The 'butterfly' of death: Cluster bombs' carnage
Reality Check

Editor's Note: Half a century ago, the United States dropped millions of cluster munitions in Vietnam and Laos. To this day, people in the region still die from dud bombs' explosions. U.S.'s decision to send cluster bombs to Ukraine will doom people in the conflict zone to the same fate for the next half a century or more. This episode of Reality Check breaks down the history and the destructive capability of cluster ammunitions and asks the world a question: Will the global community remain a passive observer of this horrific choice? Or will the international community hold the U.S. accountable for its actions?

Hey guys, welcome to Reality Check. I’m Huang Jiyuan. U.S.'s cluster bombs have already been used by the Ukrainian forces against the Russians. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, so far, one Russian war reporter was killed and three were wounded by the weapon.

Cluster bombs' usage dates back to World War II. Back then, Germany first used it against the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. And because of its unique shape, it was nicknamed "Butterfly Bomb."

Cluster bombs are weapons that open up in mid-air and release tens or hundreds of submunitions. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition, they could "saturate an area up to the size of several football fields." People within the area are "very likely to be killed or seriously injured."

When the United States announced that it's going to deliver such weapon to Ukraine, it caused an uproar. UN Secretary-General rejected its use. A Quinnipiac poll showed 51 percent of Americans disapproved this decision. And major American allies and NATO members like Canada, Germany, Spain, and the UK opposed as well.

Péter Szijjártó, Foreign Minister of Hungary, said that "they are extremely dangerous and they can put the lives of civilians at risk very badly." "So we are absolutely not happy with the decision of the United States in this regard. And we do see it as a decision which can bring further suffering and further casualties," he stated.

A tricky thing about cluster bombs is that they can continue to kill half a century after they were launched. Sometimes, the submunitions from the cluster bombs don't detonate as they should. They stay in the ground, dormant for decades, and explode when someone comes into contact with them. You can find real-world examples in Southeast Asia. Between 1979 and 2021, these dud bombs killed nearly 20,000 people in Cambodia, and injured more than 45,000. During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped more than 270 million cluster bombs in Laos. Around 50,000 have died because of these unexploded submunitions.

According to Saysamone Nuanthasing, Senior Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician, only one percent of the contaminated land in Laos has been cleared, and that it is impossible to clear Laos of all these bombs. This is what people in the conflict zone will face for several decades after the cluster bombs were launched.

When the United States made the announcement of sending cluster munitions to Ukraine, it claimed the dud rate of the bomb is less than 2.35 percent. But the 2022 Congressional Research Service's report on Cluster Munitions stated that "some manufacturers claim a submunition failure rate of 2 percent to 5 percent, whereas mine clearance specialists have frequently reported failure rates of 10 percent to 30 percent." "Submunitions lacking a self-destruct capability — referred to as 'dumb' munitions — are of particular concern because they can remain a hazard for decades, thereby increasing the potential for civilian casualties," it stated.

Brian Becker, Executive Director, ANSWER Coalition, said in an interview that "these weapons are war crimes, inherently war crimes. Because they are indiscriminate weapons. The Geneva Convention, which governs the rules of law, requires all the parties at war to take serious, sustained and comprehensive measures to protect civilian life."

The New York Times's Editorial wrote: "Sending cluster munitions to Ukraine amounts to a clear escalation of a conflict that has already become far too brutal and destructive" and that these weapons are "morally repugnant for the indiscriminate carnage it can cause long after the combatants have gone."

Morally repugnant; Indiscriminate carnage. The U.S. made an unfortunate and sad decision. Now the question is: Will the global community remain a passive observer of this horrific choice? Or will the international community hold it accountable for these actions?

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