'We can fix this problem,' says munitions researcher of Syria's unexploded ordnance

“In terms of cluster munitions use…I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since the Vietnam War,” Erin Hunt, a senior researcher at the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, responsible for the organization’s Syria desk, tells Syria Direct.

With thousands of unexploded cluster bomb submunitions scattered across Syria, casualties will continue to mount long beyond the conclusion of the war, says Hunt.

In nations such as Laos, Vietnam, Iraq and Lebanon, explosive remnants of war—unexploded mortars or cluster bomb submunitions—continue to hinder post-conflict redevelopment efforts.

But removing these lethal barriers to reconstruction is not impossible.

“We can fix this problem, and it’s easy,” Hunt adds.

“Join the [Convention on Cluster Munitions], stop using [cluster bombs], clear contaminated land, destroy stockpiled cluster munitions and landmines so nobody else can use them, and assist the victims.”

 RBK cluster bomb remnants in Aleppo on March 1, 2013. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International

In this second installment of a two-part interview, Erin Hunt discusses international lobbying efforts to eliminate cluster bombs and her organization’s monitoring efforts in a war-torn environment, in a conversation with Syria Direct’s Justin Schuster.

[Read part one here.]

Q: The United States has made the case for smart cluster munitions—where each submunition contains its own targeting system and auto-self-destruct mechanism—claiming that such precision weapons eliminate collateral damage and lead to fewer civilian casualties than unitary weapons. Your organization lobbies to eliminate cluster munitions, but do you believe that there is any situation in which cluster munitions can be used responsibly?

No, and I even have issues with the term “collateral damage.” We come from a humanitarian disarmament perspective, so collateral damage really means people.

This discussion is about a specific weapon called a Textron Sensor Fuzed Weapon, which is currently being used in Yemen. However, they aren’t functioning like they’re supposed to. I think there are a few issues with the Pentagon’s comments about cluster munitions.

The United States announced a policy [in July 2008]: by 2018 they will not use cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than one percent. The problem is that these tests are done in a very specific, controlled environment. Conflict is not a very specific, controlled environment. Something that has a one percent failure rate in a test probably won’t have a one percent failure rate in reality which then puts civilians in harm’s way for days, months, years or even decades to come.

I’ve seen photos coming out of Yemen of submunitions from these “advanced” cluster munitions sitting beside a road. Sometimes they’re still attached to the skeet—the big bomb—that they came in. Obviously, something has gone wrong. But how does a family that needs to get between their land and the market along that road know that it’s safe?

 Photo courtesy of Cluster Munition Coalition.

Q: If cluster munitions could theoretically hit that one percent mark in active conflict, would that be acceptable?

A host of field-based experts, diplomats and legal experts came together to write the Convention on Cluster Munitions, including a very specific definition of cluster munitions, based on which weapons cause the most unacceptable civilian harm.

I don’t see any reason why those weapons should be used.

[Ed.: The Convention does not consider a conventional munition to be a cluster munition provided that it meets certain requirements “in order to avoid indiscriminate area effects and the risks posed by unexploded submunitions.”]

Q: While 119 states have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions, nations such as Russia, China, the United States, India, Israel, Pakistan and Brazil have yet to become signatories. Given that, how do you incentivize violating countries to join the Convention? How can you even begin working to persuade Syria when a nation such as Russia is effectively its patron?

We operate largely through naming and shaming, working with states that have supported the treaty to use diplomatic means to bring other states on board.

One of our big things is creating stigma against these weapons, and it’s working. You’ll see very loud denials of use coming from regimes that have used these banned weapons.

Q: Which regimes do you have in mind?

Look at some press conferences with the Saudi regime. You can also see the same from Russia with regard to Syria. Everybody in the Ukraine conflict is also denying use. During the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, both sides disavowed the use of cluster munitions and pointed fingers at their opponents.

You’ll see lots of states go on the record saying that they are not using these weapons despite what’s being seen on the ground.

Q: Are there previous examples of successful diplomatic naming and shaming that your organization looks to emulate?

The landmines campaign set a very good precedent. A lot of people forget that in the 1990’s landmines were commonly used. Almost every military in the world had them.

Not long after, these weapons were stigmatized. Countries that had huge stockpiles signed the Ottawa Treaty, which banned the weapon. They destroyed their stockpiles and started clearing the mines on their territory.

Q: How are you able to monitor usage of cluster munitions and landmines in active warzones such as Syria?

Trying to figure out the number of casualties from cluster munitions, landmines and other explosive remnants of war is exceptionally difficult. I owe a great debt to the Syrian civil society organizations and human rights monitoring groups on the ground. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria and the Syrian Network for Human Rights both track casualties and make note of the weapons used when they can. Their on-the-ground research is exceptionally useful for us. We also follow media reports, humanitarian organizations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which occasionally report on the services they provide to persons with disabilities and victims of landmines and cluster munitions in particular.

I collect as much information as I can from as many sources as possible and cross-reference the information.

I note, however, that the numbers that I come up with are a drop in the bucket compared to the reality on the ground.

Q: How many civilian casualties have you documented in Syria due to landmines and cluster munitions?

When it comes to casualties, we report on both fatalities and those injured. For 2015, we’re looking at about 230 casualties from cluster munitions strikes, of which 217 are civilians, and the rest are unknown. For 2014, we’re looking at 383 cluster munitions casualties. In 2013, there were 1,001 casualties. In 2012, there were 583 casualties.

We group landmines and explosive remnants of war together because it’s usually hard to tell exactly what exploded, and they come under similar international policy regimes. Explosive remnants of war include mortars that don’t go off and which may still be live. This category also includes submunitions of cluster munitions that didn’t explode when they hit the ground and therefore become essentially de facto landmines.

For 2015, we’re looking at about 237 casualties, of which 229 are recorded fatalities. I was able to record only eight people injured versus 229 killed. But I’m thinking that the total injured is really a multiple of that figure. Of those 237 casualties, we know the non-civilian status [i.e. identity] of 234, of which 75 percent were civilians.

It’s important to note that the Violations Documentation Center only reports on fatalities, which skews our numbers towards underreporting the number of people injured. I strongly believe that the number of those injured is much higher.

Q: Why did 2013 see such a large spike in casualties from cluster munitions?

The 1,000 cluster munition casualties from 2013 included 850 injured, and I think that may just be a case of better reporting from that year. That was one of the earlier years of widespread cluster munitions use.

Q: How do the figures coming out of Syria compare to other former and current warzones?

In terms of cluster munitions use, I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like this. Yemen may be getting close, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since the Vietnam War.

What’s very concerning is that some of these weapons that are being used in Syria are older, and there are huge numbers of unexploded submunitions. Their high failure rate means that the casualties will continue for many years to come.

Q: What got you into this line of work?

I realized that this was a global problem that could be solved. So many of the global problems that you see in the media seem intractable. With landmines and these sorts of humanitarian disarmament issues we know what needs to be done. We know how to do it. We have the treaties that set us up for success. We just need to actually do them, and the problem will be gone.

We can fix this problem, and it’s easy. Join the treaty, stop using [cluster bombs], clear contaminated land, destroy stockpiled cluster munitions and landmines so nobody else can use them and assist the victims.

Q: Is there any other piece of information regarding landmines and cluster munitions that you believe our readers should be aware of?

Cluster munitions and landmines are going to cause long-term consequences. That means governments and advocates who want to help Syria recover are going to have to pay for the contamination left behind by these weapons. In our office, we refer to them as lethal barriers to development, and they’re also lethal barriers to reconstruction.

Most of the Syrians who I speak to outside Syria want to go home at some point, but they won’t be able to until the land is safe to walk on.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.