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Casualties from cluster munitions more than doubled in 2016 compared with the previous year, according to a new report released by the Cluster Munition Coalition. The group, which monitors the global use of outlawed cluster munitions, revealed in its 2017 annual report that nearly a thousand people were killed or injured by cluster munitions last year. This is a steep increase from 2015, when only 417 cluster munition casualties were reported, and is the second highest annual figure of reported casualties since the Coalition began recording in 2009. According to the report, 98 per cent of the casualties were civilians.
Cluster munitions are deadly weapons that can be fired from the ground or dropped aerially. They consist of containers that typically open in the air to disperse multiple submunitions over a wide area. Cluster bombs pose a significant danger to civilians, not only because of their indiscriminate nature and impact at the time of use, but also because of their deadly legacy. Many submunitions fail to detonate on initial impact and instead become de facto landmines that kill and injure indiscriminately long after the conflict has ended.
The Cluster Munition Coalition said that last year’s increase in casualties could be primarily attributed to the ongoing war in Syria. For instance, out of the 971 people killed or injured by cluster munitions last year, 860 were in Syria. While the Syrian government has reportedly used both ground-launched and air-dropped cluster munitions on opposition-held areas since mid-2012, the use of such weapons has significantly increased since Russia began its military operation in Syria in September 2015. Mary Wareham, the Arms Division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and an editor of the Coalition’s 2017 report, called the ongoing cluster munition use in Syria an outrage that would contribute to “the country’s ever-worsening legacy of contamination from landmines and explosive remnants of war,” which would “pose a fundamental obstacle to aid access across the country.”
In addition to the Syrian casualties, the Coalition’s report found that 38 people had been killed or injured from cluster munitions in Yemen, primarily as a result of Saudi-led coalition bombing. A further 51 casualties were recorded in Laos, which was attributed to the lethal remnants of cluster munitions dating back to the American bombing of the country during the 1960s and 1970s. Casualties from cluster munition remnants were also recorded in a total of ten countries in 2016.
With that said, to protect civilians from the effects of these weapons, the Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted in 2008, which prohibits states from producing, using, transferring, or stockpiling cluster munitions. As of August 2017, the Convention has been ratified or acceded to by 119 states, 102 of which are legally bound by all of the Convention’s provision. Yet, a number of major weapons-producing nations are not party to the Convention, including China, Russia, and the United States of America.
Human Rights Watch, a co-founder of the Cluster Munition Coalition, said during the release of the 2017 report that most countries are making steady progress to eradicate cluster munitions. However, it warned that a stronger effort was needed to deter the use of these weapons in countries that are not party to the Convention. As Jeff Abramson, the Coordinator of the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor initiative, said, “the only sure way to end this insidious menace is to have all states embrace and adhere to the international ban on these weapons.” Otherwise, the humanitarian devastation caused by cluster munitions is likely to continue.