An apparent cluster munitions strike hit Kherson in Ukraine.
Human Rights Watch said today that Russian forces appear to have used cluster munitions on civilian populated areas of Kherson at least three times since they retreated from the city, resulting in civilian casualties. These were part of a series of attacks on the city that resulted in civilian casualties.
Human Rights Watch’s associate crisis and conflict director, Belkis Wille, says that Kherson residents have been subject to new, indiscriminate attacks, including cluster munitions since they were liberated from eight months of Russian occupation.
“Residents of Kherson survived eight months of Russian occupation, and are finally free from fear of torture, only to be subjected to new indiscriminate attacks, apparently including cluster munitions,” said Belkis Wille, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.
Since Nov. 11, when Ukrainian forces recaptured the city, Russia has been attacking Kherson from the Dnieper River. As of Nov. 25, the assaults have killed at least 15 residents, including a child, and injured 35, according to Kherson City Council head Halyna Luhova. These assaults have prompted many residents, including patients at the Kherson Clinical Hospital, to leave the city.
5 Days of Cluster Munition Attacks
From Nov. 20 to 24, Human Rights Watch researchers were in Kherson. Those five days saw an increase in attacks on the city.
On Nov. 21 at about 12:30 p.m., three people were wounded when a cluster munition detonated near Universytets’ka Street in the Dniprovs’kyi district, north of the Dnieper River. Around 12:30 p.m., three people were wounded by a cluster munition while walking down the street. While on a bus near Universytets’ka Street in the Dniprovs’kyi district, north of the Dnieper River, he heard several explosions and got off to see a woman lying in a pool of blood with her leg blown off. A man whose feet had been blown off was dragging himself across the grass to the sidewalk. He saw no military presence on his approach. Within minutes, Andriy Dubchak, a photojournalist, arrived and saw the same scene. Military paramedics and police arrived to take the victims to the hospital, but no additional military presence in the area was seen.
Human Rights Watch researchers who visited the site on Nov. 22 saw pools of blood from both victims. In addition, three munition impact sites were identified, one in the grass, another next to a collection of blood on the sidewalk, and a third in front of a nearby store, fragmentation patterns on the sidewalk were consistent with a submunition detonation, and the remnants of a white-colored submunition stabilizer ribbon were observed. These findings are consistent with cluster munitions. They also suggest that the munitions were fired from the south.
A woman was injured in her chest and left arm after four explosions occurred around the same time about 400 meters away, according to Anatoli, a car repair garage security guard who did not divulge his surname. He said he saw her lying on the ground after rushing out of the garage following the explosion. It looked like porridge underneath her jacket, he said.
Researchers were shown the location of another detonation, in the garage yard and a third in the yard of a group of apartment buildings across the street. They heard six to seven rapid explosions, they said. Another white-colored ribbon stabilizer was located near the detonation in the apartment yard, and the fragmentation patterns on the sidewalk where the lady was injured were also consistent with cluster submunition detonations. They were fired from the south, researchers believe. It’s unknown whether the three victims survived.
The presence of stabilizer ribbons near two of the impact sites and the direction of fragmentation patterns, together with witness descriptions of the attacks, indicate that cluster munitions were used in the attacks.
On Nov. 19, a line of civilians in Bilozerka village, 9 kilometers west of Kherson, was hit by a rocket, wounding at least eight civilians, according to authorities. The soldier said the military was in the village but not at the aid point. He was walking to the local market when he heard several loud bangs near a long line of civilians waiting for food and water. He said eight injured civilians and a soldier were near the distribution point. After the assault, little pre-formed metal fragments, which are typical in cluster munitions, were found on the ground. Because of ongoing hostilities, we were unable to visit the area.
Serhii Kindra and his family stayed in Kherson throughout the occupation. Then, on Nov. 22 at around 11 a.m., Kindra was driving his sons Timofy, 10, and Matviy, 13, home from a church near Antonivska Bridge, just north of the river, when he heard a series of simultaneous explosions, including one near the rear of the vehicle, one in front, and one on the right side. Glass and metal fragments hit the car as a result of the blasts.
“When I turned around, I saw Matviy lying on top of Timofy,” Kindra said. “[Matviy] had major injuries on his head, stomach, legs, and arms. We rushed him to a nearby checkpoint and from there to the hospital. The doctors tried to close the wounds in his stomach and liver. He fought for his life for 10 hours. During that time, his heart stopped twice but the doctors were able to bring him back. He was a real fighter, a real hero.”
Researchers confirmed the journalists’ account of Kindra and Timofy’s injuries after interviewing them at the hospital and examining their photographs. Doctors removed a small metal fragment from Timofy’s back, and he also needed stitches on his nose and forehead. In addition to their cuts, Kindra’s nose and forehead were injured.
Throughout the day, the road was patrolled by no more than a single military checkpoint, according to researchers. A picture of the totaled vehicle and wounded son and father was posted online by Kindra. In addition, ground-fired fragmentation submunitions created many metal fragments that damaged his car.
Researchers could not establish whether all of the assaults in which civilians were killed involved cluster munitions. On Nov. 22, a 13-year-old boy was wounded, according to two people who arrived at his house immediately after the assault. Between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. in Mykolaiv, a residential area on the route out of the town, a boy was wounded by an explosive weapon as he stood outside his home. Researchers were unable to verify this account. They visited him at the hospital after his arm had been removed. They couldn’t figure out what weapon was used in the assault.
Russian forces have repeatedly used cluster munitions, which are inherently indiscriminate weapons, since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, resulting in numerous civilian deaths and damaged houses, hospitals, and schools. Cluster munitions are typically detonated in the air and disperse dozens, even hundreds, of tiny submunitions, over an area the size of a football field. In addition, explosive submunition frequently does not detonate on the initial strike, leaving duds that act like landmines. Cluster munitions are prohibited by an international agreement neither Russia nor Ukraine has ratified. Despite this, an indiscriminate attack is considered a violation of international humanitarian law if civilians are present.
Police were the majority of forces they saw in the city of Kherson, but the town’s limited military presence was noticed.
Even if a legitimate military target is present, an attack that uses a method or technique of combat that is uncontrollable and, therefore, cannot be restricted to military targets is indiscriminate and illegal. Due to their inherently indiscriminate nature and potential to harm civilians, cluster munitions should be investigated to see if they were used in Kherson as a war crime.
“These attacks are being carried out with no apparent regard for civilian life,” Wille said. “They are a direct rebuke to claims by Russia that it is only targeting the military.”
Cluster Munitions in Russia Ban Request
The Convention on Cluster Munitions held an international meeting beginning on May 16 to address the issue of “intense” and lasting harm to the Ukrainians.
Numerous attacks by Russian forces have been using cluster munitions, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths and extensive damage to homes, hospitals, and schools. Ukrainian troops are believed to have used cluster munitions at least once. Both countries should stop using this banned weapon immediately and agree to join the international treaty banning cluster munitions.
Russian armed forces have employed at least six types of cluster munitions in the Ukrainian conflict in the international armed conflict, according to a 20-page report, “Intense and Lasting Harm: Cluster Munition Attacks in Ukraine.“
“Russian forces’ repeated use of cluster munitions in populated neighborhoods in Ukraine causes immediate and long-term civilian harm and suffering and needs to stop,” said Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Ukraine should also stop using these brutal weapons before more civilians are harmed.”
Human Rights Watch documented several cluster munition attacks by Russian forces in populated areas in the cities of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Vuhledar in 2022. The precise number of cluster munition attacks in the 2022 conflict is not known, but hundreds have been documented, reported, or claimed.
On March 7, 11, and 13, Russian forces fired cluster munition rockets into populated areas of Mykolaiv, killing civilians and destroying homes, businesses, and civilian vehicles. According to local media, nine people were killed on Mar. 13 while waiting in line at a cash machine, one of the Mar. 13 attacks.
It is true that Russia has used cluster munitions. However, it has not been independently verified that Ukrainian forces used cluster munitions in Donetsk on Mar. 14.
On March 6 or 7, the New York Times reported that Ukrainian military forces allegedly used Uragan cluster munitions rockets against Husarivka in Kharkiv oblast, a village controlled by Russian forces at the time. Ukraine has not denied using cluster munitions in the current conflict but has claimed that its Armed Forces adhere to international humanitarian law standards.
Cluster munitions can be deployed from the air or fired by artillery systems such as rockets and projectiles. Cluster munitions typically disperse over an area the size of a city block, spreading submunitions or bomblets haphazardly. As a result, many of them fail to detonate on impact, leaving dangerous duds that can kill and injure, much like landmines, for years or even decades unless they are cleared and eliminated.
All cluster munitions used in Ukraine are launched from the ground in rockets and missiles, except for the RBK-series cluster bomb, which is delivered by aircraft. Some cluster munitions were manufactured in Russia as recently as 2021 or in its predecessor state, the Soviet Union.
As of May 9, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine reports that a total of 98,864 items of unexploded ordnance, including submunitions and landmines, have been cleared and destroyed. During the first seven weeks of the conflict, 29 workers were reportedly killed while doing demining and related work, and 73 were injured. On Apr. 17, three Kharkiv emergency workers were killed while clearing cluster munition remnants.
Human Rights Watch and other organizations investigated cluster munition use by Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed armed groups in eastern Ukraine between July 2014 and February 2015.
The Cluster Munitions Convention – a 2008 treaty banning cluster munitions – does not have Russia or Ukraine among its 110 states parties, which are required to destroy cluster munitions stockpiles, clear contaminated areas where explosive cluster munition remnants remain, and provide assistance to victims.
The convention requires each state party to make their “best efforts to discourage” the use of cluster munitions. The United Kingdom, currently president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, along with at least 36 other countries, has publicly condemned cluster munitions in Ukraine.
The Cluster Munition Coalition, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations working to outlaw cluster bombs, is cofounded and chaired by Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch will present its findings to the convention countries during intercessional meetings at the United Nations in Geneva on May 16 and 17.
In the past, the vast majority of the world has already rejected cluster munitions due to their widespread, indiscriminate effects and enduring dangers, Wareham said. However, he added that condemning the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine will strengthen the global distaste for these weapons and ensure that civilians are safeguarded from them in the future.
Still, the question at this point is, should we wait before we approve sending cluster munitions to Ukraine? Or is there another way to beat the Russians without it?
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