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Sophia Akram

Russia must be held accountable for Syria cluster bombs

Russian bombardment of Syrian towns and cities has been ongoing since September [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 30 December, 2015

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Comment: Legal precedent from the former Yugoslavia shows that Moscow may yet face repercussions for using indiscriminate explosive weapons in Syrian cities, writes Sophia Akram.
Russian air raids began in Syria on 3 September this year, targeting Islamic State group militants, in support of the Syrian government in helping to tackle the terrorist group's spread in the region.

While the message from Moscow is that only terrorist targets have been struck, the evidence gathered from international human rights NGOs is quite different.

Amnesty International's report released this week has highlighted five cases, in areas that have been subject to repeated airstrikes: Homs, Idlib, Hama and Latakia. In these cities there appear to be no military targets in the vicinity, which has raised the doubt as to whether civilians were deliberately targeted, being either fully or partly in control of opposition groups.

This sets a pretext for a worrying assertion, which is amplified with the evidence that Amnesty International put forward for Russia's use of cluster munitions. In the same week, Human Rights Watch confirmed those munitions found after attacks - in an IDP camp, among other places - were manufactured in Russia.
These are not precision weapons and are indiscriminate in nature


Cluster munitions, otherwise known as cluster bombs, are an air-released munition that detonates mid-air, releasing smaller sub-munitions, that can cause greater damage to smaller or more intricate targets - taking out humans, ground vehicles, electricity lines and other targets that may give the attacker more tactical advantage.

Having said that, these are not precision weapons and are indiscriminate in nature.

That means that the smaller munitions have no way of distinguishing between civilians or combatants. They can also leave behind unexploded ordinance, which act as mines and hinder the development of a country both socially and economically long after a conflict has passed.

Their use is illegal under international law and the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

The Russian Federation has not yet, however, joined the Convention. Therefore, while the convention is legally binding, Russia as a non-signatory, cannot be tried under its framework.

Moscow is, however, bound by standards of international humanitarian law - the law of armed conflict. Amnesty suggests that it is the targeting of civilian objects, the non-distinction between civilians and combatants and disproportionally that may constitute war crimes.
The scope, range and type of damage that can be caused is far more dangerous than their military uility could justify


The unpredictable nature of the damage was also due to the use of cluster bombs. Therefore, even if there were militants in the vicinity, the use of cluster bombs are antithetical to humanitarian objectives.

Their indiscriminate nature is shown by a number of factors, and they have been found in built-up areas with high civilian populations. The radius of the surface area affected when cluster bombs are dropped means that there is no accuracy in hitting targets.

In addition, the fact that they may misfire and then turn into perpetually threatening landmines, which can still kill many years after being dropped, means that the scope, range and type of damage that can be caused is far more dangerous than their military uility could justify.

There have been rulings under the convention to hold individuals and states liable for crimes as a result of the use of cluster bombs. However, these have been scarce, yet they are usually coupled with attacks have targeted built-up areas.
The mounting evidence against Russia should not be taken lightly


However, the Martic case may yet set precedent for establishing that individual criminal liability can be held for the use of certain weapons. 

The case of Milan Martic saw the International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia indict him for war crimes for the 1995 bombings in Zagreb, Serbia. It was the specific use of an unguided rocket with a cluster munition warhead that saw his liability proven, as there was no way he could assure who the target would be.

The mounting evidence against Russia should not be taken lightly, and in these times of modern warfare, the potential for more states to use imprecise weapons is not an improbable consequence.

Each incident should be investigated, the affected brought to give witness and those liable held to account under Article 51(1)(b) of the Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions - which describes an unlawful indiscriminate act as one which employs a method that cannot be directed at a specific military object.


Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East and Asia. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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