has called for its ban, which we obtained in 2008 with the adoption of the Oslo Convention, which came into force two years later.

How does a cluster munition work?

A cluster muniton (or cluster bomb) is a large container that is most often dropped by air. Once in the air, this container opens and scatters hundreds of small bombs called "submunitions". Cluster bombs therefore have no precision. Their impact radius can be equivalent to a football field. If you are targeting a military warehouse, you will inevitably impact the surrounding infrastructure. This is simply unacceptable.

But there is a second effect: up to 40% of the submunitions, sometimes no bigger than a tennis ball, do not explode on impact. They remain on the ground and can be active and dangerous for decades, acting as antipersonnel mines. They can explode if we pass close by or if they are accidentally picked up.

Laos is the most striking example of cluster muniton pollution. Cluster munitons were dropped on the east of the country in the 1960s. Today, people are still being killed and seriously injured by these weapons. HI is helping victims of cluster bombs in the same way that it helps landmine victims.

What prompted HI to engage in this area of work?

The fact that cluster munitions are inherently indiscriminate weapons and effectively become antipersonnel mines, which HI has campaigned against since the early 1990s.

In the countries where we work, we observe that injuries caused by cluster munitions are often equivalent to those caused by landmines. The explosion of a submunition can sever limbs and lacerate the body. Victims often have have limbs amputated and undergo physical rehabilitation. They can suffer permanent disability with all the social, economic and psychological consequences that comes with that.

Has the Oslo Convention changed things?

The universalisation of the Convention has seen undeniable progress over the past seven years. There are now 119 member countries, including 102 States Parties, making it an effective instrument against these weapons.

Fortunately these horrific weapons are increasingly stigmatized. This means that more and more states are expressing official condemnations when these barbaric weapons are used, thus isolating the user country. Thanks to the destruction of stocks and the ban on their marketing, this weapon Is less and less accessible. Some arms companies have stopped producing them because markets are drying up.

Are countries still producing cluster munitions?

This is very difficult to say because the armaments sector is not very transparent. 16 countries (Brazil, China, North Korea, South Korea, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Russian Federation, Singapore, Turkey and the United States are expected to continue producing cluster munitions or reserve the right to produce them in the future. A lack of transparency and data makes it possible to establish whether these countries have recently produced them.

Another problem is the existing stockpiles of these weapons. There are still millions of cluster munitions in military arsenals ... That is why their destruction is one of the obligations of the Convention.

On this point one can be optimistic: Since the entry into force of the Convention on 1st August 2010, 28 States Parties have destroyed 1.4 million cluster munition stockpiles, ie 175 million submunitions. This represents 97% of all cluster munitions and 98% of submunitions declared by States Parties.

8 States have finalized clearance of their areas contaminated by cluster munitions since the Oslo Convention entered into force in 2010.

The annual Cluster Munitions Monitor report is released on 31st August 2017.

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