Cluster Munition Monitor Finds Progress Despite Use in Ukraine

Susan Aboeid, Human Rights Watch

Fourteen years after the adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the treaty’s goal of ending the casualties and suffering caused by cluster munitions is well on its way to realization. Nevertheless, the new Cluster Munition Monitor documents hundreds of cluster munition casualties, especially in Ukraine, that highlight the urgent work still needed to achieve universal implementation of the Convention.

The Cluster Munition Monitor 2022 annual report, released August 25 by the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international civil society campaign working to eradicate cluster munitions, presents countries’ positions on ratifying and adhering to the 2008 international treaty banning cluster munitions, and reviews evidence of new global use, including in Ukraine. This week, the convention is holding its Tenth Meeting of States Parties in Geneva. 

A cluster bomb warhead stands upright in a field, with a tractor plowing the field in the distance. Overlaying the photo is the text "Cluster Munition Monitor 2022" and at the bottom, "Cluster Munition Coalition"
Cover of Cluster Munition Monitor 2022.
Credit: Cluster Munition Coalition, 2022.

The indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions poses grave threats to civilian populations. The weapons, which can be ground-launched or air-dropped, open in the air to disperse multiple submunitions, or bomblets, over a wide area and endanger civilians at the time of attack. In addition, many of these submunitions fail to explode upon initial impact, resulting in de facto landmines, killing and maiming civilians years after conflicts have ended.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions commits states never to use, develop, produce, acquire, stockpile, or transfer cluster munitions. It also provides strict deadlines for stockpile destruction and clearance, and requires victim assistance measures.

As of today, the Convention on Cluster Munitions has 110 states parties and 13 signatories. According to the Monitor, there have been no confirmed reports or allegations of new cluster munition use by any state party since the convention was adopted in 2008. However, no country has joined the convention since Saint Lucia acceded in September 2020. The declining pace of ratification may be due to a myriad of factors including the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the Monitor’s reporting period of August 2021 to July 2022, Ukraine was the only country where cluster munitions are still being used. Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russian forces have conducted hundreds of cluster munition attacks across Ukraine, and debuted two newly developed cluster munitions. This use of cluster munitions has resulted in more than 600 casualties and damaged numerous homes, hospitals, and schools. Ukrainian forces also appear to have used cluster munitions at least twice during the war. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have joined the convention.

More than 40 countries have condemned the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine in statements at various United Nations bodies including the Human Rights Council, the Security Council, and the General Assembly. Most recently, Latvia’s Saeima (parliament) issued a strong statement criticizing Russia’s “extensive use of particularly cruel and inaccurate weapons [including] the use of internationally banned cluster munitions in Ukraine to sow fear and indiscriminately kill civilians.” The strong opposition to cluster munitions shows why Latvia’s government should take steps to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

There were no reports of new cluster munition use in any other country during the reporting period. In 2021, for the first time since 2011, no new casualties from cluster munition attacks were recorded. In the same year, however, 147 casualties from cluster munition remnants were documented, most of them children. Loren Persi from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines–Cluster Munition Coalition stated that when casualties from cluster munition attacks are low, it becomes evident that these weapons pose a disproportional threat to civilians. In this year’s reporting period, 97% of unexploded submunition victims were civilians, and 66% of all casualties, where age group was recorded, were children.

The Monitor report also tracks states’ efforts to destroy their stockpiled cluster munitions, clear areas contaminated by these weapons, and provide cluster munition victims with appropriate assistance.

As of this year’s reporting period, of the 42 states parties with stockpiled cluster munitions, at least 37 have completely destroyed their stocks. This number collectively accounts for destroying nearly 1.5 million cluster munitions and more than 179 million submunitions, or 99% of all cluster munition stockpiles. However, four states parties, Bulgaria, Peru, Slovakia, and South Africa, have yet to destroy their cluster munition stocks, which collectively tally to about 11,637 cluster munitions.

In terms of clearance, there are 29 states and other areas known or suspected to be contaminated by cluster munition remnants, including 10 states parties with clearance obligations. Globally, only 12 countries have completed clearance of their cluster munition-contaminated lands. No additional country has joined this list in the past year, but clearance efforts have continued. In 2021, states parties reported clearing approximately 61 km2 of contaminated land. Unfortunately, the Monitor documents a decrease in states parties on track to achieving their clearance obligations. For example, this year Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chad, and Chile have all requested clearance deadline extensions.

Another challenge facing the implementation of the treaty is the collapsing economic and health systems in multiple states parties. The lack of adequate funding has caused severe challenges to fulfilling victim assistance obligations in many countries, including Lebanon and Afghanistan. Efforts to address the trauma and long-term mental health impact on cluster munition victims have also been negatively impacted by scarce and underfunded resources.

The global decline and condemnation of cluster munition use, in addition to the lack of cluster munition transfers to Ukraine from third parties, suggests that the convention has positively contributed to the weapon’s deeply problematic and stigmatized reputation. However, as seen in Ukraine, this is not enough. The Cluster Munition Coalition calls on states not only to condemn the use of cluster munitions anywhere by anyone, but to urgently join the convention if they have not done so. The Monitor also highlights the importance of the convention’s effective implementation across the board to help rid the world of the human suffering caused by cluster munitions.

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