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Cluster munitions

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What are cluster munitions?
When have they been used?
Efforts to ban cluster munitions

What are cluster munitions?

Cluster munitions (or cluster bombs) are weapons that consist of one carrier container filled with separate bomblets. A cluster bomb can contain anywhere from nine to several hundred bomblets. When dropped, the bomb is designed to open mid-air and distribute the bomblets so that they, on impact, will explode and affect an area that can be as wide as several football fields. 

Cluster bombs are neither accurate nor reliable. Bomblets often malfunction, and fail to explode on impact. Instead, they lay in wait—like a landmine, but even more volatile—until some unsuspecting person, frequently, a child, disturbs it. Unexploded cluster munitions continue to kill for decades after conflicts are over. 98 percent of their victims are civilians.

When have cluster munitions been used – a short history

1943 - Soviet forces use air-dropped cluster munitions against German armour. German forces use SD-1 and SD-2 butterfly bombs against artillery on the Kursk salient. German aircraft drop more than 1,000 SD-2 butterfly bombs on the port of Grimsby.

1960s-1970s - US forces make extensive use of cluster munitions in bombing campaigns in Cambodia, Laos, and in Viet Nam.

1973 - Israel uses air-dropped cluster munitions against non-state armed group (NSAG) training camps near Damascus.

1975-1988 - Moroccan forces use cluster munitions against NSAG.

1978 - Israel uses cluster munitions in southern Lebanon.

1979-1989 - Soviet forces make use of air-dropped and rocket-delivered cluster munitions. NSAG also use rocket-delivered cluster munitions on a smaller scale..

1982 - Israel uses cluster munitions against Syrian forces and NSAG in Lebanon. UK aircraft drop cluster munitions on Argentinean infantry positions near Port Stanley, Port Howard, and Goose Green.

1986-1987 - French aircraft drop cluster munitions on a Libyan airfield at Wadi Doum.

1991 - The US and its allies (France, Saudi Arabia, UK) drop 61,000 cluster bombs containing approximately 20 million submunitions.

1992-1994 - PTAB submunitions found in various locations.

1994-1996 - Russian forces use cluster munitions against NSAG.

1996-1999 - Sudanese government forces use air-dropped cluster munitions in southern Sudan.

1997 - Nigerian ECOMOG peacekeepers use Beluga bombs on the eastern town of Kenema.

1998 - Ethiopia and Eritrea exchange aerial cluster munition attacks, Ethiopia attacking the Asmara airport and Eritrea attacking the Mekele airport.

1999 - The US, UK, and Netherlands drop 1,765 cluster bombs containing 295,000 bomblets on Serbia, Montenegro,and Kosovo.

2001-2002 - The US drops 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248, 056 bomblets on Afghanistan.

2003-2006 - The US and UK use nearly 13,000 cluster munitions containing an estimated 2 million submunitions in the three weeks of major combat in Iraq.

2008 - Russia uses several types of cluster munitions, both air- and ground-launched, in a number of locations in Georgia’s Gori district.

2011 - Gaddafi’s forces use cluster munitions in Misrata, Libya.

Efforts to ban cluster munitions

The obligation of governments to protect civilians during conflict has proven hard to fulfill when it comes to weapons which cannot separate civilians from military targets, or which cause excessive humanitarian harm. After countries signed a treaty banning antipersonnel landmines in 1997, the general opinion was that the same should be done with cluster bombs. A group of supportive governments negotiated and managed to arrive at a formal adoption of an international treaty prohibiting cluster munitions.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) prohibits all use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of cluster munitions. Separate articles within the Convention concern assistance to victims, clearance of contaminated areas, and destruction of stockpiles. The CCM was signed by 94 states when it opened for signature in Oslo, Norway on 3 December 2008. Since the Convention has entered into force on 1 August 2010, it is no longer open for signatures and states can no longer sign and then ratify the treaty. States must now become bound through accession, which has the same effect as ratification. States that already signed the Convention must still ratify it in order to become a State Party bound by the Convention’s provisions. So far, 111 countries have joined the Convention and 75 are States Parties.

The first two meetings of States Parties took place in Vientiane in 2010, and in Beirut in 2011. The third meeting took place in Oslo in September 2012. Future States Parties will accede to the Convention by submitting their ratifications to the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Some countries are opposed to the CCM because it was negotiated outside of normal UN channels. Some of the major cluster munition producers, exporters, and users, such as the United States, Russia, China, and Israel, are not yet party to the Convention. They have tried to instigate negotiations of a weaker treaty through the forum provided for the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva. However, in November 2011, the CCW Review Conference ended “with a resounding rejection of a US-back proposal for a Protocol that would allow continued cluster munition use.” The Conference also did not adopt a mandate for any further work on cluster munitions.

Materials and resources

Women and Cluster Munitions, WILPF, November 2007

Cluster Munitions Coalition

Action on Armed Violence

Article 36

Disarmament Insight