Response to Human Rights Watch’s Cluster Bomb Report


Recently Human Rights Watch reported that Saudi Arabia had deployed cluster bombs in Yemen. HRW accused the Saudis of using “indiscriminate”, “banned” and ”illegal” weapons against civilian areas.Several publications, including the New York Times have picked up the story where they describe the munitions in a similar manner. In the following post I intend to point out the flaws of the report.


Cluster bombs are commonly used to disperse ordinance over a large area in order to destroy light fortifications, vehicles or ground troops. In the past cluster bombs have caused massive Unexploded Ordnance contamination in areas where they were used. Millions of munitions would fail to explode and contaminate the area with UXO. This ordinance would then act like a minefield. Civilians inhabiting former war zones would be maimed and killed by the ordinance when they came into contact with it. The United States is still cleaning up UXO left in Southeast Asia from the Vietnam War.

The Sensor Fused Weapon is different. It is designed to destroy masses of vehicles by scattering small disks called “skeets” over a large area. Each of these skeets contains a sensor that can detect and identify a vehicle. After this happens, the munition explodes above the target, blowing through the thinner top armor with either a kinetic or explosively formed penetrator.

Unlike conventional cluster bombs The Sensor Fuzed Weapon is designed with multiple safety mechanisms to prevent UXO. First, they are designed to explode if they do not find a target. If that fails, each munition has a “self neutralization mechanism” that is supposed to drain the battery after a certain period of time, deactivating the munition and rendering it inert.

The Problems with the HRW Report

There are some issues with HRW’s claims regarding these weapons. First of all, they claim that the cluster bombs are not meeting the 1 percent reliability rate that they are advertised at. While this true, it is also misleading. Unless they have actually gone to Yemen and tested a skeet to see if it has failed and the UXO is still active then their report is incomplete. HRW’s prime criticism of cluster bombs is that they leave active bomblets that maim and kill people after the war is over. If the bombs are not active then this criticism becomes invalid.

The report’s photos also damage their claims of indiscriminate bombardment. A picture of a damaged road and empty canisters indicates a vehicle or convoy was targeted. In another photo they show numerous boats targeted by the bombs. Again, the indication is that the CBU-105s are being used as intended by the Royal Saudi Air Force to target vehicles. In fact, HRW even notes in the report that the weapon is incapable of targeting humans. It cannot be used to intentionally harm civilians unless they are in a targetable vehicle.

HRW ROAD Cluster Bomb.jpg_562
Roadway hit by a CBU-105 submunition from HRW’s report


Also invalid, is their characterization of these munitions as illegal. In a 2014 report to Congress, the Congressional Research Service noted that the CCW does not “prohibit cluster munitions that can detect and engage a single target or explosive submunitions” and are “equipped with an electronic self-destruction or self-deactivating feature.” In other words, the Sensor Fused Weapon is exempted, almost by name. Human Rights Watch has chosen to ignore this fact in their report.


The HRW report is misleading. As evidenced by HRW’s own photographs, the Saudis are dropping these bombs on military targets. Here, they are not at fault. HRW has yet to prove the munitions they found were active and dangerous to civilians. They have also mischaracterized the legal status and function of the munitions in question. There are plenty of things to criticize about Saudi Arabia. The mass executions, abuse of women and sponsorship of radical Islam through education. However, they have done nothing wrong in this case.



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