The devastating human cost of cluster bombs

By Katleen Maes

Cluster bombs continue to hurt people and their livelihoods years after they were dropped.

September 2008

: 21-year-old Fayz is sitting in his living room, staring at the leg he cannot use anymore because the nerves have been cut as a result of a cluster submunition explosion. Fayz has undergone several operations and is waiting to receive rehabilitation and psychosocial and educational support. His case is similar to that of many young people injured in the aftermath of the 2006 with . Except that Fayz was injured while herding sheep in the Western Beka'a valley almost 12 years ago. He has received no assistance to enable him to overcome his trauma or return to school.

Cluster munitions are imprecise weapons, designed to strike a greater surface area than many other conventional weapons by dispersing smaller, but still lethal, submunitions. Scattered on the ground, these submunitions create a large footprint. Within that footprint, they kill and injure both military personnel and civilians. Even in optimal test conditions, up to a quarter of submunitions fail to explode on impact. In real-life situations, failure rates are consistently much higher.

Cluster munitions: creating a lost generation in Lebanon?

The 2006 conflict in Lebanon drew widespread attention to the effects of cluster munitions on civilian populations. However, it was not the first time that Lebanon had been hit by these weapons. Prior to 2006, Israel had used cluster munitions in Lebanon in 1978, 1982, 1996 and December 2005. According to UN and media reports citing Israeli Defence Force (IDF) commanders, approximately four million cluster submunitions were delivered in the July–August conflict, most of them in the last 72 hours of the war.

Overlapping footprints, the clearance of visible cluster munitions (disturbing the footprints) and incomplete surveying make it impossible to estimate the total number of cluster munitions delivered, or the overall failure rate. However, it is clear that estimated failure rates are higher than the official figure of 5–23%. The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre in South Lebanon (MACC-SL) estimates that between 32% and 40% fail overall. This would mean that the recent conflict added approximately 1.5 million unexploded submunitions to the mines and ordnance already on the ground from previous wars.

As of 15 January 2007, there were at least 555 recorded cluster munitions casualties in Lebanon, of which 122 were killed and 433 injured. make up 24% of casualties; most of them, 114, are boys. A total of 338 casualties were recorded prior to 12 July 2006, and 217 casualties were recorded between 12 July and 15 January 2007 (53 of whom were children under 18). These recorded totals do not include up to 175 unconfirmed cluster munitions casualties during or shortly after the conflict.

Most people left south Lebanon prior to 10 August, undoubtedly reducing the number of civilian cluster submunitions casualties during the conflict. Due to the nature of the conflict, the use of different types of weapons and difficulties with data collection, it is impossible to determine how many people were injured or killed by cluster submunitions during strikes. In the aftermath of the war, reporting was only possible from accessible areas, and it is also understood that most Hizbullah casualties due to cluster submunitions are not included in the data. In the post-emergency phase, a retroactive survey should be conducted to provide appropriate assistance to cluster submunitions survivors as part of a larger group of people with disabilities (PWD), and to determine the impact of cluster munitions on civilians during conflict (to see if this weapon can rightfully be used in war) and in its immediate aftermath.

Cluster munitions are large surface weapons. In Lebanon, they were used by Israel against a non-regular armed force (Hizbullah) in a small but relatively densely populated area, contaminating places where civilians need to go on a daily basis, such as roads, farmland, gardens and homes. Most incidents immediately after cluster munition strikes occur in or near the house, when returnees investigate damage and try to make their homes habitable again. Several months after the conflict, some people were still living in tents in front of their houses because failed submunitions litter their homes. In the longer term, a large percentage of casualties occur while farming, herding animals or carrying out other livelihood activities. In addition to the loss of life and the economic damage, cluster munitions exact a high psychosocial and educational cost. People feel unsafe every step they take, the secure bastion of the home is not always safe, schools are damaged or opened late and many children are not free to play where they want.

The 2006 conflict resulted in a soaring cluster submunition casualty rate of just over two people per day until the end of the year. The average casualty rate in the years prior to the conflict had slumped to a low two per year. At the beginning of 2007, casualties dropped to an average of three a week, according to MACC-SL. The reduction of casualties is mainly due to the impressive clearance capacity in Lebanon, which has been able to provide a rapid response to the emergency. It is estimated that this will take until the end of 2007. Afterwards, pasture lands will be cleared and pre-conflict clearance can be resumed. However, 70% of southern Lebanon's is based on agriculture, which means that cluster submunitions will continue to cause casualties at a steady rate.

Cluster munitions: between the immediate and the long term

Throughout the conflict, Lebanon's medical and humanitarian infrastructure, though stretched to its limits, held up, with the assistance of a vibrant civil and international organisations. With nearly 15 years of experience in the country, (HI) scaled up its post-conflict activities. HI prioritised equal partnership relations with long-standing local partners. A partnership approach needs to be truly equal in order to ensure sustainability, capacity-building and local ownership. This is crucial as cluster submunition survivors often need life-long support. A varied, accessible, rights-based package responding to the needs identified by the survivors, their families and communities is a necessity to fully (re)integrate them into society. Otherwise, there is a real risk that these new cluster munitions – meaning the affected individual, their families and communities – will end up as many mine and ERW victims before them: one of the most impoverished groups in society, facing double discrimination. So, rather than building new structures, HI chose to strengthen existing ones by supplying materials and technical advice, and assisting with coordination issues faced by local agencies. At the same time, HI has worked to ensure the financial and physical accessibility aspects of aid and reconstruction efforts, and trained community de-miners to assist in cluster munitions clearance efforts.

In parallel, HI set up disability information and referral points, to respond to the specific and general needs of PWD – medical care, physical rehabilitation, psychosocial support, economic support and equal rights. HI is also in charge of optimising the coordination of international aid efforts. In partnership with the Ministry of Social Affairs and local partners, and supported by the European Commission, a telephone platform and online database of available local and international aid services was set up.

The issue of the rehabilitation and reintegration of explosive remnants of war (ERW) survivors cannot be separated from the broader context of in the affected country. In these efforts, non-specialist agencies would benefit from liaising with national and international agencies dealing with cluster munitions or mine action in general. Most countries affected by cluster munitions have got a mine action infrastructure under UN or government auspices, and in cooperation with national and international NGOs. These agencies, in a first stage, need to be consulted to provide security and risk prevention briefings to non-specialist staff. These centres, like for example the MACC-SL and the Landmine Resource Centre, will be able to provide up-to-date information on casualties, mine risk (MRE) and demining, and circulate this to all stakeholders upon request.

Secondly, development agencies should coordinate their crosscutting response with the technical experts and community liaison staff of the specialised agencies, to ensure complementarity of specialised and general assistance. Reconstruction sites, for example, need to be declared mine/ERW-safe before reconstruction starts. Education or psychosocial support programmes can include a standard MRE module. And reconstruction planning should take accessibility requirements for people with disabilities into account. Many large organisations, such as UNICEF, UNDP, the ICRC and the large NGOs (like HI), already integrate a standard mine/ERW component into their operations in severely affected countries, even if the focus of their work is more general.

Cluster submunitions: a worldwide generational problem

Cluster munitions have been used in 24 countries and areas, and their use is suspected in at least a dozen more. In 2006, cluster munitions were deployed in Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, and are thought to have been used in Afghanistan. Apart from intermittent international protest, the issue of cluster munitions and the humanitarian impact – just like the items themselves – lay largely dormant until the Lebanon conflict.

HI research reveals that there are serious humanitarian problems with cluster munitions. Unlike the initial blasts, the effects of unexploded submunitions are more discriminate: they kill and injure almost exclusively civilians (98%). The research recorded more than 11,000 confirmed cluster casualties. But the real number could as high as 100,000 given that 91% casualties occurred in countries with incomplete or no data collection mechanisms, such as Iraq.

More than half the casualty toll occurs while people go about their normal daily business. Casualties are mostly male (84%), and nearly half of them are under 18 years of age. The number of casualties occurring while carrying out livelihood activities shows the direct economic impact on cluster-contaminated communities. In many of these countries, men are the traditional breadwinners. Since adult males and boys represent the majority of casualties, the socio-economic loss both in the immediate term and for the future cannot be underestimated.

Cluster munitions: bringing HI back to its roots

HI is exploiting its field and research experience in the area of victim assistance and data collection to provide a better understanding of the human cost of cluster munitions. In mid-2006, this resulted in Belgium becoming the first country to ban the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions. But it was the Lebanon crisis that triggered a worldwide public and media interest in the campaign. Some 350,000 people have signed HI's petition calling for a ban. Spurred on by the Belgian ban, resolutions for a moratorium were tabled or passed in Australia, Austria, Denmark, France and Norway, and calls for a moratorium were issued in European Union and UN forums.

On 5 November 2006, local members of the Cluster Munition Coalition organised the first ‘Say No to Cluster Bombs' day in Beirut, which was co-sponsored by HI. Hundreds of schoolchildren attended MRE sessions and tried walking with artificial limbs, and people signed a petition which was sent to Geneva, where the Third Review Conference of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) was convened the following week. At the CCW, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated: ‘Recent events show that the atrocious, inhumane effects of these weapons … must be addressed immediately so that civilian populations can start rebuilding their lives'.

During the conference, some states recognised that the CCW framework will not respond to the human tragedy caused by cluster munitions, just as it could not respond effectively to the landmine crisis ten years earlier. It has become clear that treaty negotiations outside the UN framework are inevitable. These will be led by Norway, which will try to extend the new model of diplomacy created by the Mine Ban Treaty: a fast-moving multilateral dialogue with extensive civil society input. On 22 and 23 February 2007, the Norwegian government invited 48 states, as well as UN and civil society groups, to Oslo to start a process towards an international ban. At the end of the meeting, 46 governments supported a declaration for a new international treaty and a ban by 2008. This conference was the first of a series during 2007 (the next meeting was scheduled for May 2007, in Lima, Peru). The declaration states that a legally binding international instrument will be agreed by 2008 that will ‘prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians, and establish a framework for cooperation and assistance that ensures adequate provision of care and rehabilitation to survivors and their communities, clearance of contaminated areas, risk education and destruction of stockpiles of prohibited cluster munitions'. The cluster bomb treaty was approved by more than 100 countries in May 2008.

Cluster munitions: a call for action

Within this legal framework, HI will be part of a treaty drafting committee. Drawing lessons from the Mine Ban Treaty, it is important that affected individuals, their families and communities are provided with an efficient and accessible rights-based assistance package, based on a twin-track approach which takes account of the specific requirements of survivors and the general development needs of the affected society. The international community is required to commit adequate material and technical resources, while acknowledging that the final responsibility in achieving appropriate assistance lies with the national governments themselves.

Through continued research into the human impact of cluster munitions, HI will ensure that the plight of casualties, as well as the economic, social and psychological cost of these weapons, is fully acknowledged and documented, not only in Lebanon but in all affected countries. The research results will be disseminated to support national campaigns and to feed relevant information back into field operations. In addition, HI will work closely with national campaigns and build their capacity.

The human cost of cluster munitions cannot be seen as old news – these weapons are spreading through new conflicts, destroying lives, disrupting communities and denying vulnerable populations access to the resources needed for economic recovery for generations to come.


Fatal Footprint: The Global Human Impact of Cluster Munitions

Handicap International's Aid Coordination Platform

Handicap International's Campaign Against Cluster Munitions

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines

Human Right Watch's resource library on cluster munitions

This article first appeared on the Human Practice Network website.


  • Katleen Maes

    Katleen Maes is the victim assistance coordinator for the Nobel peace prize-winning Handicap International in Brussels. She works on the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and is part of the Cluster Munition Coalition. She was the final editor and lead researcher on Fatal Footprint, which measures the human impact of cluster munitions. She is also a conflict resolution and sustainable peace expert specialising in the Middle East. In addition, she writes for various publications.

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