• Send page
  • Print page

Cluster munitions: ICRC calls for urgent action

05-02-2008 Interview

The head of the ICRC's arms unit, Peter Herby, explains why the ICRC is calling for national and international action to address the devastating consequences these weapons have on civilian populations.


  Read also:
  • Statement by the President of the ICRC, 25 October 2007  
  • Resolution 8 of the Council of Delegates - 2007    
Why are cluster munitions of such concern from a humanitarian perspective?

Peter Herby, head of the ICRC's Arms Unit    
    Cluster munitions are area weapons. Each one can contain up to 644 individual submunitions or " bomblets " that are generally designed to explode on impact. In reality, a high percentage fail to explode as intended. Credible estimates of failure rates of cluster munitions in recent conflicts have varied from ten to forty percent. The result is that civilians are being killed or injured from these deadly devices for years or decades after wars have ended. Some affected countries or regions are infested with tens of thousands or sometimes millions of unexploded cluster submunitions. The clearance and destruction of cluster munitions is even more dangerous than mine clearance.

The ICRC is also concerned about the use of cluster munitions in populated areas. They are " area weapons " which can spread destruction over several thousand square metres. As most fall freely or on parachutes their accuracy depends on a range of factors, including wind and weather conditions, often landing in places other than the intended military target. Their inaccuracy and unreliability raise serious questions as to whether such weapons can be used in populated areas in accordance with the general rules of international humanitarian law, particularly the rule of distinction and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks.

 Could you give examples of the impact cluster munitions have on civilian populations?  


  ©Panos Pictures /S Sutton    
A Mines Advisory Group (MAG) team   clears unexploded cluster submunitions.    
     Laos is a country struggling to deal with the long-term consequences of severe contamination with cluster munitions used in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is estimated that up to 27 million bomblets failed to explode and these have been responsible for around half of the 11,000 deaths and injuries caused by unexploded ordnance in Laos since 1975. In the year following the Kosovo conflict the ICRC documented some 150 casualties due to unexploded cluster submunitions. Since the Lebanon conflict in mid-2006 almost 200 civilians have been killed or injured by unexploded submunitions. In addition to the direct casualties the presence of unexploded cluster submunitions also delays humanitarian assistance, impedes reconstruction and makes the use of agricultural areas extremely dangerous. So the cumulative effects of all of these factors are severe. Civilians suffer enough during conflicts. It is unacceptable that they should continue to suffer for years afterwards because of the use of such weapons.

 Why has the ICRC decided to call for action now?

States have known about the problems of cluster munitions for decades but only started to take action in the aftermath of the massive contamination of southern Lebanon with these weapons in 2006. That conflict also demonstrated that non-State armed groups now have access to cluster munitions and that the problem can rapidly become far worse if urgent steps are not taken.
At the moment only about 34 countries have produced and about 75 possess cluster munitions. But cluster munition stockpiles are enormous, amounting to millions of cluster munition containers containing billions of individual submunitions. Most of these are aging and becoming increasingly unreliable. We now have the opportunity to prevent tremendous human suffering by ensuring that such stocks are never used and are destroyed. If they proliferate and are used we could be witness a humanitarian crisis greater in scale than that caused by landmines.
 According to the ICRC, what steps should be taken to minimize such civilian suffering?  


  ©AP Mohammed Zaatari    
Children are common victims of cluster munitions. Sobhi Abbas   was injured while playing with one.    
    The ICRC has called on States to urgently negotiate a new treaty of international law which will completely prohibit inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions. The treaty should also provide for clearance of existing cluster munition contamination and assistance to their victims. Pending the adoption of such a treaty we have also called on States to immediately end the use of such weapons. It is encouraging that a number of countries such as Austria, Belgium, Hungary and Norway have done so as a matter of national law or policy. Other countries are in the process of destroying certain types of cluster munitions which they know to be unreliable or inaccurate.
 Why hasn't the ICRC called for a complete ban on cluster munitions?

The tragic impact of cluster munitions on civilians is a result of the use of an inaccurate area weapon in populated areas and from the contamination caused by submunitions that do not explode as intended. If cluster munitions with these characteristics are prohibited, the problem we describe will have been addressed. It is the effects and not the labelling that we are concerned about. Some cluster munitions may exist or be developed that do not have the same problems of inaccuracy and unreliability. If States can ensure this, these weapons may not pose the same humanitarian concerns.
 States are addressing this issue within two different fora, the "Oslo Process" and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). What are the ICRC's views on this?

The ICRC is prepared to contribute to the development of the strongest possible protection for civilians from cluster munitions, in any forum in which this issue is being discussed. It will therefore contribute to the work of States in both the Oslo Process and the CCW. We are interested in concrete results which will be implemented by the largest number of States.

We believe it is important to have an instrument that is strong, clear, easily implemented and will make a real difference on the ground. We are encouraged that some 130 States have participated in the Oslo Process on the basis of its objective of concluding a treaty in 2008 that will prohibit cluster munitions that cause " unacceptable harm to civilians " . The ICRC and the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has urged these governments to fulfil their commitment to negotiate and conclude such a treaty in 2008.

The objectives of the process to address cluster munitions in the CCW framework are, thus far, less clear. States have agreed to " negotiate a proposal " to address the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions in that framework. Until further clarity on State positions and the col lective intention of CCW States is available, it is difficult to evaluate the contribution this process might make. The ICRC will urge CCW States to embed any norms that can be agreed within the CCW framework in legally binding rules, as opposed to for example codes of conduct or best practices.