Cluster munitions are a large, and growing, problem. If their use continues to spread, and the number of those using them continues to grow, they may become an even greater humanitarian and development challenge than anti-personnel mines were in the 1990s.
Attention is now being focused on cluster munitions, a general term for a variety of weapons that disperse a large number (anywhere from 10 to several hundred) of submunitions, or bomblets, over a target area. The submunitions are placed in a container that can be dropped from aircraft or delivered by means of artillery shells or missiles. The submunitions, which are designed to explode on impact, are released from the container some distance above the target area, and are armed as they fall.
During the last 20 years, wars in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have clearly demonstrated the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of this type of weapon, not only during wars, but also long after armed conflicts have ended.
There are two main causes of this. First, cluster munitions cover large areas, and so do not discriminate sufficiently between civilians and military personnel. Depending on the type of cluster munition, the size of the area they cover ranges from a few hundred square metres to about 20 hectares, equivalent to 40 football fields. In many cases where cluster munitions have been used extensively, they have been used in areas where there is no clear separation of civilians and military personnel, such as cities and agricultural areas. When used in such areas, weapons that cover large surface areas with explosives almost invariably affect civilians.
Second, cluster munitions often produce a large number of ‘duds’, i.e. submunitions that have failed to explode as intended. These highly unstable explosive devices remain lying on the ground, on roofs or in collapsed houses, or are caught in trees. In practice, duds have the same effect as anti-personnel mines, injuring or killing innocent civilians, for example when they are rebuilding destroyed houses or resuming vital agricultural activities.
Because the proportion of duds is generally high — 25% is not unusual — and because these weapons are often employed in large numbers, the number of duds can be extremely high. Civilians can continue to suffer casualties and injuries years after a war has ended.
Efforts to clear areas of duds and to assist victims are often extremely resource-intensive. Poor countries with limited resources can only focus on these efforts at the expense of other development aims. According to the Landmine Monitor, the international community provides about USD 400 million per year to assist affected communities in clearing munitions. Norway contributes about USD 39 million of this amount.
Any future proliferation of cluster munitions would greatly increase the need for assistance from the international community. Not only would the humanitarian costs be unacceptable, but a heavy economic burden would fall on affected countries.