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What are cluster bombs?

Human Rights Watch says Ukraine has used the banned weapons on rebel-held city of Donetsk

A recent Human Rights Watch report said Ukraine’s government has used cluster bombs on the rebel-held region of Donetsk — an accusation the government denies. The weapons are controversial because they are difficult to accurately target, and they scatter large areas with small “bomblets” that can act as land mines, able to explode long after the bombs are deployed.

Cluster bomb illustration
Norwegian People's Aid

What are cluster bombs?

Cluster bombs are large containers that carry dozens of deadly smaller bombs the size of soda cans or tennis balls, each filled with shrapnel. The large container releases the bomblets in mid-air, imprecisely targeting an area the size of a football field — endangering combatants and civilians as well.

Much of the danger of cluster bombs comes from the fact that the bomblets often land without exploding, causing a threat to civilians in the targeted areas for years. It is difficult and dangerous to locate and remove the unexploded small bombs.

The humanitarian consequences can be severe, according to information posted on the website of Nigerian People’s Aid, a humanitarian organization that says it works for just distribution of power and resources, and for the protection of life and health.

The website explains that “cluster munitions commonly have a shape or color that makes them resemble toys for children to play with, or they encompass a metal content, which adults attempt to open.”

Darkened areas represent countries still dealing with significant cluster bomb contamination. Other countries affected by cluster bombs are highlighted in lighter orange.

Syrian forces used at least 249 cluster bombs between July 2012 and July 2014 during the continuing conflict in that country, according to Human Rights Watch.

In South Sudan, the United Nations Mine Action Service found new cluster bomb contamination in February this year, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international civil-society campaign against cluster bombs. Other countries affected by such weapons in the past decade include Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel and Georgia.

In 2001 and 2002, the United States dropped 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 bomblets in Afghanistan, according to the coalition.

The international Convention on Cluster Munitions, signed in 2008, was intended to “put an end for all time to the suffering and casualties caused by cluster munitions.” Each participant undertakes never to use, stockpile, produce or retain cluster bombs. Currently the convention has 113 signatories, according to the information published by the United Nations Development Program’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.

Seventeen countries including China, Russia, Israel, and the U.S. have not signed the convention and are among nations that produce such weapons, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition.

The coalition says 91 countries have previously stockpiled cluster bombs, and 23 of those countries — including Afghanistan, Chile and Colombia — have completely destroyed their stockpiles, while dozens of other countries are in the process of doing so. 

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