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March 04, 2013

Cluster Munitions Have Prolonged Impact

by Sean Maroney

Cluster munitions have been a part of warfare since their invention more than 60 years ago. Activists blame them for the deaths of thousands of civilians in nearly 40 countries or territories. 

Some of the images are graphic.

Mohamed is 13 years old.  Two years ago, he played with a shiny metal object he found outside his home in Benghazi, Libya.  He didn't know it was a cluster munition until it exploded. 

Cluster munitions release smaller explosives across a wide area.

The bomblets can linger, causing death or injury long after a conflict ends.

"Children are really, really often affected," said Antony Duttine. He is a rehabilitation adviser with Handicap International, an independent organization aiding the disabled in more than 60 countries.

His group helped rally support several years ago for an international treaty banning cluster-type weapons and requiring care for their victims.  

​​But many of the world's major military powers, including the United States, Russia and China, refuse to recognize the treaty, and Duttine says victim care is often challenging. "You're in areas which are really quite rural and miles and miles from the nearest medical facility.  So there's the challenge of the immediate life-saving interventions," he stated.

Chris Harmer with the Institute for the Study of War says the real danger to civilians is that these weapons target indiscriminately. "Originally, they were designed to be used by one big army against another big army.  Now that they're being used in close proximity to civilians is when you see the real humanitarian crisis," he added.

Duttine, of Handicap International, says the failure of many bomblets to detonate initially can turn a civilian area into a mine field.

"A victim is not just the person who is directly affected by a mine, it's everybody in that community.  They're affected from being [un]able to live their normal lives because areas of land are contaminated," Duttine explained. "And don't allow agricultural work to go on, don't allow access to the nearest health clinic, don't allow access to school."

Today, young Mohamed from Libya attends physical therapy for his hand.  He's slowly getting better, but recovery,  like cluster munition clean-up, is a long process.