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U.S. Intervention on Humanitarian Impacts of Cluster Munitions

Richard Kidd, Director, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement
Remarks as repared for the CCW Group of Governmental Experts
Geneva, Switzerland
June 20, 2007


The United States has almost two decades of experience in helping other countries dispose of explosive remnants of war (ERW), including cluster munitions. With well over $1 billion in assistance provided to 52 countries since 1993, the United States operates clearance activities on a greater scale, and in more countries than any other donor or international institution – including the UN. Given the depth of U.S. experience I want to share with the group three general observations regarding the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions within the broader context of all ERW, point out exceptions to these general observations and then suggest what additional steps could be taken to reduce humanitarian impacts.

First the three general observations, applicable for all instances of cluster munitions use post 1975:

1. The impacts of cluster munitions are episodic and limited in scope, scale and duration – as compared to other ERW.

2. There is no country in the world – except one – where cluster munitions constitute the principal ERW threat.

3. We are unaware of any unmet request for assistance in clearing cluster munitions – existing resource mobilization, coordination and clearance mechanisms have proven sufficient to meet cluster munitions hazards as they develop.

The exception to these observations can all be found by examining conditions in Laos, the world’s most heavily bombed country, conditions which were generated prior to 1975. But before I look at Laos, let me explain the points above and provide a few country specific examples.


When civilian communities first encounter unexploded cluster munitions, the immediate adverse impacts can be very pronounced and severe. Fortunately though, this “spike” in casualties is not sustained and the initial, often horrific reports that we might see in the news are reflective of individual incidents and not a sustained, long-term trend. In all recent conflicts, we have observed civilian casualties caused by cluster munitions decline rapidly within a number of weeks. In Kosovo, Afghanistan and Lebanon the vast majority of civilian casualties from cluster munitions occurred within 30 days after the end of hostilities, quickly falling to levels well below that produced by other ERW or landmines. Understanding the nature of this cluster munitions casualty “spike” is essential in order to craft a suitable humanitarian response, a response that does not ignore or come at the expense of addressing broader ERW threats.

Cluster munitions have a concentrated, not a distributed impact. They are not found over the same amount of land-area or in the same numbers as other ERW. Cluster munitions, while an area weapon in a tactical or operational sense, are used to attack specific military targets measuring some hundreds of meters to the side. They are not designed to deny access to the land itself and do not contaminate vast areas the same way that say the K-5 mine belt does in Cambodia, stretching for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers along the border between that country and Thailand. Globally, cluster munitions contaminate only a small fraction of the land area contaminated by landmines – a fact which reduces opportunities for harmful incidents. Similarly, while cluster munitions may be the most prevalent type of ERW in a very specific locale, on a country by country basis they are only a small fraction of total ERW. In Afghanistan, advocacy groups reported on the 12,000 or so unexploded cluster munitions produced by coalition air strikes in 2001/2. At the same time the UN was reporting 400,000 landmines and over 1.6 million pieces of other ERW cleared. Given these figures, unexploded cluster munitions represented less than 1/100th of one percent of total ERW in Afghanistan in 2002, a ratio that has only improved over time. The vast majority of ERW consist of artillery rounds, grenades, rockets and other devices. It is from this diverse collection of munitions, while not as newsworthy and not as dramatic, that the majority of civilian casualties are generated. As we consider humanitarian response to cluster munitions we should not forget to take steps to address other ERW, abandoned ordnance or improperly stored ordnance. It is this later category of munitions that led to the recent depot explosion in Mozambique – killing and injuring in one day three times more people than have come to harm from unexploded cluster munitions in Lebanon in the last 8 months.

Cluster munitions are hazardous because they fail to operate as designed, whereas landmines found are hazardous specifically because they continue to operate as designed. Cluster munitions are not designed to be persistent, to be hidden, to be buried or to be detonated by a step or a casual touch – although sadly they can, but do not necessarily, possess all of these dangerous attributes. The attribute that often makes unexploded cluster munitions most dangerous is that they are “new” and the nature of the threat they pose is unknown to impacted communities. Villages that long ago learned to safely avoid minefields may not recognize the dangers that cluster munitions pose. Unlike other larger munitions such as mortar rounds and unitary bombs, cluster munitions do not offer sufficient financial rewards for scrap collectors. Once communities learn that cluster munitions are dangerous, they are more likely to leave them alone and risky behaviors less likely to develop, reducing the long-term hazards.

Global ERW Threat

Among the 52 countries where the U.S. has provided conventional weapons destruction assistance, only ten have reported any threat from cluster munitions (Afghanistan, Albania, Cambodia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Montenegro, Serbia, Vietnam; as well as Kosovo). In only 4 of these 10 was there a requirement to have activities specifically focused on cluster munitions. Of these 4 programs, two were completed in less than 2.5 years. Two are ongoing and one of these should be complete by the end of this year. By 2008 only Laos should have a need for assistance dedicated specifically to address the threat from cluster munitions.

Reviewing casualty figures is always an inexact and slightly macabre exercise, but even accepting wide margins of error, it is clear that cluster munitions do not cause the majority of casualties in any country in the world – again with one, possibly two exceptions. And while this is not a “like for like” comparison due to the fact that we have had to draw from different sources, the most accurate and current indicative figures for total casualties produced by cluster munitions that we have available are : Kosovo <20%, Iraq <15%, Afghanistan < 2%, Serbia < 1%, Albania < 5%, Lebanon <10%. Only in Laos and possibly Vietnam does it appear that cluster munitions account for more than 50% of all ERW generated casualties.

Cooperation and Assistance

The United States is unaware of any unmet request for assistance in clearing cluster munitions. All known requirements have been articulated and existing resource mobilization, coordination and clearance mechanisms have proven sufficient; indeed these mechanisms have improved over time.

The Office in the U.S. Department of State that manages our assistance programs has reviewed hundreds of clearance reports and contracting tenders that provide information on clearance rates and costs. In all cases it is faster and cheaper to clear cluster munitions than landmines under similar conditions and in similar terrain. In Serbia this cost difference is “just” 50%. In the open areas of Afghanistan the same clearance assets can clear 250 square meters of land contaminated by cluster munitions in the same amount of time required to clear only 3 square meters of minefield – an 80 fold increase in productivity and cost efficiency.

Of the more than $1B in assistance provided by the U.S. for all destruction programs, we were only able to identify – and this counting every penny provided to Laos - about $45 million in U.S. support that has been allocated specifically to address the clean up of cluster munitions.

In sum, there simply is no large scale demand for financial resources to clear cluster munitions. Additional or separate institutions or conferences specifically focused on cluster munitions would be, in the opinion of the United States, a misuse of funds that could be better spent elsewhere.

Examples that highlight these three observations:


  • Under the leadership of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) Mine Action Coordination Center (MACC) all high risk areas were cleared within 2 and half years (June 1999-December 2001) for approximately $70 million.

  • Casualty rates from all ERW, including cluster munitions, dropped dramatically from more than 120 per month at the start of operations to around 10 a month after only one year.

  • International support for clearance in Kosovo was excellent: 17 states and entities provided assistance and 11 organizations provided clearance assets.

  • While there are still unexploded CM in Kosovo and it is a fair question as to whether dedicated clearance should have continued for an additional few months, the model is correct and the key lesson here is that the threat was contained in relatively short order using existing international mechanisms and clearance resources.


  • Humanitarian response by the international community was faster in Lebanon than in Kosovo, primarily due to existing capacity already in country, most notably the UN Mine Action Center in South Lebanon, Lebanon National Demining Office, and presence of clearance assets within the Lebanese Armed Forces.

  • While the number of unexploded cluster munitions found in Lebanon far exceeds what was found in Kosovo and total devices cleared now number well over 100,000 – progress has been rapid and clearance is on track to be completed by the end of 2007.

  • Again, there has been a dramatic drop in civilian casualties: 44% of the total casualties occurred within the first 30 days after the end of hostilities. While initial reports suggested three victims per day – the latest UN report indicates that there are 3 victims per month.

The Laos Exception:

  • Laos is an exception to the three broad observations indicated above. In Laos cluster munitions represent the principal ERW threat and pose a long-term, verses short-term challenge. Likewise, in Laos the international response has fallen short of the requirements.

  • While reliable data is not available, cluster munitions clearly account for well over 50% of all the ERW casualties in Laos. Only in Laos are so many unexploded cluster munitions found across such wide areas – it is a level of contamination unmatched anywhere else in the world.

  • And while ten countries now provide active support to clearance efforts in Laos, this was not always the case. Most early clearance efforts were linked to the misguided notion that the humanitarian problem in Laos was caused by landmines. As noted this month by senior UN Officials in Laos, traditional donors are withholding funds to clear cluster munitions in order to compel Laos to join the Ottawa Convention ban on anti-personnel landmines.

  • Unlike other countries, Laos will require sustained, long-term donor assistance to reduce the most salient impacts from cluster munitions. The United States has committed over $25m to this effort and plans more in the future.


So what practical steps can states consider to reduce the harmful affects of cluster munitions, especially given that the most significant danger occurs in the immediate aftermath of conflict, within the first 30 days, when civilians are unaware of the risks and when casualties “spike?” Efforts should be focused on “flattening” this casualty “spike” during this crucial period. To do this efforts must first minimize the number, and then the risk of dangerous interactions between civilians and unexploded sub munitions. There are several possibilities along these lines that merit examination by the States Parties:

  • To reduce the total number of interactions, steps could include:
    • Using fewer cluster munitions
    • Increasing the reliability of cluster munitions
    • Increasing the “distance” between civilians and cluster munitions
    • Accelerating the deployment of clearance assets. In this regard we would suggest consideration be given to creating a global rapid response element that can meet future threats from cluster munitions within days - if and when they emerge.
    • Better control of population and refugee movements

  • To decrease the degree of danger when unexploded cluster munitions are encountered by civilians, steps could include:
    • Development of more stable fusing mechanisms, making each unexploded submunition less likely to detonate if handled
    • Ensuring each submunition is as visible as possible.
    • Rapid provision of risk education, ideally to civilian populations either before or during conflict, and certainly immediately after conflict ends – while simple this could be the most cost-effect way to save lives.
    • Full implementation of CCW Protocol V – especially the sharing of strike data information.

Of course it is important to ensure that any humanitarian response to the effects of cluster munitions is not unbalanced or comes at the expense of efforts aimed at removing the threat from other ERW, abandoned ordnance or unsafe stockpiles. Cluster munitions do present a post-conflict threat to civilians, but as the examples I have provided show, this threat is episodic, manageable within current response mechanisms and, on a global scale, less harmful than the threat caused by other types of unexploded munitions.

I look forward to the remainder of our discussions today. Thank you for your consideration.

Released on June 20, 2007

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