The use of cluster munitions in Georgia in August 2008 highlighted the danger of the weapons and the need to ban them. Both Russia and Georgia launched cluster munition attacks yet came from different positions—producer and importer, large stockpiler and small stockpiler, repeat user and new user. In all, their cluster munition attacks caused the death or injury of 70 civilians during and after the conflict as well as ongoing socioeconomic harm.
Russia violated multiple provisions of international humanitarian law with its use of cluster munitions. Its attacks in or near villages, towns, and one city were inherently indiscriminate and thus unlawful. They were also likely disproportionate. Human Rights Watch presumes that cluster attacks in or near populated areas are disproportionate, and the lack of evidence of Georgian troops in the vicinity combined with the foreseeable civilian harm supports that presumption. Russian authorities continue to deny they used cluster munitions in the course of the conflict.
Georgia also used cluster munitions that landed in or near populated areas in the Gori District, but it said they were aiming at Russian military personnel and equipment north of Tskhinvali. The possibility that the Georgian weapons suffered a massive failure would explain why the cluster munitions fell short, why they had such high failure rates, why so many submunitions were unarmed, and why witnesses reported no Russian troops in the vicinity of the strikes. Georgian authorities told Human Rights Watch they are investigating what happened. Regardless of their conclusion, these incidents underscore the unreliability and humanitarian risks of these weapons.
The use and effects of cluster munitions in this conflict should serve as an impetus for all states to sign and ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions as soon as possible. Although not yet legally binding, the fact that 96 states have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions as of March 2009 demonstrates that there is widespread international support for its principles. Russia and Georgia’s actions ignored this expression of ever-increasing condemnation of the weapon. Looking to the future, they should now not only become parties to the convention but also immediately comply with its standards on clearance, risk education, and victim assistance. If they cannot sign and ratify the convention at this point, they should establish interim measures to reduce the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions. The international community should strive to make the Georgian conflict the last in which civilians lose both lives and livelihoods to this pernicious weapon.