(Berlin) – Ukrainian government forces used cluster munitions in populated areas in Donetsk city in early October 2014. The use of cluster munitions in populated areas violates the laws of war due to the indiscriminate nature of the weapon and may amount to war crimes.
During a week-long investigation in eastern Ukraine, Human Rights Watch documented widespread use of cluster munitions in fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels in more than a dozen urban and rural locations. While it was not possible to conclusively determine responsibility for many of the attacks, the evidence points to Ukrainian government forces’ responsibility for several cluster munition attacks on Donetsk. An employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was killed on October 2 in an attack on Donetsk that included use of cluster munition rockets.
“It is shocking to see a weapon that most countries have banned used so extensively in eastern Ukraine,” said Mark Hiznay, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ukrainian authorities should make an immediate commitment not to use cluster munitions and join the treaty to ban them.”
Cluster munitions contain dozens or hundreds of smaller munitions, called submunitions, in a container such as a rocket or a bomb. After launch, the container opens up dispersing the submunitions which are designed to explode when they hit the ground. The submunitions are spread indiscriminately over a wide area, often the size of a football field, putting anyone in the area at the time of attack, whether combatants or civilians, at risk of death or injury. In addition, many of the submunitions do not explode on contact, but remain armed, becoming de facto landmines. Any location contaminated with dud submunitions remains hazardous until cleared by deminers.
To date, 114 countries have joined the treaty that comprehensively bans cluster munitions because of the danger they pose to civilians. Ukraine has not joined the treaty.
There is particularly strong evidence that Ukrainian government forces were responsible for several cluster munition attacks on central Donetsk in early October. In addition to evidence at the impact site indicating that the cluster munitions came from the direction of government-controlled areas southwest of Donetsk, witnesses in that area said that they observed rockets being launched toward Donetsk on the times and days when cluster munitions struck the city. A New York Times journalist tracked down several rockets in that area, which appeared to have malfunctioned and fallen to the ground shortly after they were launched, clearly establishing the flight path of the rockets.
In the 12 incidents documented by Human Rights Watch, cluster munitions killed at least 6 people and injured dozens. The real casualty number from use of cluster munitions in the conflict is probably higher since it has not investigated all allegations of cluster munition use. Also, in some cases, it was not possible to determine what weapon caused the death or injury because several types of explosive weapons were used at the same time in the same area.
Human Rights Watch identified the cluster munitions by the distinctive crater and fragmentation pattern that submunitions create when they explode, by remnants of the submunitions found at the impact sites, and by remnants of the rockets found in the vicinity. Several of these remnants included markings that allowed for positive identification of the weapon.
Human Rights Watch found evidence of surface-fired 220mm Uragan (Hurricane) and 300mm Smerch (Tornado) cluster munition rockets. Human Rights Watch researchers observed and photographed the remnants of the cargo sections of 16 Uragan and 6 Smerch cluster munition rockets. Altogether, these 22 rockets would have contained 912 individual fragmentation submunitions. The total number of cluster munition rockets used so far in the conflict is unknown.
The government of Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied using cluster munitions in eastern Ukraine. It has not responded to a letter sent by the Cluster Munition Coalition in July or a letter sent by Human Rights Watch on October 13.
Ukrainian forces should immediately make a commitment to not use cluster munitions and to investigate and hold accountable any personnel responsible for firing cluster munitions into populated areas. Ukraine should accede to the treaty banning their use.
While not conclusive, circumstances indicate that anti-government forces might also have been responsible for the use of cluster munitions.
Human Rights Watch also called on Russia to make an immediate commitment to not use cluster munitions and to accede to the cluster munitions treaty.
“Firing cluster munitions into populated areas is utterly irresponsible and those who ordered such attacks should be held to account,” Hiznay said. “The best way for the Ukrainian authorities to demonstrate a commitment to protect civilians would be an immediate promise to stop using cluster munitions.”