Unexploded AO-2.5RT/RTM submunitions collected after cluster munitions struck the outskirts of Termanin village, Idlib, on July 11, 2016.

© 2016 Hussam Al-Termanini

Today’s armed conflicts are generating an increasing number of devastating photos and videos of violence and its victims, usually civilians. Such images do not have to depict lifeless or badly wounded people to have an impact.

One photo that tells a powerful story shows men in a field using shovels and their bare hands to pick up small scraps and put them in a cardboard box. The seemingly ordinary photo becomes horrific when you learn they were carefully collecting the body parts of a 12-year-old boy, killed hours before the photo was taken, after a submunition remaining from a cluster munition attack exploded in his hands.

My colleague took that photo in south Lebanon immediately after Israel’s massive use of cluster munitions in August 2006. The cluster munition attacks generated international outrage at the time and were a key catalyst for the subsequent creation of the 2008 treaty banning these weapons.

And a decade on, cluster munitions are still claiming lives and limbs, and provoking a horrified public reaction. This is especially true with regards to Syria, where over the past five years I have helped to document unnecessary suffering caused by the incessant use of these weapons.

Two men collect the remains of 12-year-old Rami ‘Ali Hassan Shebli, who was killed on October 22, 2006 by a submunition leftover from a cluster munition attack on Halta in Lebanon. Rami unwittingly picked up the submunition while playing with his brother only a couple of hours before this photo was taken.

© 2006 Bonnie Docherty/Human Rights Watch
Cluster munitions are fired from the ground in rockets and artillery or dropped from aircraft and land over a wide area, harming civilians at the time of attack. But cluster munitions always leave behind submunitions that don’t explode on impact and, like landmines, pose a deadly explosive threat to this day, despite ongoing efforts to clear and destroy them.

Israel has not used cluster munitions since 2006, but it has continued to acquire and produce them. Recently, the government sought to upgrade artillery systems for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and reportedly rejected artillery made in Germany because of the German government’s insistence that Israel not use the weapon system to deliver cluster munitions. Instead, Israel decided to purchase an artillery system made by the Israeli company Elbit, apparently because this delivery system will allow it to use cluster munitions in the future.

What could have been an uncontroversial weapons purchase now carries the bad odor of trying to reserve space for a stigmatized weapon. Why “sidestep the international ban on cluster bombs?” asked one commentator in a critical Haaretz article that called Israel “The Cluster Bomb Nation.”

Germany’s refusal to allow its artillery to be used in cluster munition attacks demonstrates how Germany and the 118 other countries that have banned cluster munitions are sticking closely to their strict obligation to never use, develop, produce, acquire, stockpile or transfer cluster munitions.

As Cluster Munition Monitor 2017, the new annual report by the Cluster Munition Coalition that details progress under the ban treaty, confirms, there have been no reports or allegations of any States Parties engaging in new use or other activities prohibited by the Convention on Cluster Munitions. These countries are implementing the treaty’s provisions with vigor and determination. To date, 28 States Parties have destroyed a collective total of 1.4 million cluster munitions containing more than 175 million submunitions.

Even without the participation of major powers such as China, Russia, and the United States, the Convention on Cluster Munitions is having a big impact in reducing harm and preventing new use.

Yet, the civilian harm continues, especially in Syria, a non-signatory to the ban treaty, where cluster munition attacks by Syrian government forces on opposition-held areas continued unabated throughout 2016 and the first half of 2017, in cooperation with Russia.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov provided Human Rights Watch with a position paper on cluster munitions in Syria last December that did not explicitly deny or admit to Russia’s involvement in the use of cluster munition in Syria. Rather the paper makes the general claim that cluster munitions in Syria have been used in accordance with international humanitarian law and not indiscriminately.

I disagree strongly with that claim. If anything, the injuries and deaths in Syria have made it abundantly clear that cluster munitions cannot discriminate, and therefore cannot be used in accordance with the laws of war.

The best way to respond to the use of cluster munitions in Syria is to condemn it and ensure that the Convention on Cluster Munitions succeeds. By stigmatizing cluster munitions, the treaty represents the public’s revulsion to these weapons and desire to protect civilians from further suffering.

It will undoubtedly take time, but eventually countries like Israel, Russia, and Syria will recognize the futility of clinging to cluster munitions and adhere to the ban treaty, if not take steps to join it.