New Internationalist

Time bombs

Issue 365

The legacy of cluster bombs is as lethal as landmines

Fourteen-year-old Teng was working in the fields when his hoe hit what he thought was a stone. It exploded on impact, leaving Teng blinded in both eyes and with most of his left hand blown away.

Teng was not the victim of one of the millions of cluster bomblets dropped in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kosovo over the last five years. He was the victim of one of the 350 million bomblets dropped in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago.

Despite the fact that cluster bombs leave a legacy as lethal as landmines, they are not covered by international law and there are no specific controls on their use. The problems with cluster bombs or munitions are two-fold. First, they are an inaccurate weapon scattering up to 200 bomblets or submunitions over an area the size of a football field, often causing significant civilian casualties.

As an indiscriminate weapon with a heavy impact on civilians, under the Geneva Convention cluster bombs should never be used in built-up civilian areas. Yet Coalition use of cluster munitions in Iraq in March and April 2003 has been confirmed in many populated areas including Baghdad, Basra, Hillah, Kirkuk, Mosul and Nasiriyah. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 1,000 civilians were killed or wounded by cluster bombs dropped by US and British forces during the conflict – that is more civilian casualties than from any other Coalition-related factor.

Secondly there is a high failure rate amongst the bomblets. Between 5 and 30 per cent of bomblets fail to explode on impact and effectively turn into anti-personnel mines. These go on killing and maiming civilians long after the conflicts have ended, preventing people from returning to their homes and working their land.

According to the British group Landmine Action, at least one million submunitions were dropped in Iraq by Coalition forces. A failure rate of even five per cent will have left a minimum of 50,000 unexploded time bombs threatening people’s lives and livelihoods. The real number is likely to be much higher as full details of numbers and types used have not yet been revealed.

While anti-personnel mines – now banned by 141 countries – are designed to maim, cluster bombs, along with other explosive remnants of war such as unexploded and abandoned bombs, mortars and rockets are more likely to kill or cause severe injuries.

The Cluster Munition Coalition, representing 106 organizations from 46 countries around the world, was launched in November 2003 to campaign for international law to deal with the problems of cluster bombs and other explosive remnants of war. Unlike the anti-landmines campaign, the Cluster Munition Coalition is not calling for a total ban on cluster bombs but demanding that there should be no use, production or trade of them until their humanitarian problems have been resolved, that there must be an increase in assistance to those affected and that those who use them must accept responsibility for their clearance.

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