(Geneva, November 4, 2008) - Georgian cluster munitions fired in the conflict with Russia in August 2008 caused more damage and hit more locations than previously commonly reported, Human Rights Watch said today in a presentation to the Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva. Explosive remnants from the weapons, fired by both Russia and Georgia, continue to threaten people and their livelihoods.
At least 17 civilians were killed and dozens wounded by cluster munitions used by both sides. During a 10-day investigative mission in late October, Human Rights Watch documented the use of Russian cluster munitions in six towns and villages and Georgian cluster munitions in nine, though most of the casualties investigated appeared to be caused by the Russian weapons. Cluster munitions failed on both sides, leaving duds that operate like landmines and cause casualties even after the fighting stops.
"The decisions by Russia and Georgia to use cluster munitions so soon after most of the world's countries agreed to ban them is appalling," said Steve Goose, Arms director at Human Rights Watch. "Cluster munitions spray lethal bomblets over large areas, and keep killing by leaving behind thousands of duds ready to explode when someone comes near."
Russia has continued to deny using cluster munitions in Georgia, but Human Rights Watch finds the evidence to be overwhelming. Human Rights Watch believes that Russia's use of cluster munitions in populated areas was indiscriminate, and therefore in violation of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch found Georgian clusters in populated areas, but it is not clear whether Georgia targeted such areas or whether they fell short. Human Rights Watch called on Georgia to investigate the situation.
In May 2008, 107 nations negotiated and formally adopted a new Convention on Cluster Munitions that comprehensively prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and trade of cluster munitions. Neither Russia nor Georgia participated in the negotiation process. The treaty opens for signature in Oslo on December 3, 2008.
"The use of cluster munitions by both sides shows once again why most of the world's nations are banning them," said Goose. "Russia and Georgia should recognize the unacceptable consequences to civilians and join the new cluster munitions treaty."
Human Rights Watch found that many of the cluster munitions landed in populated areas of Georgia. The town of Variani, in the Gori district, was apparently hit the hardest with Russian AO-2.5 RTM submunitions from RBK air-dropped cluster bombs. Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of those wounded during the attacks, including a 13-year-old boy and a 70-year-old man. On the day of the attack, the boy, Beka Giorgishvili, went to a friend's house to say goodbye before his family fled Variani. He was hit as he was helping pump up his friend's new bike tire. Beka lost part of his skull, and shrapnel remains inside.
Human Rights Watch also found that many of the submunitions failed to explode on impact as designed, but remained on or slightly buried in the ground - so called "duds" that still pose danger to civilians. People engaged in the clearance effort told Human Rights Watch that there may be thousands of duds. In Ruisi, which was hit very hard by Russian submunitions on August 12, 2008, the clearance organization Norwegian People's Aid estimated a 35 percent submunition failure rate for an area it was clearing.
The duds have not only killed and maimed civilians, but they have also caused people to lose harvests, and therefore their ability to feed their families. Many duds remain hidden in fields of cabbages, tomatoes and other crops, and farmers fear going into their fields.
Georgian cluster munitions with M85 submunitions killed at least one person and wounded at least two when they landed on the towns of Tirdznisi and Shindisi. Witnesses did not report any Russian troops in the areas at the time. In these and two other towns combined, at least two people have been killed and at least three wounded by Georgian submunition duds since the attacks.
It is not clear whether the M85s landed in villages as the result of an intentional strike in the area or a massive technical failure in Georgia's use of Israeli-supplied Mk-4 GRAD LAR-160 ground rockets with M85 submunitions. Georgia has stated that these are the only cluster munitions in its arsenal and that it fired these rockets only at Russian forces between Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, and the Roki Tunnel on the border with Russia. However, Human Rights Watch found many M85s that landed on Georgian towns south of that region.
Indeed, they seem to have landed short of the Mk-4's minimum range, which means they would not have functioned properly. In villages other than Tirdznisi and Shindisi, Human Rights Watch found only Georgian M85s that had failed to function, that is, did not explode on impact.
The Georgian Ministry of Defense could not explain why its M85s were found in so many locations and why the failure rates were so high. Officials indicated they would ask the Israeli company that sold the weapons to assist in an investigation of the matter.
Human Rights Watch called on Israel not to sell cluster munitions and urged it to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
In addition to calling on Georgia and Russia to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Human Rights Watch urged them to provide precise strike data (including locations, types and numbers) to clearance organizations in order to facilitate their work.
"If Russia and Georgia are not prepared to join the ban treaty in the near future, they should at least take interim steps to protect civilian lives," said Goose. "Such steps could include enforcing international humanitarian law and prohibiting use of cluster munitions in populated areas, placing a ban or moratorium on production and trade of cluster munitions, and starting to destroy stockpiles."
Human Rights Watch presented its major findings on November 4 to delegates attending meetings of the Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva, where diplomats are discussing the cluster munition issue. Several countries that have not participated in the Oslo Process to ban cluster munitions - most notably the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel - are half-heartedly pursuing a weak agreement through the convention that would legitimize continued use of the weapon.