Frequently Asked Questions about
1. What are cluster munitions?
Cluster munitions are weapons that include cargo containers and
submunitions. The cargo containers are fired, launched or dropped
by aircraft or land-based artillery. The containers open over
a target area and disperse large numbers of the submunitions that
are designed to explode when they hit the target. Most of these
submunitions are fragmentation weapons that include a shaped charge
so that they are effective against soldiers as well as armoured
vehicles. The vast majority of cluster munitions contain hundreds
of submunitions that are unguided and that cover one square kilometre
with explosions and shrapnel.
Cluster munitions are also called cluster bombs or cluster weapons.
Submunitions are sometimes called bomblets.
2. Why are they a problem for civilians?
Cluster munitions pose a problem for civilians
during attacks because they cover such a wide area with explosions
and shrapnel. The 'footprint' of a cluster munition can be one
square kilometre. This means that when they are used in or near
populated areas they cannot distinguish between military targets
and civilians located within that footprint. Most modern conflicts
have involved considerable fighting within urban settings. Most
modern military forces include cluster munitions as a major component
of their war fighting strategy. This means that cluster munitions
are likely to cause serious problems for civilians during future
This is not the only problem cluster munitions pose. Because of
the large number of submunitions in each weapon as well as the
number of submunitions that fail to explode as intended, areas
bombarded with cluster munitions become contaminated with unexploded
ordnance. These unexploded submunitions can explode when children
pick them up and play with them, they can explode when people
hit them with a tool while farming and sometimes they are sensitive
enough to function like a landmine. The presence of such unexploded
submunitions puts lives and livelihoods at risk for a long time
after a conflict.
3. Why are cluster munitions more of a
problem than other weapons?
Cluster munitions are qualitatively and
quantitatively different from unitary bombs and other weapons.
Weapons designed to destroy enemy targets over an area are called
area weapons. All area weapons pose problems when used in areas
of civilian concentration. However, the exsplosive force of a
cluster munition strike covers a considerably wider area than
other area weapons such as an equivalent high explosive artillery
strike. Cluster munitions impact over an area that is wider than
the target or targets of the weapon. By definition this means
they will strike any non-military objectives within their footprint.
So civilians are at a substantially higher risk of being killed
or injured when a cluster munition is dropped or fired on a military
target located in or near a populated area.
The amount and the density of unexploded ordnance contamination
from a cluster munition strike are much higher than the UXO contamination
from other weapons. This makes them much more likely to threaten
civilians after a conflict than other weapons.
These two problematic aspects make cluster munitions stand out
as a weapon system that requires new international law to stop
it killing civilians during and after conflicts.
4. If armed forces cannot use cluster
munitions against a target, won't they just have to use something
else that might be worse for civilians?
Armed forces must abide by the rules of
war at all times and because of their design and the way they
are used, it is very difficult to abide by the rules of war when
using cluster munitions in modern conflicts. It is not consistent
with international humanitarian law to say 'If we don't violate
IHL this way then we will have to violate IHL even worse another
way.' Furthermore, just because armed forces may not use cluster
bombs, it does not mean to say that they would have to use large
numbers of unitary bombs instead. There are other options available.
Armed forces have invested a lot in precision-guided weapons to
avoid killing and injuring civilians. The use of cluster munitions
belies that commitment to civilian protection.
5. But what about new generation precision-guided
cluster munitions? Do they pose the same threat during attacks?
The campaign to stop the use of cluster
munitions has grown from an observed problem on the ground. This
problem was brought about by the use of cluster munitions that
contain large numbers of submunitions that are not guided and
that fall to their target freely. These inaccurate and unreliable
cluster munitions still make up the vast majority of global stockpiles
of the weapon. New cluster munitions that are precision guided
have not been widely used and no assessments of their impact on
civilians have been made. A weapon that contains a small number
of submunitions that are precision guided may not fit the definition
of what the CMC is campaigning against. However, it is up to governments
to provide evidence showing that this is the case. The emergence
of new weapon systems does not exonerate governments from taking
action against weapons that have indiscriminate effects.
6. And what about new cluster munitions
with submunitions that self-destruct if they fail to explode on
impact? Won't they prevent the UXO problems in the future?
Efforts to reduce the number of UXO from
cluster munitions would reduce the threat from the weapon if they
were successful and if the more reliable weapons were available
to all. But we have been waiting 50 years for a reliable system
and claims of reliability have consistently fallen short during
actual use. How many more people will need to die?
In any case, by continuing to produce and sell cluster munitions
with high failure rates, manufacturers have shown that they don't
believe it is even worth the cost to improve reliability anyway.
In addition if increased reliability led to an increase in the
numbers of cluster munitions used and the number of situations
in which they are used this would heighten both their immediate
impact and their post-conflict impact.
7. Who has used these weapons?
The following countries have used cluster
munitions: Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, Israel, Netherlands, Nigeria,
Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Sudan, United Kingdom, United States.
8. Where have they been used and where
are the worst problems?
Cluster munitions have been used in: Afghanistan,
Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cambodia, Chad, Croatia, Eritrea,
Ethiopia, Iraq, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Russia (Chechnya), Saudi
Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Yugoslavia (including
The most contaminated areas are Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq, Laos,
Kosovo and Vietnam.
9. Which countries have these weapons?
The following countries currently stockpile
cluster munitions: Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Australia, Austria,
Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina,
Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic,
Denmark, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany,
Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy,
Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Korea, North, Korea, South, Kuwait,
Libya, Moldova, Mongolia, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Oman,
Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia and Montenegro,
Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland,
Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates,
United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan, Yemen
10. How many civilians have been killed
by cluster munitions?
There is no verifiable figure on the number
of civilians killed or injured by cluster munitions. However,
indivdual reports from specific conflicts where cluster munitions
were used indicate that they make a significant portion of the
civilian casualties in these conflicts. For example, Human Rights
Watch reported in 2003 that cluster munitions used by Coalition
Forces killed hundreds of civilians in Iraq. In addition unexploded
ordnance from cluster munitions has killed thousands of civilians
in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam alone. Based on the consequences
of their past use, continued use of cluster munitions will lead
to more civilian deaths and injuries both during attacks and long
11. What do the Geneva Conventions and
international humanitarian law have to say about this issue?
No treaty covers cluster munitions specifically.
Other weapons with indiscriminate effects, such as landmines and
firebombs, are the subject of specific rules that complement and
reinforce the general rules of international humanitarian law
applicable in armed conflict. Because of their wide area effects
and the large numbers of unexploded ordnance they leave after
a conflict, many groups, such as the International Committee of
the Red Cross, have called for specific rules on cluster munitions.
Most countries have strongly opposed the development of new rules
on cluster munitions because they say the existing rules are enough.
However, if international humanitarian law is adequate and armed
forces are implementing it then why is there such a humanitarian
impact of cluster munitions whenever and wherever they are used?
NGOs have argued that if you've got a problem and you have a law
that is supposed to stop it, but you still have a problem then
something is either wrong with the law or wrong with the implementation
of the law.
In any case, new rules on cluster munitions would reinforce the
existing rules that apply to all weapons. Cluster munitions pose
specifc problems under the following three rules of customary
international humanitarian law to which all parties to all conflicts
Distinction - this rule prohibits indiscriminate attacks.
Indiscriminate attacks are attacks that are not directed at a
specific military objective; attacks that use weapons that cannot
be directed at a specific military objective; and attacks that
use weapons whose effects cannot be limited and that strike civilian
as well as military objectives. Indiscriminate attacks are also
attacks that treat distinct military targets located in populated
areas as one target, the clear example being the carpet-bombing
of large cities during WWII.
Proportionality - this rule means that the concrete military
advantage gained from an attack must be greater than the damage
to civilians foreseeable at the time of the attack. It is a complicated
rule that is interpreted differently by different armed forces._
_Feasible precautions - this rule means that all feasible
precautions must be taken to minimise incidental loss of civilian
life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. This
includes warning civilians about the threat of unexploded submunitions._
Landmine & Cluster Bomb watch