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Cluster bombs are killing civilians in Yemen

September 4, 2015 at 5:16 pm

So far, there have been 4,500 people killed and 23,000 wounded in the conflict in Yemen. The calamity shows no sign of abating and the only solution that those fighting seem to have in mind is to have more of the same. Into this has stepped Human Rights Watch, with a report on the use of cluster bombs in Yemen; they are having a devastating effect.

Cluster bombs are quite simple, really; think of them as a big bomb containing smaller sub-munitions, or bomblets, which are scattered far and wide when the main bomb casing explodes. The bomblets are then triggered indiscriminately when, for example, someone (often a child) picks them up out of curiosity, a gust of wind catches them or people stand on them accidentally. Sometimes the sub-munitions explode on contact with the ground but they can be set to explode at a later stage, which makes them even more dangerous for civilians. They don’t target anything specifically, such as a tank; they can and do land in civilian areas away from the main battlefield. The bomblets can weigh as little as 200g, meaning they’re small and light enough for a child to pick up. Their colour blends into natural landscapes, meaning someone could mistake one for a rock, pick it up and have their arm blown off; if they survive the explosion, they are disabled for life.

In the case of Yemen, the M26 cluster bomb has been used. It is especially dangerous as not only is it inaccurate, but it also contains M77 bomblets which have a 23 per cent failure rate; almost a quarter fail to explode on landing. For a US-made weapon, this is significantly high considering that the average failure rate for bomblets made in America, according to the office of the under-secretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics, is between 2 and 6 per cent.

The cluster bombs in Yemen have been found mainly in Sa’ada, a northern province directly on the Saudi border and the heartland of the Houthi rebel movement; it is one of the main targets of the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, along with Hajja, which borders Saudi at the Jazan province, another Houthi stronghold and coalition target. The munitions have been positioned in a way which suggests that they were dropped by air, rather than fired from artillery, which also suggests strongly that they were used by the Saudi coalition.

In terms of casualties, 13 people, including three children, have been killed by cluster munitions; 22 others have been wounded. It is unknown how many of those killed and injured were actually Houthi fighters. Animals have also been affected, with 30 sheep killed on a farm in Hajja. Considering the dramatic increase of food insecurity in Yemen — where 13 million people are severely food insecure according to UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Hilal Elver — indiscriminate attacks that affect livestock are pushing Yemen further towards famine.

Cluster bombs are banned by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. The convention bans the transfer, production, stockpiling (both in domestic and foreign bases) and use of cluster weapons. It also places an obligation on the signatories to provide assistance to victims of cluster munitions, including providing them with medical aid, psychosocial care and social and economic assistance to rebuild their communities.

Neither Yemen nor any of the GCC countries are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and nor are any of the non-GCC countries participating in the Saudi-led coalition. This does not mean that they have not committed war crimes. In addition to the weapon being banned, their use against non-military targets is a war crime, whether the actors involved are signatories to the convention or not. Indeed, the lack of protection for civilians, attacking livestock, preventing access to food and aid, and destroying civilian infrastructure, are all acts which violate the Geneva Conventions. Those using such weapons to such devastating effect should be brought to account for what they have done.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.