Cluster bombs: The preferred way to kill civilians in Syria and Yemen

An unexploded M77 DPICM submunition found in Dughayj village, northern Yemen, after a cluster munition attack in June or July 2015. (Credit: Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch)

The majority of civilian casualties in Syria are the result of bombing campaigns by the military and its Russian allies, according to new U.N. report. Seemingly indiscriminate attacks level entire cities and have left more than 250,000 people dead over the course of the five-year-old civil war. The disregard for life is evidenced by the use of cluster bombs, a weapon banned in a 2008 treaty.

The Russians and Syrians have carried out at least 360 cluster bomb attacks in the past four years, according to the new Cluster Munition Monitor report. Their use notably increased after Russia joined Syria’s campaign against rebel forces in September 2015. Human Rights Watch said the use of the bombs is “causing unacceptable civilian suffering” and must stop.

“The best way to ensure that cluster munitions don’t harm civilians in Syria and Yemen is to stigmatize their use and press countries that are using them to stop the attacks,” said Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and an editor of the report, in a statement. “Victims of these notoriously indiscriminate weapons deserve assistance and a better response than denials, dismissals and obfuscation.”

Cluster bombs killed more than 400 people in 2015. More than half of the casualties were in Syria, followed by Yemen and the Ukraine. The bombs are fired from either the ground or dropped by planes. They detonate above ground, indiscriminately scattering small bombs across a target area. When used in cities, as seen in Syria, the bombs pose a significant threat to civilians.

Worse yet, many of the small bombs land and do not explode. The virtual land mines pose a particularly deadly risk for children who might not know that the colorful object on the ground is a deadly weapon, not a toy. For these reasons, advocates are pushing to ban cluster bombs.

“We must never tolerate brutality,” said Marion Libertucci, deputy director of Handicap International’s advocacy unit, in a statement. “The repeated use of cluster munitions in Syria and Yemen reveals a total disregard for civilian lives and, in certain cases, a deliberate attempt to target them.”

Some 119 countries and states have accepted or signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions since its founding in 2008. Representatives met earlier this week in Geneva to discuss the treaty, its progress and challenges to the ban. Missing from the meeting and the treaty are the countries Human Rights Watch says still use cluster bombs.

At least 13 different types of cluster bombs have been used in Syria. The bombs were produced in Russia and Egypt, with some dating back to the Soviet era, according to the report. Since July 2015, Yemen is the only other country with documented cluster bomb attacks. The report charges that the Saudi-led coalition carried out 19 attacks using cluster bombs.

Alarmingly, Human Rights Watch said that its figures for Syria and Yemen do not necessarily account for all attacks. It is likely that cluster bombs are used more than we know. The increased use, particularly by outside actors, is deeply concerning to advocates.

“War does not mean everything is justified,” Libertucci said. “Not everything is allowed. International law exists and the Convention on Cluster Munitions is part of that. It must be enforced. The Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Mine Ban Convention and the Geneva Conventions protect us from barbarism. All states have a responsibility to ensure these rules are upheld and enforced.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.