What are cluster bombs?

  • Explosive weapons

Although cluster bombs have been banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions since 2010, they have been used on multiple occasions over the last two years in conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Libya and Sudan. Cluster bombs have killed and maimed thousands of civilians, who are overwhelmingly the main victims. But what exactly are these weapons?

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A cluster munition found by Handicap International teams in a rice paddy in Laos.
A cluster munition found by Handicap International teams in a rice paddy in Laos.
A cluster munition found by Handicap International teams in a rice paddy in Laos.

A cluster munition (or cluster bomb) is a container filled with small explosive bombs called “sub-munitions”. This container may be a shell, rocket, missile or other device. Dropped from an aircraft or fired from the ground, it opens in the air and releases the sub-munitions. This scatters a carpet of bombs over a large area without any degree of accuracy.

Civilians are the main victims

Cluster bombs kill, injure and maim people and cause serious psychological trauma. Up to 97% of recorded victims are civilians - in other words, almost all victims are civilians.

Long-term hazard

Up to 40% of sub-munitions do not explode on impact: either they are too light or the ground is too soft, or a technical fault prevents them from exploding.

While still active, these sub-munitions are as hazardous as anti-personnel landmines. They can explode at any moment, triggered by even slight movements. They render whole areas uninhabitable, prevent social and economic life from returning to normal, and displace people from their homes.

 These explosive weapons pose a threat to civilians, sometimes for decades after a conflict has ended.

Laos is the most heavily contaminated country in the world

Laos is sadly an example of the long-term hazard posed by cluster bombs. Although Laos was bombed many years ago, between 1964 and 1973, the sub-munitions that did not explode on impact still cause casualties today. Very often children are the victims.

Who produces cluster bombs?

Sixteen countries are still believed to be cluster munition producers, including China, Russia and Israel. The United States no longer produces cluster munitions but retains the option to produce them in the future. A total of 59 countries stockpile several million cluster munitions worldwide. The United States has an estimated stockpile of three million cluster munitions. In contrast, Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, who have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, recently destroyed all of their stockpiles.

What does the Convention on Cluster Munitions say?

The Convention on Cluster Munitions (Oslo Convention) entered into force in August 2010. It has been signed by 119 States. The Convention bans the use, production, trade and stockpiling of cluster bombs. It also requires States Parties to provide victim assistance and to clear contaminated areas.


For more information on cluster munitions, visit the website of the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor: www.the-monitor.org

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Published 01/03/17

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