Banned Munitions Still in Use, Report Says
Cluster bombs, internationally banned weapons that can maim and destroy indiscriminately, not only have been frequently used for the past two years by government forces in the Syrian civil war but also appear to have been deployed this year by antagonists in the South Sudan and eastern Ukraine conflicts, the director of a leading disarmament advocacy group said Wednesday.
Despite progress in eradicating cluster bombs and persuading more nations to join the treaty that prohibits them, the director of the group, Sarah Blakemore of the Cluster Munition Coalition, said the widened use of the weapons this year was troubling.
“The treaty itself has been a real success,” Ms. Blakemore said. “But what gives some urgency for countries to join is that it’s still happening in Syria.”
She described the use of the weapons in Syria as “really the most ongoing and serious one — not that the other ones aren’t a problem; they are.”
Ms. Blakemore spoke in a telephone interview from London, where the group is based, as it was preparing to observe the fourth anniversary of when the 2008 treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, went into force on Aug. 1, 2010. To date, 113 countries, more than half the world’s total, have joined the convention.
“This has created a powerful global stigma against the use of the weapon,” the group said in a statement. Still, 84 countries — including not only Syria, South Sudan and Ukraine but also China, Russia and the United States — have not joined.
Cluster bombs contain hundreds of small explosive munitions, or bomblets, dropped from the air or fired from the ground. They are designed to detonate in midair, scattering the bomblets over an area equivalent to several football fields, not differentiating between military and civilian targets.
Many of the bomblets fail to explode on impact and can remain a deadly menace if disturbed, effectively turning into land mines. In countries like Laos and Vietnam, where unexploded cluster munitions from the Vietnam War era have lain dormant for more than four decades, they remain a threat, “ready to kill or maim at any moment,” the Cluster Munition Coalition said. Ninety-four percent of cluster bomb casualties are civilians, nearly half of them children.
According to an assessment by Human Rights Watch, a member of the Cluster Munition Coalition, Syrian government forces used the weapons in at least 224 locations, in 10 of Syria’s 14 governorates, from July 2012 to this March, with new indications that their “use is ongoing.” The assessment is incomplete and based partly on remnants recorded by video, Human Rights Watch said, suggesting the actual use may be even more widespread.
Syria’s government has denied the use of cluster munitions in the conflict, which is now in its fourth year. But Ms. Blakemore said that the insurgents fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad did not have the capacity to deploy such weapons.
The circumstances of cluster bomb use in South Sudan and eastern Ukraine are murkier. The United Nations Mine Action Service, an agency that coordinates responses to land mines, cluster bombs and other war remnants, first found the vestiges of cluster bombs in South Sudan’s Jonglei State in February, apparently deployed by combatants in that country’s civil conflict.
“We did confirm cluster munitions were used, but not who used them,” said Lee Woodyear, a spokesman for the Mine Action Service, by telephone. Asked which side had the capacity to use them, he said: “That’s where it gets a little shadier. That’s what we can’t say for sure.”
More recently, the Armament Research Services, a weapons consultancy, posted on its website on July 3 visual evidence that fragmentation weapons of Russian or Ukrainian provenance had been used in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, an important industrial city in the area claimed by pro-Russia insurgents fighting the Ukrainian government.