There are very few weapons in the world that are as universally condemned as cluster munitions.
The reasons for this are obvious. The design of cluster munitions renders them inherently inaccurate when used: smaller-sub munitions are released from a larger casing and are dispersed indiscriminately over a large area. It is impossible to aim these sub-munitions as they are being released, which means civilians and civilian infrastructure are just as much at threat as military targets.
Cluster munitions also have an appallingly high rate of detonation failure. Up to one-third of the munitions fail to explode on impact, but their explosive components remain active, allowing the weapons to lie in wait for someone—almost always a civilian, sometimes a child—to come into contact with them and detonate the weapon.
Because of this, cluster munitions cause immense human suffering. Exploding sub-munitions often cause shrapnel wounds, which can irreparably damage muscles, internal organs and skin. Blindness and deafness from explosions are also common, as are amputations to badly damaged limbs.
Unseen psychological trauma, including shock, post-traumatic stress and depression can have a huge impact on survivors.
Unexploded sub-munitions also have a significant impact on livelihoods and seriously affect the economic productivity of communities. The presence, or even suspected presence, of unexploded ordnance leaves communities living with persistent insecurity and fear, which can limit their ability to utilize land in a productive way, or inhibit access to vital resources.
Cambodia’s eastern provinces are heavily contaminated with unexploded cluster munitions, a legacy of heavy bombardment during the 1960s and ’70s. It is estimated that 26 million sub-munitions were dropped on Cambodia during this time. Up to 6 million did not detonate and have remained on Cambodia’s land for over 50 years, where they continue to threaten lives, impede economic productivity, and force communities to live with constant fear and uncertainty.
Eight years ago today, the Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted by the international community to ban the manufacture, use, stockpile and transfer of cluster munitions. This landmark treaty was adopted in recognition of the large-scale, unavoidable humanitarian suffering caused by these weapons—and in recognition that this suffering far outweighs any perceived military value of cluster munitions.
Cambodia attended the conference that saw the adoption of the convention but failed to sign the treaty when it opened for signatories seven months later in Oslo.
The country’s reluctance to join the convention largely stems from tensions with Thailand, which peaked with the use of cluster munitions during the Preah Vihear border conflict in 2011. The use of cluster munitions during this conflict was described as “appalling” and “unconscionable” by international commentators.
It is important that the region takes steps to ensure cluster munitions are not used again so people’s lives and livelihoods are protected and the region is secure from the threat of unreliable, indiscriminate weapons.
Earlier this month, a senior military official announced that Cambodia was considering joining the convention. It is a welcome remark but one that has been made many times without being followed by significant, positive steps toward joining the treaty. Cambodia’s past work leading on the creation and implementation of the Mine Ban Treaty clearly demonstrates the country’s ability and initiative to take comprehensive, effective actions to reduce the impact of explosive remnants of war.
We encourage the Cambodian government to work with neighboring countries toward accession to the Convention on Cluster Munitions to reduce humanitarian suffering caused by the weapons, and to create a safer, more secure Cambodia.
Kimberley McCosker is the advocacy program manager and Gilles Nouzies is the country director for Handicap International.