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Cluster munition attack against Ukraine raises suspicions of Russian War Crime

A deadly cluster munition attack in the Ukrainian town of Lyman on July 8, 2023, has raised alarm bells among human rights organisations. Human Rights Watch, the international non-governmental human rights organisation, has reported the incident as a potential war crime following the attack, which killed nine civilians and wounded several others.

Human Rights Watch points to Russia as the responsible party, noting the nation’s recurrent use of cluster munitions since launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. These attacks have resulted in numerous civilian casualties, damage to civilian structures, and have contaminated agricultural lands. The specific nature of cluster munitions, which pose a long-term threat to civilians due to their indiscriminate nature, places this incident under the purview of potential war crimes.

Despite Russia’s insistence that they have not used cluster munitions in Ukraine, the evidence suggests otherwise. “This attack, if confirmed, once again demonstrates the Russian army’s contempt for civilians and the international legal restraints of war, as well as the deadly and indiscriminate nature of these weapons,” said Ida Sawyer, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.

The July 8th attack occurred around 9:55 a.m., targeting a residential area in Lyman, in the Donetska region just 15 kilometers west of Russian-occupied territory. Witnesses, including medical professionals and information released online by Ukrainian authorities, indicate that the victims ranged in age from their 30s to their 70s. The attack reportedly utilized a 9M55K-series Smerch cluster munition rocket containing 72 9N235 fragmentation submunitions.

Eye-witness accounts depict a devastating scene where locals had gathered for morning trade. Six people died instantly, with a further three dying from their injuries in the following days. Among the victims were individuals participating in the exchange of goods and bystanders in the vicinity.

The use of cluster munitions in conflict zones is particularly insidious due to their extensive reach and enduring harm. These weapons disperse smaller submunitions over a wide area, akin to a city block. Many of these fail to detonate immediately, leaving unexploded ordnances that act like landmines, threatening civilians for years.

Evidence from the attack in Lyman, including photos and videos shared online, confirms the use of 9N235 fragmentation submunitions. The range of the alleged 9M55K-series Smerch cluster munition rockets, between 20 and 70 kilometres, places Lyman within a feasible range from Russian-occupied territory.

The incident in Lyman adds to a growing list of cluster munition attacks documented by Human Rights Watch, attributed to Russian forces that have led to significant civilian casualties. Despite these findings, neither Russia, Ukraine, nor the United States has joined the 123 countries that have ratified the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use of such weapons.

“The recurrent use of cluster munitions in Ukraine paints a stark image of the horrors of modern warfare. The indiscriminate nature of these weapons continues to claim innocent lives and wreak havoc in civilian communities,” said Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV. “It is crucial that the international community stands firm in its commitment to uphold the humanitarian principles that protect civilians. Our collective response to such atrocities will shape the future of armed conflict and the way we tackle the issue of armed violence. No military objective should justify the scale of human suffering caused by these weapons.”

Action on Armed Violence calls for an immediate halt to the use of cluster munitions by all parties involved in the conflict. The indiscriminate nature of these weapons poses an immediate threat to civilian lives and a long-term danger due to unexploded ordnances. As the conflict continues to escalate, the need for urgent action becomes increasingly evident.