The 65-page report, Fatally Flawed: Cluster Bombs and Their Use by the United
States in Afghanistan, says that although the United States made some efforts to
reduce the civilian harm caused by its cluster bombs in Afghanistan, the
fundamental problems of the weapon remained.
Human Rights Watch found that the United States did not take all feasible
precautions to avoid civilian casualties, as required by international humanitarian
law, when it used cluster bombs in or near populated areas. U.S. cluster bombs
also left an estimated 12,400 explosive duds—de facto antipersonnel
landmines—that continue to take civilian lives to this day.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented the harm to civilians from U.S.
cluster bombs in the 1991 Gulf War and 1999 Yugoslav air campaign. The new
Human Rights Watch report found that the humanitarian side effects of cluster
bombs were less serious in Afghanistan than in these earlier conflicts, in part due
to the smaller number of bombs used.
“As war looms in Iraq, the United States should learn from the lessons of its
Afghanistan air war,” said Bonnie Docherty, researcher in the Arms Division of
Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “It should not use cluster
bombs at all until the dud rate has been brought way down. At the very least, it
should never use cluster bombs near inhabited towns and villages.”
The new report presents the findings of a month-long mission to Afghanistan. It
also compares recent use of cluster bombs to that in the Gulf War and Kosovo.
In Afghanistan, the United States restricted cluster bomb targets more than in the
past and employed new technology, notably the wind corrected munitions
dispenser, to improve the accuracy of these weapons. It also used fewer cluster
bombs, dropping 1,228 cluster bombs, which contained 248,056 bomblets, in
Afghanistan. Allied forces dropped 61,000 bombs with twenty million bomblets
in the Gulf War and 1,765 bombs with 295,000 bomblets in Yugoslavia.
But the same problems were found in Afghanistan as in other instances of cluster
bomb use: lack of accuracy in targeting during attacks, large numbers of
explosive duds remaining after attacks, and difficulties in clearance. These
problems suggest that this weapon has fundamental flaws and should be
specifically regulated under international law.
“We are not arguing for a ban on cluster bombs,” said Docherty. “What we want
is better targeting and technology in order to reduce the humanitarian side
States parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons met in Geneva last
week at a United Nations-sponsored conference and agreed to negotiate on
general issues related to explosive remnants of war, such as clearance and
warnings to civilians. They refused, however, to enter into specific negotiations on
cluster bombs or other submunitions.
In Afghanistan, the United States ignored a critical lesson of past wars by using
cluster bombs in or near populated areas. Use in populated areas poses dangers
to civilians because of the difficulty in accurately targeting cluster bombs and their
bomblets and the wide and imprecise area they cover.
The Human Rights Watch report analyzes three examples of such strikes, during
which at least twenty-five civilians died and many more were injured. At least
twelve civilians died and many more were injured when five cluster bombs landed
on the village of Ishaq Suleiman, near Herat. The United States had used older,
less accurate munitions to attack a nearby military base.
Cluster bombs continue to endanger civilians long after being dropped. Many of
the bomblets did not explode on impact as designed but were still volatile and
ready to explode when touched. They have caused casualties among shepherds,
farmers, and other civilians and have interfered with the country's agriculture.
As of November 2002, the International Committee of the Red Cross had
identified 127 civilian casualties to cluster bomb duds—a number it stressed was
only a partial tally of the total killed and injured since many go unreported. An
astonishing 69% of the casualties were children.
The clearance of cluster bomblets in Afghanistan has moved relatively rapidly, but
explosive duds remain in several regions of the country. Human Rights Watch
said that the United States could have contributed more effectively to clearance
because the list of strikes it provided the United Nations was both inaccurate and
“Countries that use cluster bombs bear a special responsibility to clear bomblets,”
said Docherty. “Otherwise they will be causing casualties for years to come.”