Casualties from cluster munitions soar in 2022 due to Ukraine war

Oleh Syniehubov, head of Kharkiv Oblast Military Administration, published a photo on Facebook reportedly showing the aftermath of a cluster munitions attack in her village on Ukraine's Independence Day, 24 August 2022. (Oleh Syniehubov/Facebook)

Russia has carried out numerous attacks in Ukraine using weapons widely banned across the world known as cluster munitions, causing hundreds of casualties in the region, new findings released on Thursday show. 

At least 689 civilians have been injured or killed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February in attacks using cluster munitions, according to evidence gathered in the Cluster Munition Monitor 2022, an annual report released by a coalition of civil society organisations.

These weapons – delivered by rockets or aircraft and scattering several smaller explosives over a wide area – are banned by 110 countries under an international treaty adopted in 2008. But neither Russia nor Ukraine have signed up to the agreement.

Ukraine is the only country in the world where there is evidence of cluster munitions being used, according to the report, with hundreds of attacks by Russian forces reported or alleged to have happened this year so far.

Ukrainian forces appear to also have used cluster munitions at least twice since the war began.

“Russia’s recent production of cluster munitions and its widespread use of them in Ukraine is unconscionable and deserves condemnation,” Mary Wareham, ban policy editor of Cluster Munition Monitor 2022 and Human Rights Watch (HRW) arms advocacy director, told journalists at a press conference in Geneva.

The rights group, which is part of the coalition behind the report, conducted a recent investigation, which found that in May and June, rockets launched by Russian forces had struck homes, parks and streets in Kharkiv, as well as an outpatient clinic at a maternity hospital and a cultural centre.

In a recent incident, two people were reportedly injured after an attack on a village in the Kharkiv region on Ukraine’s Independence Day on Wednesday.

“These attacks are a sobering reminder of what must be overcome if the international treaty to ban cluster munitions is to succeed in its goal of ending human suffering from these explosive weapons,” she added.

Read also: Countries agree to curb use of explosive weapons in cities

The findings come as states parties to the convention on cluster munitions prepare to gather in Geneva next week for their annual meeting, taking place from 30 August to 2 September.

“We are hoping to hear countries condemn the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine and to condemn the use of these weapons under any circumstances,” Wareham said, noting that so far, only 40 of the 110 parties to the treaty had done so.

Ukraine eclipses last year’s progress

Robin Geiss, director of the UN’s Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), which supports the monitor, said this year’s cluster munitions attacks in Ukraine had overshadowed some otherwise positive trends witnessed in 2021, the key period of focus of the report.

Last year was the first time in a decade that no civilians were injured or killed from cluster munition attacks.

Casualties that did occur were from remnants of cluster bombs that have failed to detonate immediately on impact and, like landmines, can pose a huge threat long after a conflict has ended.

Injuries and deaths from these remnants dropped sharply – down 59 per cent to 159 since 2020 – with casualties recorded in countries including Azerbaijan,  Iraq, Lao PDR,  Lebanon, Nagorno-Karabakh Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Western Sahara and Yemen.

But while the overall numbers declined, children remained among the most vulnerable, accounting for an increasing share of casualties (66 per cent), the report showed.

“Both Lao and Lebanon saw incidents where groups of children were injured having picked up or played with cluster munition remnants,” Ruth Bottomley, an editor on the monitor’s research team said. Many explosions also happen where children were helping their families in work activities such as farming or collecting scrap materials, she added.

To prevent these incidents from happening, countries need to step up efforts to clear land from cluster munition remnants and to educate their populations around the dangers of these weapons, Bottomley urged.

Twenty-nine states and areas are known or suspected to be contaminated by cluster munition remnants, including 10 states parties with clearance obligations. None managed to clear their territories of remnants last year.

“There's a need to really keep up the pressure for all state parties to complete clearance as soon as possible. And particularly those state parties that don't have much contamination, they need to get the job done, so that the focus and the money can go to the countries that have much larger contamination, including Ukraine,” she said.