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Weapons and the Conduct of War

Targeting in Warfare and Civilian Casualties

In a report released in February 2000, based on an investigative mission in August 1999, Human Rights Watch estimated that the seventy-eight-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia resulted in about 500 civilian deaths in ninety separate incidents. Human Rights Watch concluded that NATO violated international humanitarian law, but did not commit war crimes. One-third of the incidents and one-half of the deaths were the result of attacks on illegitimate or questionable targets, including Serb Radio and Television, heating plants, and bridges. Human Rights Watch criticized the use of cluster bombs in populated areas, insufficient precautions in warning civilians of attacks, and insufficient precautions in identifying the presence of civilians when attacking convoys and mobile targets. Human Rights Watch called for changes in targeting and bombing doctrine to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law.

Cluster Bombs

The use of cluster bombs by NATO in the Kosovo conflict generated extensive attention to the negative humanitarian impact of these weapons. U.S. and U.K. aircraft dropped about 1,600 cluster bombs on Yugoslavia, containing about 300,000 individual bomblets. According to a Human Rights Watch investigation, at least ninety and as many as 150 civilians died in incidents involving NATO use of cluster bombs-15 to 25 percent of all civilian deaths in the conflict. The large number of civilian casualties reflected both the difficulty of accurately targeting cluster bombs, and the decision to use them in populated, urban areas.

Cluster bombs not only posed a special danger to civilians during conflict, but like landmines, continued to take civilian victims even after the war ended. Cluster bomblets that did not explode on impact as designed became de facto antipersonnel mines that would then explode from the contact of a person. Using a very conservative estimated failure rate of 5 percent, the air war resulted in some 15,000 unexploded bomblets littering the country. Those bomblets had caused several hundred civilian casualties since the end of the bombing campaign in June 1999; more children had been killed or injured by cluster bomblets than landmines.

In December 1999, in a memorandum to delegates to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, Human Rights Watch called for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs by all nations until humanitarian concerns can be adequately addressed. Subsequently the InternationalCommittee of the Red Cross and other organizations also called for a use moratorium. In September 2000 the ICRC called for a new "remnants of war" protocol to the CCW that would require users to be responsible for post-conflict clean-up and require self-destruct mechanisms on munitions such as cluster bombs.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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