Disarmament Insight


Friday, 18 May 2007

Facing the facts on cluster munitions

People who live and work in areas where cluster munitions have been used are only too familiar with the horrific humanitarian impact of this weapons system, both at the time of use and for long after the bombs have stopped falling.

NGOs and UN bodies have been documenting this impact for years, in greater and greater disturbing detail. But on Wednesday (May 16), the NGO Handicap International sketched the most complete picture yet of the impact that cluster munitions have on the lives, limbs and livelihoods of the people unfortunate enough to live in their midst. Their report makes for sobering reading. Its key findings include:

- The available data shows that cluster munitions have nearly always been used in or near civilian populated areas against unknown or unspecified targets

- 400 million people currently live among unexploded cluster sub-munitions

- 98 percent of cluster sub-munition casualties are civilians, killed and injured while returning home in the aftermath of conflict or while going about their daily tasks to survive

- The majority of victims are poor, uneducated males, many of them boys under the age of 18

These are just some of the hard facts that will have to be faced by the governments gathering in Lima, Peru, on May 23-25 to take the first step along the path agreed in Oslo in February (see the May 15 and April 24 postings by John Borrie for background on the "Oslo process" on cluster munitions).

The Oslo declaration does not - necessarily - foresee a complete ban on cluster munitions, but rather a ban on those cluster munitions that cause "unacceptable harm" to civilians. The Handicap International report has made it more difficult to claim that some cluster munitions cause harm that is "acceptable" in any humane sense of the word.

To pass the muster of international humanitarian law, the military advantage to be gained from the use of a weapon must be proportional to the civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects caused by the attack. This notion of "proportionality," it seems to me, is closely related to the concept of "unacceptable harm" that will be at the heart of the Oslo process negotiations.

Clearly, a 98 percent civilian casualty rate is neither proportional nor acceptable. It is also difficult to imagine what cumulative military advantage could be worth 400 million people living in daily fear of losing their lives or their loved ones.

Patrick Mc Carthy


"Circle of Impact: The Fatal Footprint of Cluster Munitions on People and Communities." Handicap International - http://en.handicapinternational.be/index.php

Photo by Dave Mitchell on Flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/davemitchell/279352521/. The photo is of a child picking up a fake cluster sub-munition at a Derry Anti-War Coalition demonstration (Northern Ireland).