Ninety-eight percent of recorded victims of cluster munitions are civilians, according to the Cluster Munition Monitor 2017, an annual report co-produced by Handicap International. These weapons kill, injure, maim, and cause serious psychological trauma. Up to 40% of submunitions do not explode on impact. They render whole areas uninhabitable, prevent the return of normal social and economic life, and displace people from their homes. These explosive remnants pose a threat to civilians, sometimes for decades after a conflict has ended.
Cluster munitions have been banned since 2010 with the enforcement of the Oslo Convention, which prohibits their use, production, storage, and transfer. Handicap International has made a significant contribution to this progress. Anne Héry, head of advocacy at Handicap International explains:
Why are cluster munitions banned?
This weapon its nature is, by its nature, indiscriminate. It does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. And this is contrary to International Humanitarian Law. Therefore, within the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), Handicap International has called for its ban, which we obtained in 2008 with the adoption of the Oslo Convention, which came into force two years later.
How does a cluster munition work?
A cluster bomb is a large container that is most often dropped by air. Once in the air, this container opens and scatters hundreds of small bombs called "submunitions.” Cluster bombs therefore have no precision. Their impact radius can be equivalent to a football field. If you are targeting a military warehouse, you will inevitably impact the surrounding infrastructure. This is simply unacceptable.
But there is a second effect: up to 40% of these submunitions, sometimes no bigger than a tennis ball, do not explode on impact. They remain on the ground and can be active and dangerous for decades, acting as antipersonnel mines. They can explode if someone passes close by or if accidentally picked up. Laos is the most striking example of submunition pollution. Submunitions were dropped on the east of the country in the 1960s. Today, people are still being killed and seriously injured by cluster munitions. Handicap International is helping victims of cluster bombs in the same way that it helps those injured by mines.
What prompted HI to engage in this area of work?
Cluster submunitions are inherently indiscriminate weapons and effectively become antipersonnel mines. Handicap International has campaigned against these deadly weapons since the early 1990s. Where we work, we observe that injuries caused by submunitions are often equivalent to those caused by mines. The explosion of a submunition can sever limbs and lacerate the body. Victims often have limbs amputated and need to undergo physical rehabilitation. They can suffer permanent disabilities along with all of the social, economic, and psychological consequences that comes with that type of injury.
Has the Oslo Convention changed things?
The universalization of the Convention has seen undeniable progress over the past seven years. There are now 119 member countries, including 102 States Parties, making it an effective instrument against these weapons. Fortunately, these horrific weapons are increasingly stigmatized. This means that more and more states are expressing official condemnations when these barbaric weapons are used, thus isolating the user country. Thanks to the destruction of stocks and the ban on their marketing, this weapon has become less accessible. Some arms companies have stopped producing them because markets are drying up.
Are countries still producing cluster munitions?
This is very difficult to say because the armaments sector is not very transparent. Sixteen countries including Brazil, China, North Korea, South Korea, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Russian Federation, Singapore, Turkey and the United States are expected to continue producing submunitions or reserves the right to produce them in the future. A lack of transparency and data makes it possible to establish whether these countries have recently produced them.
Another problem is the already existing stockpiles of these weapons. There are millions of submunitions in military arsenals! That is why their destruction is one of the obligations of the Convention.
One optimistic point: Since the enforcement of the Convention began on August 1, 2010, 28 States Parties have destroyed 1.4 million cluster munition stockpiles (175 million submunitions). This represents 97% of all cluster munitions and 98% of sub-munitions declared by States Parties. And eight States have finalized mine clearance of their cluster sub-munitions areas since enforcement of the Oslo Convention began in 2010.