Cluster bombs are being used during the Russian army invasion of Ukraine. According to Amnesty International, on February 25, cluster bombs hit a kindergarten in the town of Okhtyrka, in northeastern Ukraine, killing three people, including a child. Human Rights Watch said that on February 28, Russian forces fired cluster bombs into at least three residential areas in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
Jeff Abramson, from the Arms Control Association told me, “As the swift attention to and increasing condemnation of Russia’s use of cluster munitions makes clear, these weapons are simply unacceptable. All countries should ban them.” As of March 7, 15 States have condemned the use of cluster bombs.
In addition, the cluster munition attacks have also been condemned by the President of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, NATO Secretary-General, UN Human Rights Commissioner and the Cluster Munition Coalition (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Mines Advisory Group, Norwegian People’s Aid, and PAX).
These attacks may constitute war crimes, since they were carried out in violation of accepted international rules of war. “Using cluster munitions in populated areas shows a brazen and callous disregard for people’s lives,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch.
Cluster bombs eject explosive bomblets (little bombs) designed to kill indiscriminately and destroy vehicles over a wide expanse. Unexploded bomblets can continue killing or maiming civilians long after a conflict has ended and are very costly to find and remove.
Nations that ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions adopted in Dublin, Ireland, in May 2008, are prohibited from using them. This Convention entered into force and became binding international law on 1 August 2010. The Convention on Cluster Munitions “bans the stockpiling, use and transfer of virtually all existing cluster bombs, and provides for the clearing up of unexploded munitions.”
As of 10 February 2022, a total of 123 states had joined the Convention, 110 as states parties and 13 as signatories. Many of the world’s major military powers, including the United States, Russia, Brazil and China, are not signatories of that treaty. The treaty’s obligations became legally binding after 30 states ratified the convention, and subsequently for all other ratifying states.
In May 2008, then-Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Stephen Mull stated that the U.S. military relies on cluster munitions as an important part of their defense strategy. “U.S. forces simply cannot fight by design or by doctrine without holding out at least the possibility of using cluster munitions,” he said, neglecting the brutality of their use.
Since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, at least 31 nations have produced cluster munitions, among them China, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, North Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. As of September 2018, at least 57 countries have stockpiles of cluster munitions.
More than one hundred countries have agreed in principle that their stockpiles of cluster munitions should be destroyed. However, at least 17 countries have used cluster munitions in recent times. Among those countries are France, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sudan, Syria, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Because of the high number of civilians killed or maimed by these munitions their use has been condemned by many human rights groups and organizations such as the United Nations, the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Cluster Munition Coalition and Doctors Without Borders.
Since 2005, Handicap International has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to support its campaign to ban these weapons. It says that 98 percent of their recorded cluster munitions casualties are civilians, and 27 percent among them are children. “Cluster bombs reveal the perverse use of technology,” told me recently Carlos Duguech, an Argentinian peace activist.
That children and innocent civilians can be indiscriminately killed by these dangerous weapons makes it urgent the need for all countries to ban them permanently. It can be argued that, in these irrational times, banning cluster bombs is not a priority. On the contrary, by banning these weapons, leading powers would prove that irrationality and wanton cruelty don’t always guide their actions.