Frequently Asked Questions about Cluster Munitions


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 conflicts.
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 Kosovo), Vietnam.
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 afterwards.


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 must adhere:
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

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