Used during conflicts from the Vietnam War to Kosovo, the war in Iraq and in the recent 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah, cluster bombs have been responsible for the deaths and maiming of thousands of people across the world.

DEADLY LEGACY: During the ten years of the war in Indochina, Laos had an estimated 2-3 million tons of bombs dropped on it. Millions of cluster bombs were dumped over Laos and huge quantities failed to explode. A common type of cluster bomb found in Laos is the BLU-26. Small and round, about the size of a tennis ball, it is very attractive to children. Many children have been injured or killed by playing with them. PICTURE: John Rodsted


“Obviously this is a weapons system that because of its broad area of effect, because of the number of submunitions involved and because of the legacy they leave behind of unexploded duds, their potential for misuse is enormous,” says Mark Zirnsak.

Consisting of a single bomb which opens up in the air to produce anywhere between dozens and hundreds of “bomblets”, they are can cause damage across a broad area as well as leave behind a legacy of dud bomblets which failed to initially explode.

Dr Mark Zirnsak, national coordinator of the Australian Network to Ban Landmines - a group which includes numerous churches and church organisations, says that cluster munitions have a deadly and ongoing potential for harming civilians.

“Obviously this is a weapons system that because of its broad area of effect, because of the number of submunitions involved and because of the legacy they leave behind of unexploded duds, their potential for misuse is enormous,” he says.

The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre office in Kosovo has reported that the dud rate for all types of cluster bombs is between eight and 11 per cent, although, deminers have anecdotally quoted higher figures.

Dr Zirnsak says the recent use by Israel of cluster bombs in southern Lebanon was a “clear demonstration” of the problems involved with the bombs.

“I think a lot of people would argue - and I would be one of them -that the Israeli’s use of cluster munitions in southern Lebanon was a violation of international humanitarian law...” he says. “Like anti-personnel landmines, they’re simply open to misuse.”

The National Demining Office in Lebanon has estimated that following the 2006 conflict, there are more than a million unexploded cluster munitions in southern Lebanon, contaminating as much as 34 million square metres of land.

A new international bid to ban cluster bombs was launched in February when a group of 49 nations met in Oslo and 46 of them - including Norway, Austria, Hungary and Belgium - committed to new international legislation banning all cluster munitions causing “unacceptable harm to civilians” by 2008. Cambodia have also since committed to the process, taking the number of nations to 47. 

Australia has expressed its commitment to that process and while the government wasn’t represented at the Oslo meeting early this year, it was represented at conference in Lima, Peru, held last month.

Dr Zirnsak says the network is after a “firmer commitment” from Australia to work towards banning the worst type of cluster munitions.



BAN NON CHAN VILLAGE, LAOS: On the 22nd May, 2002, at 11am four children were looking after cattle grazing close to their village. They found a metal ball and began to throw rocks at it. All four were injured by shrapnel but luckily survived. Injuries were to the head, face, elbow, arms, body, foot and abdomen of the children. They were the fortunate ones as they survived. Many are not this lucky and are killed. PICTURE: John Rodsted


• During the 1991 Gulf War, US forces dropped more than 13 million cluster bomblets on Iraq and Kuwait from the air and more than 11 millions submunitions from ground-based rocket launchers. At least 2.4 million of the submunitions were believed to have been duds.

• Human Rights Watch have reported that by February 1993, unexploded bomblets had killed 1,600 Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians and injured 2,500. Sixty per cent of victims were under the age of 15.

• The International Committee of the Red Cross has estimated that between nine and 27 million unexploded submunitions remain in Laos and that as many as 11,000 people have been killed or wounded by them, around 30 per cent of them children.

• Nations that produce cluster munitions include Argentina, Canada, South Africa, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

“(The Government) are saying that we’re participating in that process but we’re pushing them to see whether they’ll make a firmer commitment that they’re going to really try and be part of a treaty that would ben the worst type of cluster muitions...and that we haven’t got from them yet,” says Dr Zirnsak, who is also the director of justice and international missions at the Uniting Church for Victoria and Tasmania. “But, in principal, they’re making the right sort of noises."

In May, the network slammed a move by the Australian delegation at the Lima conference to exclude weapons with a self-destruct mechanism, saying that self-destruct mechanisms were “little more than illusions” and often failed to explode.

Australia currently doesn’t possess or use cluster munitions. The Australian Defence Force, however, has flagged its intention to purchase some advanced cluster bombs. These are believed to contain between two to four submunitions and have in-built sensors which can be programmed to identify certain vehicle types. Many of them are fitted with self-destruct mechanisms.

Dr Zirnsak says that given the sophistication of the weapons being considered by the ADF - which he says can cause less humanitarian impact that a standard artillery bomb or mortar shell - the Australian Network Against Landmines, while not approving of their purchase, are not calling for such munitions to be banned outright.

“What we’re after is what’s being talked about internationally - a ban on the ones that have been widely used, a ban on the ones that are going to leave these humanitarian legacies - they’re the ones the focus needs to be on...” he says.

The network has a petition addressed to the House of Representatives calling for the House to legislate a ban on the production, transfer, stockpiling and use of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. The document also calls for a motion to supporting the Oslo Declaration committing Australia towards an international treaty to do the same on a global level.

They are also calling for people to write to federal politicians including Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, Greg Hunt, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and, Robert McClelland, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and express the concern about the impact of cluster munitions on civilians around the world.