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A land art painting called "All of us!" by the artist Saype in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva installed during a meeting of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, September 11, 2023. © 2023 Reuters/Denis Balibouse

(Geneva, September 14, 2023) – The news that three countries have destroyed their stocks of cluster munitions highlights the global rejection of the weapon despite its recent use, production, and transfers by countries that have not banned cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch said today.

The 11th meeting of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, to which 112 countries are party, was held on September 11 to 14, 2023, in Geneva. Among the developments, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and South Africa formally announced the completion of their years-long processes to destroy their stockpiled cluster munitions. The three countries have destroyed a combined total of 9,582 cluster munitions and 585,422 submunitions.

“Countries that have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to destroy their stockpiles, clear remnants, and oppose the weapon’s use,” said Mary Wareham, acting arms director at Human Rights Watch. “The main concern remains with countries unwilling to ban the weapon that may continue to use them now or start using them in the future.”

The Convention on Cluster Munitions comprehensively bans cluster munitions and requires the destruction of stockpiles, clearance of cluster munition remnants, and assistance to victims of the weapons. There have been no confirmed reports or allegations of new use, production, or transfers of cluster munitions by any state party since the convention was adopted in Dublin, Ireland on May 30, 2008.

Additional highlights of the 11th meeting include:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina announced that it has completed clearing cluster munition remnants from its territory, over more than 14 square kilometers of land. Its landmine clearance work continues.
  • Peru – now the last state party with cluster munition stocks left to destroy – said it is on track to meet its stockpile destruction deadline of April 1, 2024.
  • Nigeria and South Sudan – the latest countries to ratify the convention in 2023 – reiterated their firm support for the convention and willingness to implement it.
  • Six of the 12 countries that have signed but not yet ratified the treaty participated in the conference. Among them was the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which said it was working to ratify the convention by the end of 2023.
  • Nine countries that have not signed the treaty attended as observers. One of them, Turkey, stated that “it has never used, produced, imported or transferred cluster munitions since 2005, nor does it intend to do in the future.”
Amb. Yuri Sterk of Bulgaria (right) hands over formal documents confirming his country’s completion of the destruction of its stockpile of 6,862 cluster munitions and 186,349 submunitions to the president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Amb. Abdul Karim Hashim Mustafa of Iraq, September 12, 2023.  © 2023 Convention on Cluster Munitions implementation support unit

Cluster munitions can be fired from the ground by artillery, rockets, missiles, and mortar projectiles, or dropped by aircraft. They typically open in the air, dispersing multiple submunitions or bomblets over a wide area. Many submunitions fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that can indiscriminately injure and kill like landmines for years, until they are cleared and destroyed.

Approximately 66 states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions participated in the 11th meeting. They adopted a final report that “underscored the obligation of States Parties never under any circumstances to use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer cluster munitions” and “condemned any use of cluster munitions by any actor.”

In their report, the parties expressed the meeting’s “grave concern at the significant increase in civilian casualties and the humanitarian impact resulting from the repeated and well documented use of cluster munitions” since 2021, particularly with respect to “the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine.”

The “Cluster Munition Monitor 2023” report, which Human Rights Watch helped to produce, found that 95 percent of people reported killed or wounded by cluster munitions during 2022 were civilians. Cluster munition attacks killed or wounded at least 987 people in 2022, of whom 890 were in Ukraine. Russia has used cluster munitions repeatedly in Ukraine since its full-scale invasion of the country on February 24, 2022, causing civilian deaths and injuries. Ukrainian forces have also used cluster munitions, resulting in civilian casualties. The Myanmar military and Syrian government forces used cluster munitions in 2022, causing harm to civilians. None of these countries have signed or ratified the cluster munitions treaty.

On September 7, the New York Times reported on Ukraine’s use of the US cluster munitions that were transferred in July and said that “the Biden administration is planning to send more, and soon,” citing three unnamed US officials.

The transfer and use of US cluster munitions runs contrary to the norms of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. It also disregards the lessons of past conflicts and the foreseeable humanitarian harm to civilians that cluster munitions cause now and for decades to come.

In July, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres released his “New Agenda for Peace,” which urges UN member states to work to “achieve universality of treaties banning inhumane and indiscriminate weapons” such as the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

“Countries that have not banned cluster munitions should heed the call of the United Nations secretary-general and join the convention without delay,” Wareham said.

Human Rights Watch co-founded and chairs the Cluster Munition Coalition, the global coalition of nongovernmental organizations working to eradicate cluster munitions.

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