Cluster bombs, outlawed munitions that kill and maim indiscriminately, have caused more casualties in the Syrian civil war than in the 2006 Lebanon conflict, when Israel’s heavy use of the weapons hastened the treaty banning them two years later, a monitoring group said Wednesday.
The group, the Cluster Munition Coalition, said in an annual report, “Cluster Munition Monitor 2014,” that it had documented at least 264 deaths and 1,320 injuries in Syria from cluster bombs used in 2012 and 2013, and that “hundreds more were recorded in the first half of 2014.”
Ninety-seven percent of the dead in Syria were civilians, the report said, and the number of such injuries doubled in 2013 from the year before, suggesting that the weapons had been increasingly deployed in more heavily populated areas.
Although the report did not specify whether government forces or insurgents were using them, munitions experts have said that only the Syrian military has the technical capability.
“This year’s use of cluster munitions shows that while these weapons have been banned by most countries of the world, some actors still flout international opinion and standards,” Mary Wareham, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division and an editor of the report, said in a statement issued by the coalition in advance of the report’s release.
The group’s statement said, “Already, casualties in Syria are higher than those attributed to the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict that triggered global outrage and contributed to the establishment of the ban convention.”
Israel’s military was widely criticized at home and abroad for its heavy cluster-bomb use in Lebanon, dropping around 1,800 of them, containing more than 1.2 million bomblets, particularly in the final days of the 34-day conflict with Hezbollah. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted a commander of the Israel Defense Forces as saying, “What we did was insane and monstrous, we covered entire towns in cluster bombs.”
Jan Egeland, a Norwegian statesman and diplomat who at the time of the Lebanon conflict was the top humanitarian aid official at the United Nations, described Israel’s use of the weapons as “completely immoral.” Mr. Egeland’s criticism was widely credited with helping to galvanize the efforts to achieve a treaty two years later known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
Cluster bombs contain hundreds of small explosive munitions, or bomblets, usually dropped from aircraft or fired by artillery. They are engineered to explode in midair and scatter the bomblets over a vast area, not distinguishing between military and civilian targets. Many of the bomblets fail to explode and can lie dormant for decades. In Vietnam and Laos, where the United States dropped many cluster bombs during the Vietnam War era, unexploded bomblets still pose a threat.
Megan Burke, another editor of the “Cluster Munition Monitor” report, said the widely accepted data for the Israel-Lebanon conflict showed 249 cluster munition casualties between July 12, 2006, and April 12, 2007. The time period goes beyond the conflict’s end to reflect the effects of the unexploded Israeli bomblets. The United Nations has said that many of the Israeli cluster bomblets in Lebanon did not explode, essentially turning them into booby traps that required an extensive cleanup operation.
The Cluster Munition Coalition, a group of human rights and disarmament advocacy groups active in more than 100 countries, has been reporting casualties from cluster bombs since 2009.
According to findings compiled by another disarmament group, Handicap International, only three other countries have suffered cluster bomb casualties that exceed Syria’s: Laos at 4,837, Vietnam at 2,080, and Iraq at 2,989. But direct comparisons are misleading because conflicts in those countries lasted far longer than the Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011.
Lebanon, Laos and Iraq are among the 113 countries that have signed the cluster munitions ban treaty. Syria, Israel and Vietnam are among the 51 that have not, a grouping that also includes China, Russia and the United States.
Nearly all the countries that have not signed the treaty abide by its provisions, which advocates consider a measurement of its effectiveness in stigmatizing the use of cluster munitions. Even so, the Cluster Munition Coalition reported last month that they had been used not only in Syria, but also by antagonists in the South Sudan and Ukraine conflicts.
Mr. Egeland, who is now the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a leading humanitarian advocacy group, said in a telephone interview that the cluster bomb use in Syria was part of the broader dehumanizing effects of that conflict.
“It’s a sign of lawlessness, the use of such arms, and that’s why it’s not surprising the worst place is Syria, because it’s the most lawless conflict on our watch,” he said. “It is a conflict where there are no principles left, no norms left.”
A picture caption with an earlier version of this article stated that the Taftanez airbase was captured by rebels in January. It was captured in 2013.
An earlier version of this article overstated the number of cluster bombs Israel dropped on Lebanon in 2006. It was about 1,800 bombs, containing more than 1.2 million bomblets. It was not “hundreds of thousands” of cluster bombs.
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(via NY Times)