The U.S. Congress should reject the Pentagon’s request for thousands of cluster munitions, the type of weapon responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Human Rights Watch said today in a briefing paper.

Cluster munitions are large armaments that carry dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions. In its budget for fiscal year 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense has requested hundreds of millions of dollars for the procurement of cluster munitions. The bill is currently under review by a House-Senate conference committee.

Both during and after U.S. military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere, cluster munitions have caused extensive—and predictable—harm to civilians. They endanger civilians during strikes with their broad footprint, and their explosive duds threaten people even years after they are deployed. The most common models of cluster munitions used in Iraq had dud rates of 16 percent, according to Department of Defense figures.

“The United States should learn a lesson from its recent wars and stop buying cluster munitions, which are guaranteed to kill and maim civilians for years to come,” said Bonnie Docherty, researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division. “Cluster munitions should not be used as long as they pose grave dangers to civilians during attacks and long afterward.”

In a 13-page briefing paper, Human Rights Watch examined the types of cluster munitions proposed in the Department of Defense fiscal year 2005 budget requests. Most of the military’s requests related to cluster munitions call for retrofitting of old weapons or procurement of newer technology to make them more reliable or accurate. These changes, however, are far from a panacea. In several cases, for example, accuracy is improved, but the dud rate remains too high. Moreover, new technology must be tested and evaluated, and targeting changes must accompany technological improvements.

Human Rights Watch identifies four requests for cluster munitions that should be rejected by Congress because they pose unnecessary dangers to civilians, especially with their unreliable submunitions:

  • Ground-launched Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) rockets with old Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DPICM) submunitions;
  • Helicopter-launched Hydra rockets with old M73 submunitions;
  • Air-launched Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOWs) with old BLU-97 submunitions;
  • Wind Corrected Munitions Dispensers for use with air-launched CBU-103 cluster bombs with old BLU-97 submunitions.

Congress should also place conditions on the use of other models and demand that the Department of Defense provide more specific information about certain vague submunition requests.

During major hostilities in March and April 2003, the use of cluster munitions, especially by ground forces, killed more than 1,000 Iraqi civilians, by far more than any other conduct by the Coalition. Widespread cluster attacks in populated areas caused casualties during strikes, and high failure rates left thousands of explosive duds that continue to endanger civilians months after the end of major hostilities.

Nevertheless, the United States insists on the right to continue to use a large stockpile of more than one billion unreliable and inaccurate cluster submunitions.

Human Rights Watch has called for a moratorium on the use of cluster munitions until their humanitarian problems have been solved.