Cluster Bombs Violate Laws of War But Saudi-Led Coalition Still Uses Them

Published July 15th, 2018 - 09:31 GMT
A model of the cluster bombs used in Vietnam. (Shutterstock)
A model of the cluster bombs used in Vietnam. (Shutterstock)

By Eleanor Beevor

Throughout the devastating Yemeni conflict, the Saudi-led coalition has insisted that it takes care to avoid endangering civilians during its bombardment of Houthi rebels. But the coalition’s obedience to the laws of war been repeatedly found wanting by international legal experts, who see little evidence of attempts to distinguish between civilians and military targets. 

Legal opinions are disputable. But the coalition makes its case much harder to argue when it continues to use weapons that are indiscriminately deadly by design. The repeated use of these munitions suggests that cornerstones of international humanitarian law, which demand distinction between civilians and armed combatants, are being violated as a matter of routine, or perhaps even by design.  

Saudi military representatives, when caught using cluster munitions in the past, have tried insinuating that it was a temporary misconduct that they will not repeat. But again and again, cluster munitions resurface, and the munitions’ origins reveal a variety of different international manufacturers. It seems the coalition have every intention to keep using these weapons despite full knowledge of the risks they present to civilians, and that they seek out new stockists when old ones dry up. 

But what are cluster munitions, and why do they hurt civilians to such an extent? Essentially, they are bombs dropped from aircraft that split open and scatter “bomblets”, or sub-munitions. Rasha Abdul Rahim, Researcher and Advisor in the Arms Control and Human Rights Team at Amnesty International, told Al Bawaba: 

Cluster munitions, which are banned by more than 100 countries, present an enormous danger to civilians. Dropped from the air or fired from the ground, they are designed to break open in mid-air, releasing the sub-munitions over a wide area in a way that cannot discriminate between civilians and military targets. Most sub-munitions have dud rates much higher than other types of ordnance, and so many of the sub-munitions fail to explode on impact, and effectively become anti-personnel mines.”


A “dud rate” is the proportion of munitions that fail to explode on impact. The higher the dud rate, the more civilians end up at risk from unexploded munitions for longer periods of time. A closer look at the proportion of civilians injured or killed by cluster munitions is chilling. Jeff Meer, the U.S. Executive Director of Humanity and Inclusion, a charity that supports people with disabilities in conflict zones, told Al Bawaba:

Humanity and Inclusion’s 2007 report, Circle of Impact, showed that no matter where they’re employed, cluster munitions are indiscriminate, barbaric weapons. Civilians make up 98% of the people killed or injured by cluster sub-munitions. Belligerents who use cluster munitions show a total disregard for civilian lives and in some cases a deliberate intention to target them. Those who survive contact with cluster munition explosions often become amputees, with significant social, economic and psychological consequences for them, their families and their communities. 

Because up to 40% of these weapons do not explode on impact, sub-munitions become as dangerous as anti-personnel landmines, and make entire areas uninhabitable long after conflict. Laos, the world’s most heavily polluted country by sub-munitions, illustrates this year after year, as munitions that the U.S. dropped on the country decades ago continue to injure or kill civilians.”


Cluster munitions effectively break international humanitarian law by design – so much so that they have their own international convention outlawing them.

This is the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions of 2008, which went into effect in 2010 as 120 have signed up to the treaty to date. Those signatory states have committed to “…never use, produce, stockpile or transfer cluster munitions”. However, a number of powerful states have refused to sign the treaty since. One, unsurprisingly, is Saudi Arabia. And another is the United States. 

The United States, though not a signatory to the treaty, had begun a process under the Bush administration to end the use of cluster munitions with a dud rate of more than 1%. But in late 2017, under the Trump administration, that decision was reversed. Rasha Abdul Rahim from Amnesty International continued: 

In November 2017, the US administration reneged on that commitment by keeping older types of cluster munitions with dud rates of 20% or more, raising serious questions about its regard for the lives of civilians in war zones. This was a profoundly retrograde step that puts the US way out of line with the international consensus – cluster munitions are banned by more than 100 countries due to their inherently indiscriminate nature and the risks they pose to civilians.”

Whilst the manufacturers of those older cluster munitions with a high dud rate have stated that they will not resume making them, it is unknown whether existing stockpiles will be destroyed. But in the meantime, it is clear that US-made cluster munitions have been provided to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Barely a week ago, PBS News Hour correspondent Jane Ferguson’s report showed a storage site in Houthi territory for unexploded American-made cluster munitions.

Amnesty International campaigners carry model missiles in London protest against arms sales (AFP)

The US is in no mood these days to apologise for its controversies. Other countries have made something of an effort to look contrite. In 2016, it emerged that British-made cluster munitions were also dropped by Saudi forces in Yemen – an awkward revelation given that the UK is party to the Oslo Convention. It seems that these weapons were from stockpiles that pre-dated the convention, but given Britain’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, it was a serious embarrassment for the Foreign Office. 


The Saudi-led coalition also appeared to feel the need to distance themselves from the use of clusters for a time. In a statement in late 2016, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri admitted that British-made cluster munitions had been used in Yemen. He added that since Saudi Arabia was not party to the Oslo convention this was not illegal, and he insisted that the munitions were only used against legitimate military targets. Saudi media also implied those cluster munitions would no longer be used, though it was unclear as to whether that meant all clusters, or only those manufactured in Britain.

More recent coalition uses of cluster bombs in Yemen from other stockists have answered that question. They are not only from American made stocks. Rasha Abdul Rahim from Amnesty International said:

Our investigations have shown continued uses of cluster munitions. As recently as last year, we investigated the use of Brazilian manufactured cluster munitions on the city of Sa’da. Therefore, Asiri’s comments may be interpreted to refer to the use of British manufactured cluster munitions in specific. But the coalition did not cease the use of cluster munitions overall.”

It is impossible to take any of the Saudi-led coalitions’ claims of concern for the civilian population of Yemen seriously so long as cluster munitions continue to be used. The coalition’s supporters tend to riposte by pointing to the Houthi rebels own grim human rights record, and use of anti-personnel landmines.  

No one should deny or defend the Houthi’s own crimes. But if the coalition is claiming to intervene on behalf of legitimate state power, then it needs to have the moral high ground. And right now, it isn’t even close.  

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