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Cluster bomb casualties increased in 2020, says watchdog

A Mines Advisory Group (MAG) technical field manager inspects a cluster bomb in the southern village of Ouazaiyeh, Lebanon, that was dropped by Israeli warplanes, 9 November 2006. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

Stockpiles of devastating cluster bombs are shrinking, but bloodshed continues, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor.

At least 360 people died or received injuries from cluster bombs last year, the Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor warned in a report released on Wednesday. All recorded victims were civilians, of whom nearly half were children.

Roughly 99 per cent of cluster bombs that 36 of the 110 state parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) had stockpiled are now destroyed per agreement reached in 2008, the Geneva-based watchdog said at a press conference organised by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research.

A cluster bomb can scatter up to hundreds of submunitions or “bomblets” over a large area of land or seabed. Bomblets are supposed to detonate on impact, but many do not. They can wreak havoc for years after a conflict ends, overwhelmingly on civilian lives.

More people were hurt or killed by cluster bomb remnants than in live attacks last year, according to the report. The difference was 218 to 142. Last year's 360 casualties tops the previous two years – 317 in 2019, 277 in 2018.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh caused much of last year’s increase, with around a third of casualties occuring in Azerbaijan. Both Azerbaijan and Armenian-allied forces detonated cluster bombs on multiple occasions during the six-week escalation of conflict towards the end of 2020.

Neither country is a member of the convention, which is holding next week its second review since its entry into force. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have said that they cannot join the convention until the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is settled.

Though the countries are not signatories, there are indications that the denunciation of these weapons is helping to de-normalise the use of cluster bombs in this and other conflicts, experts say.

“The denials of cluster munition attacks in Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh and their widespread condemnation shows how the prohibition on these weapons is gaining strength,” said Mary Wareham, ban policy editor of the report and arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Cluster bomb remnants also caused casualties in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq, Lao PDR, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, last year.

Over 1,000 sq km in Lao PDR and Vietnam are strewn with bomblets, the largest expanses of such contamination in the world. There are between 100 sq km and 1,000 sq km of contaminated land in Cambodia and Iraq. The United States sprayed bomblets across these countries during its conflicts with them.

The US reevaluated its use of cluster bombs in the 2000s and 2010s, and was due to ban their use from 1 January 2019 onward. In 2017, the Trump administration suspended plans for the ban, because it said that the country had not been able to develop less dangerous cluster bombs, Human Rights Watch reported.

It is difficult to control these weapons, and those who release them can shoot themselves in the foot. US-deployed clusters have killed American troops on multiple occasions, the New York Times revealed in 2019.

The US, as well as some other 73 countries, including China and Russia, have yet to join the treaty.

Despite several important international players remaining outside the convention, the CCM has made progress.

In addition to stockpile destruction, the state parties cleared 62 sq km of contaminated land and destroyed 81,000 bomblets last year – albeit less progress than the year before, during which 82.3 sq km were cleared and 96,500 bomblets were eliminated.