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France should pressure Saudi Arabia not to use cluster bombs, says rights group

A member of the Southern Resistance Committees shoots at Houthi fighters in Aden 24 April 2015
A member of the Southern Resistance Committees shoots at Houthi fighters in Aden 24 April 2015 Reuters

As French President Francois Hollande prepares to attend a Gulf state summit Tuesday in Saudi Arabia, a rights group has accused that country of dropping cluster bombs in civilian areas in Yemen. Human Rights Watch had warned of the use of cluster bombs when Saudi Arabia started a bombing campaign against the Houthi militia in Yemen on 26 March.

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On 29 March a Saudi official in a press conference denied that cluster bombs were being used in the airstrikes. And yet, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says it has evidence that at least two were dropped in Yemen in April.

“Video footage from local residents in Sanaa, in northern Yemen, shows what looks like parachutes delivering some kind of weapon system,” HRW Yemen researcher Belkis Wille explained to RFI, referring to a video uploaded to YouTube by Houthis on 17 April.

“We looked at the shapes, and found it looked very similar to a type of cluster munitions that we know the Saudis purchased from an American company in 2013,” she said. “Several days later we received photographs from locals on the ground of the exact munitions we were expecting to see, on the ground.”

Those munitions are the CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon made by the US company Textron Defense Systems.

The 450-kilogram bomb releases ten 30-kilogram sub-munitions that each ejects four small warheads, called “skeets” that can seek out and attack armoured vehicles.

“They’re designed to engage larger concentrations of armoured vehicles,” Nic Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services, an arms and munitions consultancy, told RFI.

He says it is reasonably easy to identify from its sub-munitions.

“They are some of the more distinctive sub-muntions when they’re found intact or partially intact on the ground,” he said. “So they’re fairly easy to identify, broadly speaking. But I haven’t been able to review Human Rights Watch’s identification.”

The CBU-105, as a cluster bomb, is banned by a 2008 treaty against the use of cluster munitions. But neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States were among the 116 countries that signed the treaty.

Saudi Arabia ordered 1,300 of the bombs in 2013. And Jenzen-Jones says there is no technical reason they cannot use them.

“It’s a little misleading for Human Rights Watch to use the title banned munitions,” he said. “Certainly cluster munitions have been banned by a great number of countries, but there is no legal obligation for the Saudis to not use the munition.”

But Belkis Wille says the United States put limits on the sale, and that Saudi Arabia should not have used the weapon in civilian areas.

“Saudi Arabia used these munitions in violation of US policy,” she said. “We would like to first see clear repercussions in terms of future arms deals with Saudi Arabia … But of course we’d like to see much more international pressure, including from countries that are friendly to the coalition.”

Those countries include France.

Saudi Arabia’s coalition in the Yemen airstrikes includes eight other Arab states, and it receives support from the US, Britain and France.

French President Francois Hollande has been invited to attend the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), being held in Riyadh Tuesday.

He will travel to Saudi Arabia after a stop in Doha Monday to officialise Qatar’s purchase of 24 French-made Rafale fighter jets.

The GCC is made up of six states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. All but Oman are members of the coalition.

“We hope that France, like all other countries that are friendly to this coalition, raises with urgency not only this violation but other violations that we’ve documented,” said Wille.

Human Rights Watch has yet to document any casualties directly caused by the CBU-105 bombs. But Wille says the areas in question are remote, so there may have been casualties that were not reported.

And ultimately, the issue is with the use of cluster bombs themselves.

“Cluster munitions are inherently indiscriminate: they cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants,” she said. “The principle of distinction … is one of the key principles of the laws of war. Therefore, even if these munitions didn’t kill a single civilian, their use in an area near civilians represents a serious violation.”

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