Ukraine: Cluster Munitions Killing Civilians, Says HRW


Ukrainian forces have used cluster munitions that caused numerous deaths and serious injuries to civilians, Human Rights Watch said. Russian forces have extensively used cluster munitions in Ukraine, killing many civilians and causing other serious civilian harm.

New Human Rights Watch research found that Ukrainian cluster munition rocket attacks on Russian-controlled areas in and around the city of Izium in eastern Ukraine during 2022 caused many casualties among Ukrainian civilians. Both countries should stop using these inherently indiscriminate weapons, and no country should supply cluster munitions because of their foreseeable danger to civilians.

“Cluster munitions used by Russia and Ukraine are killing civilians now and will continue to do so for many years,” said Mary Wareham, acting arms director at Human Rights Watch. “Both sides should immediately stop using them and not try to get more of these indiscriminate weapons.”

The US government announced Friday it will transfer stockpiled cluster munitions to Ukraine, which would require approval by President Joe Biden. Transferring these weapons would inevitably cause long-term suffering for civilians and undermine the international opprobrium of their use, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch visited Izium and nearby villages from September 19 to October 9, 2022, to investigate Russian abuses against Ukrainian civilians during the Russian occupation, including arbitrary detention, torture, and summary executions. Human Rights Watch interviewed over 100 people, including victims of abuses, witnesses, emergency services personnel, and health professionals. Almost all of them said that they had seen fragments from submunitions that had detonated around their homes during the Russian occupation.

Ukrainian cluster munition rocket attacks in the city of Izium in 2022 killed at least eight civilians and wounded 15 more, Human Rights Watch said. The attacks occurred in Izium and surrounding areas where Russian forces had arrived in March, seized control by early April, and remained in control until early September. A United Nations report also found that Ukrainian armed forces used cluster munitions in attacks on Izium between March and September 2022.

The total number of civilians killed and wounded in the cluster munition attacks that Human Rights Watch examined is most likely greater. Russian forces took many injured civilians to Russia for medical care and many had not returned when Human Rights Watch visited. An ambulance driver said he and his colleagues had regularly transported and treated civilians, including children, with cluster munition injuries during the Russian occupation. He estimated that he took at least one such case to the hospital every day.

A man from the village of Hlynske said that in May 2022 he heard a cluster munition rocket strike near his home. “[S]uddenly I heard my father screaming, ‘I’ve been hit! I can’t move,’” he said. “I ran back and saw that he had fallen on his knees but couldn’t move from the waist down, and there were many metal pieces in him, including one sticking out of his spine and another in his chest. He had these small metal pellets lodged in his hands and legs.” The man’s father received medical treatment but died a month later after undergoing surgery.

Cluster munitions can be delivered by aircraft or ground-launched missiles, projectiles, and rockets. They open in mid-air and disperse dozens and even hundreds of smaller submunitions, also called bomblets, over an area the size of a city block. Many submunitions fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like landmines, posing a threat to civilians for years and even decades.

Cluster munitions are comprehensively banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which 123 countries have joined, although not Russia or Ukraine. Regardless, the use of cluster munitions in areas with civilians makes an attack indiscriminate in violation of international humanitarian law, and possibly a war crime.

Human Rights Watch examined photos taken by residents of 13 carrier sections or engines from Uragan cluster munition rockets that had struck Izium during the Russian occupation. Each 9M27K-series Uragan rocket has a range of 10 to 35 kilometers and delivers 30 submunitions. During the period investigated, Ukrainian frontline positions were always within that range. The position of carrier sections found still in the ground indicated that they came from the direction of Ukrainian positions.

On June 6, Human Rights Watch wrote to Ukraine’s defense minister with a summary of its findings, a request for a meeting, and several questions. On June 22, the Defense Ministry responded in writing, saying that “cluster munitions were not used within or around the city of Izium in 2022 when it was under Russian occupation.”

Under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, applicable to the armed conflict in Ukraine, all parties have an obligation to investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged war crimes by their forces or on their territory. 

Ukraine has publicly asked to be supplied with cluster munitions. Several US lawmakers have called for the Unite States, which is not a party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, to transfer stockpiled cluster munitions to the Ukrainian government. Under US arms export rules, the United States can only export cluster munitions that “after arming do not result in more than one percent unexploded ordnance across the range of intended operational environments.” This provision can be waived by the US president in exceptional circumstances to allow for transfers of cluster munitions with higher failure rates.

The cluster munitions that the United States is considering sending to Ukraine are more than 20 years old, scatter over a wide area, and have a notoriously high failure rate, meaning they could remain deadly for years. Their use in US combat operations in 1991 and 2003 in Iraq resulted in casualties among civilians and US military personnel.

For the transfer, Ukraine would have to agree that the cluster munitions “will only be used against clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present or in areas normally inhabited by civilians.”

“The US government should not be providing cluster munitions to any country due to the foreseeable and lasting harm to civilians from these weapons,” Wareham said. “Transferring cluster munitions disregards the substantial danger they pose to civilians and undermines the global effort to ban them.”

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