Skip to main content

Cluster Weapons: Scourge of Civilians

View Photos of Cluster Munitions

A child lying on a hospital bed, his face blank with shock, his stomach ripped open. Bloodied bodies of civilians strewn in the streets. The look of panic and anguish on a woman's face as she falls under a rain of shrapnel.

This is the human toll taken by cluster munitions, weapons that spread hundreds of tiny explosive devices over wide areas and leave hidden unexploded bomblets that keep on killing for many years. In modern wars, civilians pay a high price from the use of such weapons. This is why Human Rights Watch worked to create a successful campaign, nearly a decade in the making, for a treaty designed to rid the world of cluster munitions.

The treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, was negotiated in May 2008 and was signed on Dec, 3-4, 2008 by 94 nations.  The dramatic 18-month finale of the campaign concluded with a rollercoaster two-week negotiating session in Dublin, created a groundswell of support for the treaty.

"This treaty will make the world a safer place for millions of people," Steve Goose, Arms director at Human Rights Watch, said when the treaty was announced in Dublin. "Cluster munitions have been tossed on the ash heap of history. No nation will ever be able to use them again without provoking the immediate revulsion and disapproval of most countries in the world."

Human Rights Watch was uniquely positioned to lead the campaign against cluster munitions, having previously shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for the successful effort to ban antipersonnel landmines. The experience from that campaign provided a working outline for the new effort, with the goal of a stronger and more effective treaty that could be implemented more quickly.

Human Rights Watch was able to provide the on-the-ground fact-finding needed for an effective campaign. Beginning in 1991, after the Gulf War, Human Rights Watch began to document the toll that war takes on civilians - doing humanitarian, battle-damage assessment. Teams of Human Rights Watch researchers went to Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and most recently Georgia, to interview survivors, to photograph the civilian scenes of war, and to use mapping to demonstrate the scope of the damage caused by cluster bombs.

While accepting the reality of war, Human Rights Watch intends by documenting the humanitarian toll to "convince both sides in any conflict to adhere to the Geneva Conventions as they relate to saving human lives," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. The Geneva Conventions and other laws of armed conflict govern the way wars can be fought and attempt to minimize harm to civilians.

These on-site investigations provide Human Rights Watch with a special tool for use in diplomatic negotiations, said Carroll Bogert, associate director at Human Rights Watch. "When we bring the truth on the ground into the convention halls, we can't be ignored," she said. "We've looked the victims in the eye and it's our job to bring their voices into the diplomatic conversation."

When a Human Rights Watch team went into Kosovo in 1999 after the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, it found that more than 500 civilians had died in the bombing; of those victims, between 90 and 150 had been killed in cluster attacks. Furthermore, as the researchers visited areas heavily populated by civilians, they found many unexploded bomblets.

The red flag Human Rights Watch raised on cluster use in Kosovo was reinforced by investigations of the fighting in Afghanistan in 2001-2002 and in the three-week invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"In Iraq we found very striking indicators that cluster munitions were the predominant weapons causing civilian casualties," said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch.

The United States Air Force, confronted with Human Rights Watch research showing the extent of civilian casualties in Kosovo and Afghanistan, had largely stopped dropping cluster bombs in populated areas in Iraq. But the US Army continued to use cluster munitions extensively, launched from rockets and artillery, contending that they had few other options.

When fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, both sides used cluster weapons. Hezbollah militants fired more than 100 Chinese-made rockets containing almost 5,000 submunitions. Israel, in the last three days of the fighting, fired up to 4 million of these submunitions, twice as many as the 2 million used by the US and Britain in the first three weeks of the war in Iraq.

Equipped with these findings, Human Rights Watch, its partners in the Cluster Munition Coalition, co-chaired by Goose, and friendly governments, launched the campaign in November 2007. Norway took the lead by calling for a new international ban treaty in 2008, and the campaign quickly built up support. The coalition chose to bypass the Convention on Conventional Weapons, a multilateral forum that seemed more interested in preserving the status quo than attempting to ban clusters, as it had earlier opposed efforts to ban antipersonnel landmines.

Cluster munitions were first used in World War II by Germany against the British, and by the Soviet Union against invading German forces. The United States deployed them widely in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and during the Indochina war, and numerous civilians are still dying or getting maimed each year as long-hidden bomblets explode. At least 15 countries have used clusters in around 30 countries, and more than 70 have stockpiles. China, Russia, and the United States are each estimated to hold cluster munitions containing about 1 billion submunitions. The three still oppose a treaty, even as some of Washington's closest allies lead the race to ban cluster bombs. We are now urging the Obama administration to undertake a policy review with a view to joining the new convention.

It took years of effort and meetings around the globe to produce a treaty, culminating in two weeks in Dublin in May 2008. The first week brought extraordinary highs and miserable lows, Garlasco wrote in a blog during the negotiations.

"If the devil is in the details then Satan is hard at work here," he wrote. "If you ever want to see adults fighting politely you should come to an international negotiation. They can't hit each other, so they courteously tell each other, through gritted teeth, how distinguished they all are."

But in the end,  countries came together to adopt a  treaty that will immediately ban all types of cluster munitions, rejecting initial attempts by some nations to negotiate exceptions for their own arsenals, as well as calls for a transition phase that would delay the ban for a decade or more. In addition to the prohibitions on use, production, stockpiling, and trade of clusters munitions, the treaty also includes strong provisions requiring states to provide assistance to victims and clean up areas affected by their use.

"This treaty bans not just some cluster munitions, but all cluster munitions," Goose told the assembled delegates. "It does not try to differentiate between good cluster munitions and bad cluster munitions, it bans them all. This is a convention with no exceptions. This is a convention with no delays. This can only be described as an extraordinary convention."

Ninety four nations signed  the treaty at a ceremony in Oslo on December 3-4, 2008. By the end of 2009, the total stood at 104, and many more are expected to sign in the near future. Twenty six nations have ratified the treaty, and it will go into effect in six months after 30 nations have signed and ratified.

While many of the world's users, producers, and stockpilers of cluster munitions signed the new treaty, absent were several of the world's biggest, including China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States. But experience with the Mine Ban Treaty, agreed to in 1997 over opposition from this same group, suggests that even non-signatories will ultimately feel bound by the ban on cluster munitions. The United States, for example, has still not signed the Mine Ban Treaty, but it has not used, exported, or produced any antipersonnel landmines since the treaty was negotiated 11 years ago.

"The most important thing this treaty does is to stigmatize cluster munitions," said Goose. "The stigma will grow and deepen over time, and ultimately make the use of cluster munitions unthinkable by anyone."

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.