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Cluster munitions: weapons made to massacre

Explosive weapons

Cluster munitions have been recently used in the Azerbaijan-Armenia war. Humanity & Inclusion's Armed Violence Reduction Specialist, Gary Toombs, explains why this weapon is banned.

A cluster munition in a forest in Laos

A cluster munition in a forest in Laos | © D. Kremer / HI

Recent uses of cluster munitions by Azerbaijan and Armenia forces occurred in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

What are the facts?

According to Human Rights Watch, Armenian forces either fired or supplied cluster munitions in an attack on Barda city, reportedly killing at least 21 civilians and wounding at least 70 others. The Azerbaijan army has used cluster munitions in at least four separate incidents since the fighting began. These uses occured in populated areas, making them even more dangerous for civilians. According to a survey they were Russian production; Russia did not join the Oslo convention that bans cluster munition.

Why is there a ban on cluster munitions?

Cluster munitions are indiscriminate weapons. In other words, they affect combatants and civilians without distinction. This is an infringement of international humanitarian law and as a member of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), HI therefore called for a ban on these weapons. This ban was achieved in 2008, with the adoption of the Oslo Convention which entered into force two years later.

How do cluster munitions work?

A cluster bomb is a large container most often dropped by an aircraft. Once in the air, the container opens and scatters hundreds of small bombs called “submunitions”. Cluster bombs are not precision weapons but instead they can impact an area as wide as a football pitch. For example, if the target is a military depot the weapon will inevitably hit surrounding homes. This lack of precision poses a particular threat to civilians.

No bigger than a tennis ball

But it also has a second impact: up to 40% of these submunitions, sometimes no bigger than a tennis ball, do not explode on impact. They stay on the ground and can remain active and hazardous for decades, in the same way as anti-personnel mines. They can explode if you pass close to them or pick them up. Laos is the most striking example of cluster munition pollution. Dropped by US-Army on the east of the country in the 1960s, their submunition remnants continue to kill and maim people today. HI helps cluster munition victims in the same way it helps mine victims. The problems are comparable.

In the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the cluster munitions used are supposed to automatically self-destruct one minute after hitting the ground so that the weapons not to leave any contamination. However, who can be sure that this mechanism works out?

What impact has the Oslo Convention made?

The Convention on Cluster Munitions has had a very positive impact over the last 10 years. 123 countries have now joined the Convention and the use of these weapons is increasingly condemned. As a result of the destruction of stockpiles and the ban on their sale, these weapons are becoming less and less accessible. Some weapon companies have stopped producing them because the markets are drying up.

Date published: 26/11/20


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