April 14, 2009
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Cluster munitions always kill and maim civilians, during the fighting and long afterward. A comprehensive prohibition is the only real solution. So-called responsible use of cluster munitions is a myth, and nations should resist efforts to weaken the ban.
Bonnie Docherty, researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch

(Geneva) - The loss of lives and livelihoods from cluster munitions used by Russia and Georgia during the August 2008 armed conflict reinforces the importance of the new treaty banning the weapon, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The United States, China, Russia, Georgia, and other countries opposed to the ban treaty are meeting in Geneva this week in a last-ditch attempt to conclude a separate, far weaker treaty.

The 80-page report, "A Dying Practice: Use of Cluster Munitions by Russia and Georgia in August 2008," is the first comprehensive report on cluster munition use by Russia and Georgia in their week-long conflict over the separatist enclave of South Ossetia. Human Rights Watch field investigations in August, September, and October 2008 documented dozens of civilian deaths and injuries from the use of cluster munitions, including casualties after the fighting ended. Unexploded submunitions continue to threaten civilians. Despite considerable material evidence of Russian cluster munition use, Russia has denied using them.

"Cluster munitions always kill and maim civilians, during the fighting and long afterward," said Bonnie Docherty, researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "A comprehensive prohibition is the only real solution. So-called responsible use of cluster munitions is a myth, and nations should resist efforts to weaken the ban."

The new Convention on Cluster Munitions, which opened for signature in December 2008, categorically bans cluster munitions. It also requires nations to clear contaminated areas and to aid affected individuals and communities. To date, 96 states have signed the treaty, and six states have ratified it. It will enter into force and become legally binding six months after the 30th ratification.

At a four-day conference that started in Geneva today, states that have opposed the convention are seeking to reach a consensus on an alternative legal instrument that would regulate, not ban, cluster munitions. These states support a draft protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which would allow future use of the same cluster munitions used by both sides in Georgia.

During their August 2008 conflict over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Russia and Georgia used cluster munitions in a way that exemplified the humanitarian problems caused by any use of the weapons. Human Rights Watch found evidence of cluster munitions from both sides in populated areas. It confirmed that at least 16 civilians died from cluster munitions and at least 54 more were wounded in Georgia, south of the South Ossetian administrative border. Unexploded submunitions also littered farms, interfering with harvests.

"States should make the Russia-Georgia conflict the last in which cluster munitions kill and maim civilians," said Docherty. "Prompt ratification of the Convention on Cluster Munitions is the way to achieve that goal."

At the time of the conflict, 107 states had already adopted the final text of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Yet Russia and Georgia ignored the emerging international consensus that cluster munitions should be prohibited. Human Rights Watch urged all countries to sign and ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions as soon as possible to strengthen stigmatization of the weapons and help the treaty become legally binding.

Cluster munitions are large weapons that release dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions. Air-dropped or ground-launched, they cause two major humanitarian problems. First, their wide area effect virtually guarantees civilian casualties when they are used in populated areas. Second, many of the submunitions do not explode on impact as designed, causing civilian casualties for months or years to come.

Human Rights Watch found that Russia violated international humanitarian law with indiscriminate and disproportionate cluster munition attacks on populated areas in Georgia. It blanketed the town of Variani, for example, with cluster munitions on two days, causing 19 civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch identified Russian cluster munition remnants in or near seven towns and villages. In March, Norwegian People's Aid, an international demining organization, reported finding additional cluster munition remnants in two other villages.

Human Rights Watch also documented casualties from Georgian cluster munitions in or near nine populated areas of Georgia south of the South Ossetian administrative border. The Georgian government acknowledged using cluster munitions, but it claimed that it was aiming at invading Russian military forces and equipment in South Ossetia, in an otherwise unpopulated area. The cluster munitions left an unusually high number of unexploded submunitions and fell short of minimum range. This evidence suggests that a massive failure of the weapon may have caused Georgian submunitions not to reach their intended targets in South Ossetia. Regardless of whether the weapons functioned or failed, their use illustrates that cluster munitions are always highly dangerous.

"Whoever the user, and whatever the type used, cluster munitions pose unacceptable risks to civilians and need to be eliminated," said Docherty.

In its report, Human Rights Watch calls on Russia and Georgia to conduct independent and impartial investigations into cluster munition use and to make the results public. They should hold accountable anyone found responsible for using cluster munitions in violation of international humanitarian law. To facilitate clearance, Russia and Georgia should provide deminers with information on the location, types, and numbers of cluster munitions used.

On August 15, 2008, Human Rights Watch was the first organization to document the use of cluster munitions in Georgia. The new report is based on multiple follow-up missions; interviews with more than 100 witnesses, deminers, and government officials; and analysis of physical evidence.

"A Dying Practice" is the latest in a series of Human Rights Watch reports documenting the use of cluster munitions around the world. Human Rights Watch has issued other comprehensive reports on the use of cluster munitions in Kosovo in 1999, in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, in Iraq in 2003, and in Lebanon and Israel in 2006.