Some residents of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv were in line for groceries on Monday morning when the shelling started. Ukrainian officials reported that 11 people had died and dozens more were injured when Russia bombed the city using suspected cluster munitions, a type of bomb that causes damage in a large, imprecise area—and banned by 110 countries because of the incredible harm it can inflict on civilians.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Bellingcat have all said that Russian cluster bombs were used in civilian areas in Ukraine. Cluster munitions are either fired from a rocket or dropped from a bomber. They break apart and release bomblets which spread destruction in the targeted area. They’re indiscriminate and imprecise weapons of war banned by a treaty signed by more than 100 countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom.
One of the reasons cluster bombs are so destructive is that unexploded or delayed explosive ordinance is common. After the initial release, an undetonated bomblet might lay in wait until disturbed by a passing civilian.
Bellingcat has been tracking the use of cluster bombs in the war in Ukraine and posting the evidence as they vet it. They’ve collected footage pulled from social media of the bombs exploding as well as the rockets embedded in homes and highways, their ordinance long since discharged and exploded.
According to Amnesty International, cluster munitions struck a preschool in north-eastern Ukraine, killing a child and two other civilians who were sheltering there. It shared drone footage of the aftermath. “This is the fourth attack in this conflict that has struck a school that Amnesty International has verified,” it said in its report.
Human Rights Watch has also reported on Russia’s use of cluster munitions, including a strike on a hospital that killed 4 and wounded 10. Human Rights Watch has long studied the use of cluster bombs in conflict and noted that both Ukraine and Russia have used the weapons several times since 2014. Ukraine’s Military denied it used cluster bombs in the early days of its war against Russian-backed separatists in 2014.
Russia has made heavy use of cluster munitions before. In the Second Chechen War, Russia used cluster bombs. Russian and Russian-backed forces made liberal use of cluster munitions in Syria. It also used the weapons when it invaded Georgia in 2008.
In 2008, the U.N. began to push the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty banning the use, transfer, production, and stockpiling of cluster bombs. In the intervening years, a total of 110 countries have ratified the treaty. China, Russia, and the United States have not signed and actively opposed the treaty.
The great powers continue to manufacture and use cluster weapons, much to the horror of the international community. “Cluster munitions are inherently indiscriminate weapons, which when used in civilian areas almost certainly cause harm,” Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat told Motherboard. “That's why so many countries ban them, and that's exactly what we've been seeing happening in Ukraine over the last few days. The use of cluster munitions in civilian areas by Russian forces are almost certainly war crimes, and should be investigated by the international community with those responsible held to account.”