Letter to David Cameron calls for urgent investigation into ‘scandal’ of UK-supplied BL-755 cluster bomb being used in village in northern Yemen
Government is asked for ‘full disclose’ over whether UK personnel have played any part in dropping banned cluster bombs from UK-supplied Tornado jets
Yemeni villages turned into cluster bomb ‘minefields’, with thousands of ‘bomblets’ liable to kill civilians - children especially at risk
‘Cluster bombs are one of the nastiest weapons in the history of warfare … it’s truly shocking that a British cluster munition has been dropped on a civilian area in Yemen’ - Oliver Sprague
Amnesty International has written to prime minister David Cameron and other senior ministers demanding a full Government inquiry into new evidence that Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have used UK-manufactured cluster bombs - which may have killed and injured civilians, including children - in the conflict in Yemen.
During recent field research in Sa’da, Hajjah, and Sanaa governorates near the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border, Amnesty found a partially-exploded UK-manufactured “BL-755” cluster bomb, as well as other evidence of US and Brazilian cluster munitions which had been used by the Saud Arabia-led coalition forces.
The UK cluster bomb, which had apparently malfunctioned, had left scores of unexploded “bomblets” strewn over a wide area near a farm in Al-khadhra village in Hajjah governorate, six miles from the Saudi Arabia border. A local farmer reported seeing the cluster bomb attack in January this year. The cluster bomb had been retrieved - at great risk - by staff from local Yemeni de-mining organisation, the Yemen Executive Mine Action Center, and was being stored at a de-mining depot in Hayran district, in Hajjah, when seen by Amnesty experts.
The discovery of the cluster bomb - originally manufactured by the Bedfordshire company Hunting Engineering Ltd in the 1970s - is the first clear evidence that, as long suspected, members of the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition have used British cluster munitions in their highly controversial attacks in Yemen.
The BL-755 weapon, now banned under international law, contains 147 bomblets which scatter on impact with the ground but frequently don’t detonate until they’re later picked up, often by civilians unaware of their deadly nature. The bomblets are designed to burn through tank armour and then explode into more than 2,000 metal fragments. Families returning home in northern Yemen after a year of conflict are at grave risk of death or serious injury from the thousands of unexploded bomblets that now litter villages, farmland and the surrounding countryside in these areas. One man, who herds goats in a village in Hajjah governorate approximately six miles from the Saudi Arabia border, told Amnesty: “In the area next to us, there are bombs hanging off the trees.”
Cluster munitions are banned by over 100 countries, including the UK, and campaigners argue that the UK has a strong moral responsibility to ensure that any cluster bombs - such as the BL-755 - sold in the past are traced and that measures taken to destroy existing stockpiles. Since the 1980s and 1990s the UK is thought to have sold large numbers of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE (which is also part of the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition), and the weapon is known to be in the current ordnance stockpiles of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The BL-755 is designed to be dropped from the UK Tornado fighter jet, scores of which the UK has sold to Saudi Arabia. Given that the UK is known to have several hundred specialist support staff working closely with the Royal Saudi Air Force, Amnesty is warning that any involvement of UK personnel - whether in Saudi Arabia or in a liaison or political role in the UK - would constitute a clear breach of the UK’s legal responsibility under the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The BL-755 found in Al-khadhra village is the first confirmed use of UK-made cluster munitions since the entry into force of the cluster munitions convention in 2008.
Amnesty interviewed 30 people - including survivors of cluster bomb submunitions and other unexploded ordnance, as well as their families, eyewitnesses, de-mining experts, activists and members of the emergency services - documenting ten new cases in which 16 civilians, including nine children, were killed or maimed by cluster bombs between July 2015 and last month. These incidents took place days, weeks or sometimes months after the bombs were dropped by coalition forces in Yemen.
Amnesty International UK’s Arms Control Director Oliver Sprague said:
“Cluster bombs are one of the nastiest weapons in the history of warfare, rightly banned by more than 100 countries, so it’s truly shocking that a British cluster munition has been dropped on a civilian area in Yemen.
“Given that this type of cluster bomb is very likely to have been used in combination with Tornado war planes which the UK has also sold to Saudi Arabia, there’s even a possibility that British support personnel might have been involved in the cluster bombing of Yemen. This would be an absolute scandal if confirmed.
“The UK should have been tracking down all the now-banned cluster bombs it’s sold to Saudi Arabia over the years and pressing for them to be safely disposed of. Instead, shamefully, it’s now come to light that a UK cluster bomb has been used in Yemen, spraying its deadly bomblets all over a village and jeopardising the lives of men, women and children.
“There needs to be a full investigation into both this incident and all aspects of the UK’s arming of Saudi Arabia and other countries involved in the carnage in Yemen.
“Amongst other things, we need categorical assurances that no UK person has been involved in the cluster bombing of Yemen, with full disclosure of what was known, when and by whom.
“It shouldn’t have taken the discovery of a UK cluster bomb in Yemen to push Downing Street to do the right thing, but surely now ministers will suspend all further arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its partners pending the outcome of a full investigation.”
Children killed and maimed while herding family’s goats
On 1 March, an eight-year-old boy was killed when he and his 11-year-old brother encountered multiple cluster bomblets while herding goats near a village in al-Safra directorate in Sa’da. The elder brother told Amnesty that he and his sibling were playing with the bomblets for several hours when one exploded, killing the younger one instantly and injuring the 11-year-old. The older brother lost three fingers, needed an operation to insert steel plates into his shattered jaw and sustained shrapnel injuries to his chest and legs. He said:
“We go down every day to the valley to herd goats, where there are many small bombs. We found four of them in the morning … they were cylindrical with a red ribbon. We carried them with us while herding. At around 1pm, I started to take the red string with my right hand and pull and [my brother] pulled on the other end of it and then it went off and I fell back. [My brother] was hurt in his stomach and he had fallen down too. We didn’t know it would hurt us.”
In a similar incident, on 16 April in a village in Hajjah governorate about six miles from the Saudi Arabia border, a 12-year-old boy was killed and his nine-year-old brother injured when they played with cluster bomb submunitions while herding goats in the valley nearby. The surviving brother told Amnesty:
“I found the bomb and I went and gave it to [my brother] so he can have one and I had one. Ali hit them against each other and they exploded and I found myself lying on the ground. The explosion pushed me back [several metres]. Two or three days before the accident, my friend and I used to go and collect the bombs and put them in a bag and hide them under and between the trees. They have a white ribbon.”
His 12-year-old brother was killed on the spot, with his abdomen torn open and his arm severed. The boys’ father told Amnesty that the family had only recently returned to the area after being displaced by airstrikes. He said they now don’t go to the valley after the incident but there are no safe spaces to herd their goats: “In the area next to us, there are bombs hanging off the trees,” he said. Other goat herders told Amnesty that the prevalence of bomblets in grazing areas has forced them to keep their goats locked up and feed them straw, which is costly and unsustainable. In most cases, farmers and herders told Amnesty they had no choice but to work in areas affected hit by cluster bombs despite the risks.
Amnesty also interviewed a 13-year-old boy who was injured in January after apparently picking up a bomblet near a spring that locals rely on for water in a small village surrounded by agricultural land in al-Safra, Sa’da governorate, some 15 miles from the Saudi Arabia border. The boy said the bomblets were green and shaped like “a small ball that you play with”, apparently bomblets from a US-made BLU-63 weapon. The boy explained:
“I saw the bomb [submunition] close to where we were filling water and as I was walking along I saw it [on the ground]. I picked it up and I threw it [to the side] and it exploded. I got hurt and then [my brother] went to get help…”.
The 13-year-old was hospitalised for two months and had an operation on his abdomen. He says there are still submunitions by the spring.
In many instances, civilians told Amnesty that they have had to resort to removing bomblets themselves, fearing that children will pick them up or their livestock be killed. Hindi Ibrahim, a 25-year-old father of two from Dugheij Village, Hayran, Hajjah governorate, told Amnesty how his arm was injured by an explosion when he and other villagers attempted to clear hundreds of bomblets from their village:
“The original airstrike happened late last July or August during the day and [some of] the bomblets exploded. There were also Apaches [helicopters] that shot at people as they ran away. There were 500 pieces in the village everywhere … we wanted to remove them. Some were inside the house in the courtyard and kitchen … [the de-mining organisation] kept on promising they would come but they never came. They told us they were busy in other areas. By February, we were forced to clean them ourselves because of the children. At the time I went into the house and put ten [submunitions] on a tray and carried them out of the house. The bombs started hitting against each other and one went off. I dropped the tray and the rest went off.”
Hindi Ibrahim sustained shrapnel injuries to his abdomen, arm and hip. Hindi’s brother Weedi, 30, and his nephew, Yahya Shawqi, 15, were also injured when they handled bomblets in the village, and two other villagers were killed in recent months.
Civilians describe dire need for de-mining assistance
Recognising the serious risk unexploded ordnance presents to the civilian population, Yemen’s sole de-mining agency, the Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre (YEMAC), began clearing and detonating the weapons in Sa’da and Hajjah in early April despite being ill-equipped and trained. While the full extent of cluster munition contamination is not yet known, in the first three weeks of their work YEMAC says its teams working in Sa’da and Hajjah cleared at least 418 cluster bomb submunitions, 810 fuses, 51 mortars and more than 70 missiles. Tragically, the centre had to abruptly halt its operations on 26 April after three of its staff - Mohammed Ahmed Ali Al Sharafi, Mustafa Abdullah Saleh Al Harazi and Hussein Abdo Mohssien Al Salami - were killed in a cluster munition accident in Dugheij village in Hayran, Hajjah governorate.
International assistance is urgently needed to de-mine contaminated areas and countries with influence should urge the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces to stop using cluster bomb munitions, which are internationally banned and inherently indiscriminate.
Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Advisor Lama Fakih said:
“Even after hostilities have died down, the lives and livelihoods of civilians, including young children, continue to be on the line in Yemen as they return to de facto minefields. They cannot live in safety until contaminated areas in and around their homes and fields are identified and cleared of deadly cluster bomb submunitions and other unexploded ordnance.
“Without a concerted effort to stop the Saudi Arabia-led coalition from using cluster munitions and urgent international support for de-mining, these cluster bombs and other explosive remnants of war will pose a deadly legacy in Yemen for years to come, posing a threat to civilian lives and wreaking havoc on the local economy.”
US and Brazilian cluster bombs
Since the start of the conflict, Amnesty has documented the use of six types of cluster munitions in Yemen by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, and other credible sources - including Human Rights Watch - have also documented their use.
Amnesty has recently identified a Brazilian-manufactured Avibras ASTROS cluster munition rocket which dispenses submunitions and US-manufactured CBU-105 sensor-fused bombs with BLU-108/B canisters. A US Department of Defense contract worth $641 million for the manufacture of 1,300 CBU-105 sensor-fused weapons for Saudi Arabia was agreed in 2013. The BLU-108, manufactured by Textron Defense Systems, is an air-delivered container, containing four further smart “Skeet” submunitions. The BLU-108 is released from its dispenser and a parachute deploys to slow its descent. It then fires the four rapidly-rotating Skeets, which use multi-mode optical sensors to identify a suitable target. On detonation, an explosively-formed penetrator breaks through armour producing incendiary effects, as well as a fragmentation ring to damage human targets. The presence of BLU-108 submunitions in Yemen which have failed to detonate or self-destruct contradict claims by the US Security Defense Cooperation Agency that these munitions do not result in more than 1% unexploded ordnance “across the range of intended operational environments.” The US Government prohibits the sale or transfer of cluster munitions with greater than a 1% fail rate, a “standard” which it appears to be failing to meet.
Saudi Arabia and partners have legal responsibility to avoid indiscriminate weapon usage
The USA and Brazil have so far both failed to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and likewise Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other coalition members are also outside the convention. However, under customary international humanitarian law, coalition members must avoid using inherently indiscriminate weapons, which invariably pose a threat to civilians, and they have a responsibility to facilitate clearance of areas contaminated with unexploded ordnance.
Amnesty is calling on members of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to immediately provide the UN with detailed data on its cluster munition attacks in Yemen - including maps, exact dates of strikes, specific types and quantities of weapons used - in order to facilitate clearance and risk-education activities, and to reduce the potential for further civilian casualties. Meanwhile, countries in a position to do so should provide all possible technical, financial, material and other assistance to facilitate the marking and clearance, removal or destruction of cluster submunitions, duds and other explosive remnants of war. They should also provide victim assistance, including for the medical and psychological care and rehabilitation of victims and their families, as well as education over the risk of encountering unexploded ordnance. Yemeni diplomats indicated on 19 May at a UN conference that Yemen is strongly considering acceding to the cluster munitions convention given the degree to which the country has been affected by the weapon.
For years, Amnesty and others have been calling on all countries to immediately halt the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions and to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The convention prohibits the production, use, sale and transfer of cluster munitions, and Amnesty is insisting that the UK - as a significant past manufacturer and supplier of the weapons - has a strong moral obligation to assist with the clearance of areas currently affected by them, not least those that may have been struck by UK-made cluster munitions. Since February Amnesty has also urged all countries to ensure that no party to the conflict in Yemen is supplied - either directly or indirectly - with weapons, munitions, military equipment or technology that could be used in the conflict until they end serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and support independent, impartial investigations into allegations of violations by all parties.
Cluster munition types Amnesty has documented in Yemen armed conflict
US CBU-58 A/B bomb dispensing US BLU-63 submunitions - air-launched, USA origin, stockpiled by Saudi Arabia, Morocco
CBU-87 bomb dispensing US BLU-97 submunitions - air-launched, USA origin, stockpiled by Saudi Arabia, UAE
CBU-105 sensor-fused bomb with BLU-108/B canisters and unexploded “Skeet” submunitions - air-launched, USA origin, stockpiled by Saudi Arabia, UAE
BL-755 cluster bomb with 147 high-explosive dual-purpose bomblets - air-launched, UK origin, stockpiled by Saudi Arabia, UAE
ASTROS II rocket motor which can be fitted with up to 65 submunitions - ground-launched, Brazil origin, stockpiled by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain
M42/M46 or M77 “Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition” - ground-launched, USA origin, stockpiled by UAE, Bahrain, Egypt