On May 8, 1999 a NATO cluster bomb strike aimed at the Nis, Serbia airport went astray, resulting in at least 14 immediate deaths and between 28 and 70 injuries. Police reported finding at least 20 unexploded bomblets in the area of the strikes. One man who was injured in this attack, 72 year-old Vladimir Jovanovic, died some 11 months later on April 4, 2000, when he was working in his yard with a shovel. His shovel accidentally hit a buried cluster bomb which blew up and killed him.
With each war, there is a growing number of victims, many of them children and other civilians, who suffer injury or death from cluster munitions. Mr. Jovanovic had the misfortune of experiencing the characteristics which make cluster bombs so prone to cause indiscriminate injury and death: the difficulty in targeting such wide area munitions in civilian areas, and their high dud rate which converts them into de facto landmines after the battle is over.
There are persistent and predictable patterns resulting from cluster munitions use, now demonstrable over a 30+ year period from the Indochina War until the present. Cluster bombs are wide area munitions, difficult to use safely in civilian areas. Cluster bombs are small, and very difficult to track, map, or find. With dud rates ranging from an estimated 2% to over 30%, they create large, unmapped minefields in areas where people live or will return to live. Many of the submunitions bury themselves, gradually coming to the surface over time, or as a result of agricultural activity. Cluster munitions are sensitive to the touch even when they do not function as designed. Children find them almost irresistible, and often play with them even after they have been warned of the danger. Cluster munitions continue to maim and kill long after a war has ended.
Despite these predictable effects, there are no international conventions which explicitly restrict or ban the use of cluster munitions. However, in recent years, government leaders restricted or halted the use of cluster munitions during several times of conflict, because of concerns about their indiscriminate effects.
In the context of the Campaign to Ban Landmines, the issue of cluster munitions has surfaced frequently, due to the similarity in effect between landmines and cluster munitions. While the Ottawa Treaty uses a design-based definition for landmines which likely excludes cluster munitions from the Treaty’s provisions, the wars in Kosova/Serbia and Chechnya have once again placed cluster munitions squarely on the arms control agenda.
Cluster munitions have been employed worldwide, used by state and non-state actors in places as diverse as the Afghanistan, Angola, Chechnya, Croatia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Kashmir, Kosovo, Laos, Lebanon, Nagorno-Karabakh, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Vietnam.
Contractors from around the globe produce cluster bombs, multiple rocket launcher systems, submunitions, and their components. A non-exclusive list includes manufacturers in Belgium, Brazil, Chile, China, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, India, Israel, Italy, Germany, North Korea, Poland, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Cluster bombs kill indiscriminately in two ways: (1) “geographically,” because they are wide area munitions which are difficult to target, and thus are likely to kill and injure civilian and soldier alike, especially in civilian areas, and (2) “temporally,” because their high dud rates guarantee the creation of de facto landmine fields, and thus go on killing for decades after the battle is over.
The lethality of cluster bombs is so high, that even when used “properly” against combatants, they arguably violate the international prohibition against weapons that cause superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering. Increasing international criticism on cluster bomb use makes it incumbent upon the international community to act now. Cluster bomb use must be stopped while the nations of the world consider restrictions and bans on the use of these indiscriminate and inhumane weapons.
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 This article summarizes a more extensive report entitled Clusters of Death: The Mennonite Central Committee Global Report on Cluster Bomb Production and Use, July 2000. Access the full report at: http://www.mcc.org/clusterbomb/report/index.htm The full report focuses on cluster bomb production and use by the United States, Russia, and Sudan. Additional country studies will be added periodically. Titus Peachey is a Staff Associate for Peace Education with Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, Pennsylvania. Virgil Wiebe is an Advocacy Fellow at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.