Five things to know about the worldwide effort to eradicate cluster bombs

November 27th, 2020

A decade has now passed since an international treaty took effect banning cluster munitions—shells that can blanket wide areas with miniature explosives and cause devastating harm to civilians, even after the fighting ceases.

States that have joined this treaty, called the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), meet every year to discuss their progress towards eliminating these weapons.

Clearance in Lebanon. Credit: MAG Lebanon.

This November, States parties will begin the treaty’s second Review Conference, held every five years, under the Presidency of Ambassador Félix Baumann (Switzerland). Joined by international organizations and civil society representatives, these countries will review the Convention’s operation and status and plan for its implementation over the next five years—a process they will complete in February 2021 during the second meeting of the Review Conference.

The States parties to this treaty have worked to clear cluster munitions left behind by conflict, making cities safe again, allowing for farmers to safely cultivate their land, and for children to get to school unharmed. States parties also provide support to surviving victims.

Here are five things you should know about cluster bombs and the world’s work to eliminate them.

1. What are cluster munitions and why are they so dangerous?

A cluster munition consists of a hollow shell that is dropped from the air or fired from the ground. It breaks open in mid-air and releases smaller bombs, or submunitions, that can number in the hundreds and saturate areas as wide as several football fields. This means that everyone in those areas, including civilians, run the risk of being harmed or even killed. The smaller explosive submunitions also sometimes fail to detonate immediately, leaving them capable of killing or maiming at random even long after a conflict has ended.

Victims of these weapons are often civilians, including children. Survivors often face permanent disability, difficulties in earning a living, and stigma or discrimination in their communities. Unexploded cluster munitions that linger after a conflict can make land highly dangerous or impossible to cultivate, impeding local economic and social development.

A ploughed farm in Iraq where cluster munitions were found and cultivation of the land had to be stopped so that technical survey of the area could be conducted. Credit: DMA/RMAC-S Iraq.

“With every step that I walk outside of the marked pathway, I am always concerned and scared of UXO [unexploded ordnance, such as cluster munitions]. I hear about the victims of UXO frequently, especially farmers on their farmland,” Mini Phantthavong from Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a country heavily affected by cluster munitions remnants, told the international Cluster Munition Coalition, a global civil society campaign active in this field.

2. What is the international community doing?

Working closely with civil society and international organizations, States negotiated the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).This treaty became binding international law on 1 August 2010.

To date, 110 States have joined the Convention and committed to implementing all its obligations.

The CCM addresses three major areas. First, States that join the treaty aim to prevent any future harm from cluster munitions by agreeing to a complete ban on their use, development, production, stockpiling, retention and transfer. Second, the CCM’s mitigation measuresrequire these States to destroy their stockpiles, clear areas that are contaminated by cluster munitions, and provide medical, psychological and rehabilitation assistance to survivors of cluster munitions. Third, the treaty calls for international cooperation to implement these provisions

Clearance at an area contaminated with cluster munitions in Sisak-Moslavina County, Croatia. Credit: Civil Protection Directoriate, MoI, Croatia.

3. How is the United Nations involved in these global efforts?

The United Nations supports partnerships between Governments and civil society organizations working towards the common goal of eliminating cluster munitions everywhere.

Because progress on universalization is essential to strengthening the Convention’s norms, the United Nations Secretary-General regularly calls on countries that have not yet joined the treaty to consider doing so.

The Geneva office of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs works closely with the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) of the Convention. The ISU is hosted outside the United Nations and provides technical support and advice to States parties and States not party, serving as the interface between national authorities and the international community on issues related to the implementation of the treaty. The Office for Disarmament Affairs also convenes meetings of States parties and review conferences of the CCM.

The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) chairs the United Nations Inter-Agency Coordination Group on Mine Action and, together with other United Nations agencies engaged in mine action, supports States in implementing the Convention. This implementation work includes survey and clearance activities that mitigate threats from explosive hazards. In 2019, for instance, UNMAS cleared cluster munition strike areas in South Sudan. These activities are complemented by risk education to promote safe behaviour in contaminated areas, as well as physical rehabilitation, socioeconomic and psychological support to victims of explosive ordnance, including cluster munitions.

Risk education was given to ensure safety of the children in the area. Credit: DMA/RMAC-S Iraq.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has central to its mandate the protection and promotion of the rights of children, including through the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions on Children and Armed Conflict and advocacy for the implementation and universalization of the CCM. In collaboration with its partners, UNICEF supports the development and implementation of explosive ordnance risk education (EORE) and assists survivors of cluster munitions and other explosive weapons by providing medical care, artificial limbs, mental or emotional support, and access to education. Since 2014, UNICEF has supported life-saving explosive-ordnance risk education for 24 million children in 25 countries, mostly in regions affected by ongoing conflicts. During the same period, UNICEF also assisted children in more than 10 countries as they recovered from injuries caused by cluster munitions or explosive remnants of war.

4. What difference does the Convention make?

So far, States parties have collectively destroyed millions of stockpiled cluster munitions and hundred million of submunitions. In addition, over 500 square kilometers of land have been cleared of cluster munitions remnants, thus returning it to affected communities for safe and productive use—a critical step towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Furthermore, many States parties have adopted specific laws to implement the CCM,and several have also prohibited various forms of financial investment in cluster munition-related activities.

The Convention’s implementation has largely been a success and there is much to applaud”, Ms. Nakamitsu, High representative for Disarmament Affairs, said at the Ninth Meeting of States Parties in 2019.

Peruvian Air Force personnel preparing to burn submunitions and bomblets. Credit: NPA Peru.

5. Why is progress towards a world free of cluster munitions needed?

With every cluster munition destroyed and every meter of land cleared, people like Mr. Phantthavong will be safer in their daily lives from the looming threat of these weapons. Eliminating all cluster bombs will free the world from a significant source of death, injury and fear.