Cluster Bombs Should Stop Being Used

March 14, 2016 3:16 pm Last Updated: March 14, 2016 3:16 pm

The continuous use of cluster bombs—many of them manufactured by the United States—in several conflicts around the world shows a disregard for human rights and tarnishes the image of those countries that make, sell, and use them. Because of the high number of civilians who are frequently their victims—including children who unknowingly pick them up—they should more appropriately be called “Cowards’ bombs.”

Cluster bombs eject explosive bomblets (little bombs) designed to kill personnel and destroy vehicles over a wide area. Unexploded bomblets can continue killing or maiming civilians long after a conflict has ended, and are very costly to find and remove. In Vietnam, for example, approximately 300 people are still killed annually by unexploded ordnance.

Handicap International says that 98% of their recorded cluster munitions casualties are civilians, and 27% are children.

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 Aug. 1, 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 October 2015, a total of 118 states have joined the Convention, as 98 parties and 20 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.

The father of Hamza Ali, 6, helps to change his bandage at a local hospital in Baghdad, Iraq, on April 27, 2003. Hamza was one of four siblings who were injured when a cluster bomb exploded on April 26, 2003 while they were playing outside. Two of the children died as a result of the incident. (Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)
The father of Hamza Ali, 6, helps to change his bandage at a local hospital in Baghdad, Iraq, on April 27, 2003. Hamza was one of four siblings who were injured when a cluster bomb exploded on April 26, 2003 while they were playing outside. Two of the children died as a result of the incident. (Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

Since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, at least 30 countries have produced cluster munitions, among them China, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, North Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As of November 2015, at least 61 countries have stockpiles of cluster munitions.

26 countries have subscribed to the Wellington Declaration, agreeing in principle that their stockpiles of cluster munitions should be destroyed. Despite these lofty declarations of intent, 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.

Heba, 3, who was found with part of her intestine hanging out of a stomach wound apparently caused by a cluster bomb over her home, lies in a hospital bed next to her grandmother Salim Abdullah in Misrata, 75 miles east of Tripoli, on April 18, 2011. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)
Heba, 3, who was found with part of her intestine hanging out of a stomach wound apparently caused by a cluster bomb over her home, lies in a hospital bed next to her grandmother Salim Abdullah in Misrata, 75 miles east of Tripoli, on April 18, 2011. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

Even though all weapons are dangerous, cluster bombs are a particular threat to civilians because they affect a wide area and leave behind a significant number of unexploded bomblets, which can maim civilians—many of them children—for decades after the end of a conflict.

Because of the high number of civilians killed or maimed by these munitions their use has been condemned by many groups and organizations such as the United Nations, the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Cluster Munition Coalition, and Doctors Without Borders.

Soldiers with the French contingent of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) unload Russian made cluster bombs from a container found about 18 miles north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 9, 2002. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Soldiers with the French contingent of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) unload Russian made cluster bombs from a container found about 18 miles north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 9, 2002. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Handicap International, which since 2005 has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to support its campaign to ban these weapons, says that 98 percent of their recorded cluster munitions casualties are civilians, and 27 percent among them are children.

Adding to questionable practices by international banks, Bank Track, an international network of NGOs specializing in control of financial institutions, many major banks and other financial corporations either financed directly or provided financial services to companies producing cluster munitions in the period of 2005–2012. Pax Christi, a Netherlands-based NGO, estimated that at least 137 financial institutions financed cluster munition production. Out of these 137 institutions, 63 were based in the United States and 18 in the European Union.

Iraqi Ali Mustafa, 5, is comforted by his mother Mona Hassan, 37, at Baghdad's Saddam Hospital on April 17, 2003. Ali and his four brothers were wounded by an unexploded cluster bomb they found in the garden of their home. The others suffered facial and hand injuries. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
Iraqi Ali Mustafa, 5, is comforted by his mother Mona Hassan, 37, at Baghdad’s Saddam Hospital on April 17, 2003. Ali and his four brothers were wounded by an unexploded cluster bomb they found in the garden of their home. The others suffered facial and hand injuries. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

In the meantime, cluster munitions continue to be used, as was repeatedly denounced in Syria. Countries producing (and selling) them, should adhere to their own human rights principles.

César Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is a global public health consultant for several U.N. and other international agencies. He has carried out health-related missions in 50 countries worldwide. He lives in New York and writes extensively on human rights and foreign policy issues, and is the recipient of awards from Overseas Press Club of America, ADEPA, and Chaski, and recently received the Cedar of Lebanon Gold Medal. He is also the author of several U.N. official publications on health issues.