Cluster munitions are canisters that can be launched from air or ground that contain hundreds to thousands of individual submunitions or ‘bomblets’. These bomblets can blanket an area as large as ten football fields by ten football fields, killing anyone within 50 meters of each bomblet and can easily pierce through buildings and armour. Although cluster munitions are supposed to explode on impact, they have a high failure rate and the remains of the unexploded devices are referred to as explosive remnants of war.
The humanitarian effect of cluster munitions is not a new issue. They have had a horrific impact on civilians in most of the conflicts in which they have been used, including those in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Laos and most recently Lebanon. In addition to killing on impact, the presence of unexploded submunitions has made farming a dangerous activity and hindered development and re-construction in many countries. Clearance of these weapons is often hindered by lack of resources which means they are left to kill and injure indiscriminately for decades.
Cluster Munitions: Humanitarian Concern
Cluster munitions have a severe and disproportionate impact on civilians during and after conflicts because the canisters disperse over large areas and they often miss their military targets. This means that civilians can be injured and killed, and homes, schools and fields can be devastated, making it difficult to return to normal life. Unexploded submunitions can lay waiting to explode if stepped on or driven over. The impact of these unexploded submunitions is similar to anti-personnel landmines; they do not discriminate between soldier and civilian, tanks and bicycles.
Cluster Munitions: How does International Humanitarian Law (IHL) apply?
On 30 May 2008, 107 States adopted the Convention on Cluster Munitions at a Diplomatic Conference held in Dublin, Ireland. This treaty prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions. On 16 February 2010 Burkina Faso became the 30th State to deposit its instrument of ratification for the Convention. This date triggered the countdown to the Convention's entry into on August 1, 2010.
The Convention comprehensively bans cluster munitions by prohibiting their use, production, stockpiling and transfer. It also prohibits States Parties from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to undertake any activity prohibited by the Convention's provisions. In addition to theses prohibitions, States that possess or are affected by cluster munitions have specific obligations to destroy stockpiles, to clear cluster munitions remnants and to provide assistance for victims.
When implemented, the Convention will prevent tremendous human suffering by ensuring that hundreds of millions of cluster submunitions are never used and are destroyed. It will directly benefit affected communities through increased efforts to clear areas contaminated by cluster munitions, thus saving lives and returning land for agriculture and other productive activities. It will also help the victims of cluster munitions through an increased commitment to various types of support, including medical care, rehabilitation, psychological support and social and economic inclusion. All States Parties to the Convention have a responsibility for ensuring its success. When they are in a position to do so, even States that do not possess stockpiles or have cluster munition remnants on their territory must provide assistance for affected countries to help implement the Convention.
For a list of states which have signed and ratified the convention click here.
As for the states that have not yet signed or ratified the Convention, the use of cluster munitions is regulated by general principles of IHL, Customary International Law and by treaties that deal generally with unexploded remnants of war such as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and its fifth Additional Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War.
The general principles of IHL are based on finding a balance between military necessity and humanity. These include:
- the rule of distinction requiring that a distinction be made between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives;
- the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks requiring that attacks must be directed at military objectives;
- the rule of proportionality requiring that the effect of the attack on civilians and civilian objects not be out of proportion with the military advantage gained;
- the rule on feasible precautions requiring that care be taken to spare civilians and civilian objects;
- the rule on environmental protection prohibiting using means of warfare that cause damage to the environment;
- and the rule on superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.
There is serious concern within the International Community as to whether cluster munitions can be used in populated areas in accordance with these fundamental rules of IHL given the impact they have.
Please see the ICRC website for more information on Cluster Munitions.
Posted December 4, 2009/Updated August 30, 2010