Banning cluster munitions: What will it take?

[Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Sujal Parikh.]

On December 22, New Zealand and Belgium became the 25th and 26th nations to ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). The convention needs only four more ratifications to achieve the 30-state minimum to enter into force. Once in force, it will enact a ban on the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of most cluster munitions, which include bombs, missiles, or rockets that open midair to scatter tens to thousands of small submunitions over a wide area. The CCM also requires that states destroy their stockpiles in eight years, clear contaminated land within ten years, and provide victim assistance.

This convention is necessary due to the wide, indiscriminate, and persistent effects of cluster munitions on civilians and communities. Ninety-eight percent of all recorded casualties of cluster munitions are civilians. In several countries, children account for roughly 60% percent of the victims. In 2007 alone, 5,426 casualties were reported due to cluster munitions. Conservative estimates suggest that unexploded submunitions have caused at least 55,000 casualties, though the number may be well over 100,000.

Victims of cluster munitions require medical, mental health, rehabilitation, and vocational services. They sustain burns and blast and shrapnel injuries, often to multiple limbs as well as their chest, abdomen, and face. Victims should also receive rehabilitation services, including mental health care, physical therapy, and prostheses if needed. Many of these services are unavailable or scarce in conflict zones, and the added burden of these patients can overwhelm an already strained health system, especially in post-conflict settings.

Victims of cluster munitions also need assistance with integration back into society. In many affected areas, people living with disabilities face stigmatization, marginalization, and a lack of economic opportunity. Efforts to promote the rights of the disabled — such as those spearheaded by Handicap International — are essential to any long-term approach to addressing the effects of cluster munitions.

Though cluster munitions are often compared to landmines in that they both litter areas after a conflict is over and pose a threat to the health and human rights of individuals and communities, there are notable differences in their effects. Cluster munitions are more likely than landmines to cause multiple injuries per incident, and they are more likely to kill or injure children under the age of 14 due to their small size and bright coloration.

Unexploded cluster submunitions slow humanitarian, recovery, and resettlement efforts after overt hostilities have ended. Humanitarian and relief workers may be unable to enter an area due to cluster munition contamination. In Kosovo, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, casualties peaked as populations returned home after the conflict ended. Returning populations are injured while attempting to access their houses, farms, pasture land, water supplies, and health facilities. In Afghanistan, many people have been injured by explosive remnants of war (of which cluster munitions are one form) in the past decade, and these deadly devices have deterred people from accessing health services and from sending their children to school.

The short- and long-term effects of armed conflict and political violence continue to undermine the health and human rights of populations around the world. An international ban on cluster munitions will be an important step toward protecting and promoting health and human rights and toward allowing those whose lives are ravaged by wars to farm their fields and walk the streets of their communities without fear.

Sujal Parikh is an MD candidate at the University of Michigan Medical School. He is a member of the Student Advisory Board for Physicians for Human Rights.