Ukraine: Explosive Weapons, Cluster Munitions, and Conflict Pollution Take Human and Environmental Toll

Jacqulyn Kantack, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought key humanitarian disarmament issues to the fore. The conflict has seen extensive use of explosive weapons in populated areas and cluster munitions as well as war-related environmental damage. Since Russian forces entered Ukraine on February 24, humanitarian disarmament organizations have documented and condemned the use of indiscriminate weapons and the human and environmental harm they cause. These groups have also stressed that the threats to Ukraine’s civilians are a long-term problem because explosive weapons, cluster munitions, and conflict pollution leave legacies that last for years or even decades after hostilities end.

Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

The armed conflict in Ukraine has made vividly clear the danger the use of explosive weapons in populated areas poses to civilians. These weapons encompass a range of air-dropped, surface-launched, and other weapons such as aircraft bombs, artillery projectiles, rockets, and missiles. Their use in populated areas causes civilian casualties and destroys homes and other civilian buildings. It also leads to displacement and reverberating effects; damaged infrastructure interferes with basic services, which in turn infringes on human rights. These impacts are magnified when the explosive weapons have wide area effects due to a large blast or fragmentation radius, an inaccurate delivery mechanism, or the delivery of multiple munitions at once.

UN agencies and numerous civil society organizations have reported on Russia’s extensive use of explosive weapons in populated areas in the initial weeks of the conflict. Action on Armed Violence has found, based on English-language media reports, that hundreds of civilian casualties can be attributed to use of explosive weapons in populated areas of Ukraine. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented an March 3 attack on the city of Chernihiv using unguided aerial bombs that killed 47 civilians.

The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), Amnesty International, Action on Armed Violence, Center for Civilians in Conflict, Human Rights Watch, Humanity & Inclusion, PAX, and others have condemned Russia’s bombing and shelling of Ukraine’s population centers since the invasion began.

On February 24, INEW warned, “the use of explosive weapons including airstrikes, multiple launch rocket systems, missiles, and bombs near major towns and cities poses a grave and foreseeable risk of death and injury to civilians, including harm from damage and destruction to vital civilian infrastructure and essential services.” INEW called on “all parties to stop the use of heavy explosive weapons in towns, cities and other populated areas due to the high risk of harm to civilians.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross also called on parties to the conflict to avoid the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas “as it carries with it a high likelihood of indiscriminate effects.”

Ireland recently announced that the final round of negotiations of a new political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas will take place from April 6-8. The process began in 2019 but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation in Ukraine adds impetus for states to reach agreement on a strong declaration text that includes a commitment to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

Cluster Munitions

Russia has also widely used cluster munitions in Ukraine since its invasion began. Cluster munitions are large weapons that disperse dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions over an area the size of a football field. They endanger civilians at the time of attack because they cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians. In addition, many fail to explode on impact, lingering like landmines that threaten civilians long after a conflict ends.

Investigators have confirmed that Russian cluster munition strikes have affected healthcare facilities, residential areas, and schools. Human Rights Watch documented the use of cluster munitions near a hospital in Vuhledar, a town in the Donetska region of Ukraine, on February 24. The strike killed four civilians and wounded ten more. In a second attack investigated by Human Rights Watch, Russian forces launched cluster munition rockets into three neighborhoods of Kharkiv on February 28. Amnesty International reported cluster munition use on a kindergarten in Okhtryka on February 25 that killed three civilians, including a child, and wounded another child.

Humanitarian disarmament organizations have expressed outrage at the use of cluster munitions. On February 26, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC) condemned the cluster munition attacks in Ukraine, and called for “an immediate halt to use of the internationally banned weapon.” The ICBL-CMC “urge[d] all parties to guarantee protection of civilians, respect for international humanitarian law, and the international norm banning use of cluster munitions and landmines.” Human Rights Watch stated, “using cluster munitions in populated areas shows a brazen and callous disregard for people’s lives,” and warned that the incidents in Kharkiv, “if carried out intentionally or recklessly” would constitute war crimes. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a state party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Amnesty International, Humanity & Inclusion, Mines Action Canada, and the US Campaign to Ban Landmines, among other humanitarian disarmament organizations, have also denounced Russian use of cluster munitions, expressed concern over the harm these weapons inflict on civilians, and called for an end to their use.

Environmental Damage

The armed conflict in Ukraine also seriously threatens the environment. Although further on-the-ground research will need to be conducted, the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) and PAX have described the damage that has reportedly already occurred and the long-term threats Ukraine faces.

In the first few days of the conflict, Russia attacked numerous ammunition and fuel storage facilities that were part of Ukraine’s military infrastructure. The strikes produced fires and plumes of air-polluting smoke and created a risk of water and soil contamination. Military materiel, in addition to military sites, has also polluted the environment. Destroyed military vehicles and other equipment and unexploded ordnance are leaving affected regions littered with explosive and toxic remnants of war.

Widespread destruction of civilian buildings and infrastructure, including from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, will also cause pollution. Pulverization of residential or commercial buildings, for example, can release asbestos or metals. PAX has highlighted the risks posed by damage to power plants and water treatment facilities, which often contain hazardous substances or chemicals.  CEOBS has noted that the environmental threats from industries in Ukraine, including chemical production facilities, could cause serious groundwater and soil pollution.

Ukraine’s nuclear power facilities present distinct environmental concerns. CEOBS has warned that failure to continue routine maintenance at nuclear facilities, particularly Chernobyl, could result in a major incident. Shelling occurred at the Zaporizhzhia plant causing damage to a training center and a laboratory; a direct hit on the radioactive material contained in such facilities could create an environmental disaster.

On March 2, 108 civil society organizations released a statement at the UN Environment Assembly expressing concern about many of the environmental threats discussed above. The statement declared, “This armed conflict poses serious risks to the lives and health of Ukraine’s people in the first place, while in turn this can also bring severe environmental health risks and affects Ukraine’s biodiversity, ecosystems and natural resources that they depend on.” It called on states to provide support for an initial environmental assessment and to pledge assistance for environmental monitoring and restoration efforts. 

Other Humanitarian Disarmament Concerns

Civil society coalitions have also highlighted links between the current conflict in Ukraine and other humanitarian disarmament issues. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) strongly condemned not only Russia’s invasion but also Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons. In its statement against the invasion, Control Arms called on states parties to the Arms Trade Treaty to uphold their obligations under that treaty, including to “prohibit transfers of conventional arms if they have knowledge that they would be used in attacks directed against civilian targets or used to commit or facilitate other war crimes.”