Graphic footage of rows of bodies laid out in clinics and mosques, including dozens of children, showed the gruesome impact of the August 21 chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government. The images and witness testimonies sparked an international outcry, the threat of US air strikes, and international diplomatic efforts which have now culminated in Syria acceding to the international treaty banning chemical weapons.
Syria's accession to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention is a necessary and positive step, but there is still no end in sight to the government's use of other banned weapons, with civilians bearing the brunt of horrific attacks. We continue to see evidence of cluster munition attacks by the Syrian government with footage this week from al-Tabqa and Naemeh in Daraa showing cluster munition remnants, including submunitions.
Cluster munitions contain dozens and sometimes hundreds of explosive submunitions or bomblets. They are dropped from aircraft or fired from the ground and designed to break open in mid-air, releasing submunitions over an area the size of a football field. Cluster munitions can harm civilians both at the time of use, when they are dispersed over a wide area, and after the attack as a number of submunitions fail to explode becoming in effect de facto land mines.
Farmers working their land can cause bomblets to explode. Children are often attracted by the curious shape, color and small size of the bomblets and have mistaken them for toys, killing and injuring themselves and others by picking them up and playing with them.
The unacceptable harm caused to civilians by these weapons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon and elsewhere led these and other nations to comprehensively ban them through the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which 113 nations have joined.
Yet Syria is not party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and its use of cluster bombs has continued for more than a year now, with mounting civilian casualties. According to Human Rights Watch, Syrian government forces used at least 204 cluster munitions from July 2012 until June 2013 in 152 separate locations in at least nine of the country's 14 governorates. Several locations have been repeatedly attacked. This data is an underestimation as not all attacks have been recorded; the actual number of strikes is probably higher.
After the conflict in Syria ends, cluster munition remnants will continue to pose a long-lasting danger to civilians.
Syria's civilians have suffered unnecessarily from the government's use of other banned weapons, including antipersonnel landmines and air-delivered incendiary weapons in populated areas. Its use of explosive weapons with wide area effects such as artillery, ballistic missiles, and mortars has proved devastating when used in population centres.
Chemical weapons have generated a response that promises to bring the international community together to focus on ending one particularly egregious practice. But the carnage from conventional weapons cannot be ignored.
To date, more than 113 have spoken out against Syria's use of cluster munitions. This reaction, as well as the limited other cases of known or alleged use in recent years, is testament to the powerful stigma that has been created against the use of cluster munitions. States will face international condemnation for use of these weapons whether or not they are part of the Convention. Governments worldwide must continue to speak out against the ongoing cluster bomb attacks in Syria.
The Syrian government should take heed of this firestorm of international condemnation, immediately halt use of cluster munitions and take steps toward joining the Convention on Cluster Munitions, prioritizing the protection of protect Syrian children, women and men during and after this terrible conflict.