Protecting civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas
INEW Briefing Paper ahead of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW)
INEW CCW briefing paper Nov 2017
The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) calls for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).
INEW calls on states to:
- Acknowledgethat the use of explosive weapons in populated areas frequently causes severe harm to individuals and communities and furthers suffering by damaging vital infrastructure.
- Endorse the UN Secretary-General’s and ICRC’s recommendation that states should avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.
- Indicate support for the development of an international political instrument on explosive weapons to reduce harm from the use of explosive weapons by stopping the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, and by providing a framework for assistance to victims including affected communities.
Humanitarian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas
Civilian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has been highlighted as a top humanitarian priority following the increase in recent years of conflicts taking place in urban settings resulting in high levels of civilian casualties. Data shows that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, approximately 91% of those reported killed and injured are civilians. In 2016, over 32,000 civilians were recorded killed or injured by explosive weapons, with Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Turkey having the highest numbers of civilian deaths and injuries, and with incidents of explosive violence taking place in 70 countries.
Long-term harm and suffering
Beyond those killed and injured, an even greater number of civilians are affected as a result of damage to essential infrastructure and services. The bombing and bombardment of towns and cities destroys homes leaving people without shelter. Hospital buildings are damaged hampering the provision and quality of medical care to civilian populations in desperate need of it, making it additionally difficult to manage treatable injuries and diseases at a tine when the civilian population is in desperate need of medical care. Damage to sanitation systems create additional problems around maintaining basic levels of hygiene, which can cause further onset of illness and diseases. In Yemen, the conflict has facilitated the onset of a severe cholera epidemic. The destruction of commercial buildings and transport infrastructure impedes access to, and availability of, vital provisions including food. Humanitarian access can be hampered, or stopped entirely, as humanitarian and relief organisations struggle to access particularly violent areas. Damage to electricity, energy, power further compound such problems, and in some instances prevents the civilian population from fleeing the area. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas represents one of the main causes of forced displacement. Countless civilians are driven from their homes and displaced, and suffer from psychological distress and trauma.
Explosive weapons with wide area effects
Most types of explosive weapons – which include, among others, aircraft bombs, artillery shells, rockets, grenades, missiles as well as improvised explosive devices – are designed for use in open battlefields, and not towns and cities where there is a concentrations of civilians. Whilst there is a pattern of harm associated with explosive weapons in populated areas in general, the risk to civilians is most severe when the weapons have wide area effects. Wide area effects may result where an individual weapon has a large blast or fragmentation radius (for example heavy aircraft bombs), where multiple explosive munitions are launched at an area (for example multi-barrel rocket systems), where a weapon is not delivered accurately to the target (such as indirect fire mortars), or a combination of these factors. Use of such weapons puts civilians at a heightened risk of harm and is likely to result in the destruction of, or damage to buildings and infrastructure.
Explosive weapons and international law
International humanitarian law (IHL) sets out legal standards of behaviour for parties to armed conflict which must be applied even in the most desperate circumstances. Under IHL, direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks are prohibited, and parties to an armed conflict are required to take feasible precautions in attack in order to avoid or minimize civilian harm.
There are, however, limitations to the extent that IHL can provide sufficient protection to civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. IHL guides states towards preventing direct death and injury to civilians in specific attacks, but it does not address the long-term, and indirect effects that the use of explosive weapons in populations has on the civilian population, including from the impact to buildings, infrastructure and services, which is both foreseeable and a cause of widespread harm to civilians. It is also focused on rules over individual attacks. As such, it is incumbent on states to assess the risk of harm to civilians on a case-by-case basis, rather than providing an explicit standard of behaviour, and subject to varying interpretation by states. IHL rules on the conduct of hostilities do not reflect detailed agreement on how the risk of harm from blast and fragmentation effects can be effectively addresses and reduced.
Military policy and practice
Clearer guidance to states on this matter, could be developed in the form of national-level operational policies and procedures, which would not only help to reduce humanitarian harm and civilian suffering, but would also help to avoid non-compliance of IHL. The area effects of certain explosive weapons are already recognised in some military policy and practice as having a direct link to the risk presented to civilians. However, this recognition is often dispersed across various policy and operational frameworks and differs amongst states. Such a recognition could beconsolidated and addressed through the development of an international political declarationcontaining clear commitments to reduce harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This would include enacting a commitment against the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects through national level operational policy, including military procedures and rules of engagement. There are already good examples of policy and practice that have been effectively developed and implemented to curtail the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in order to provide greater protection to civilians.
Developing clear standards: an international political declaration on explosive weapons
The UN Secretary-General has called on states to engage constructively in efforts to develop a political declaration to address the harm caused by EWIPA. Discussions towards developing an international political instrument to address this humanitarian problem are ongoing, and already 70 states have spoken out on the issue of EWIPA. A political declaration would build on the basis provided by existing international law, including human rights and international humanitarian law, and provide practical commitments to reduce the impact of explosive weapons on civilians.
An international political declaration must promote actions that will reduce humanitarian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and increase the protection of civilians living through conflict. A commitment to stop the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas should be central to a declaration and would provide the best practical mechanism for reducing civilian harm. Whilst not a legally-binding commitment, a political declaration should seek to influence the behaviour of states by promoting a clear international standard of practice. A political declaration signed by a group of states would provide a tool that promotes operational policy and practice to better protect civilians, and a framework for states to work together to achieve that purpose.
A clear collective commitment on this vital humanitarian question is urgently needed.
INEW CCW briefing paper Nov 2017
The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) is a global network of civil society organisations that calls for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. It was founded in 2009 and is governed by a Steering Committee whose members are Action on Armed Violence, Article 36, Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, Norwegian People’s Aid, Oxfam, PAX, Save the Children and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
The UN Secretary General has repeatedly called on all state and non-state parties since 2009 to “avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas”, including most recently in the ‘Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict’ (S/2017/414). Since 2011, the ICRC has stated that “due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects and despite the absence of an express legal prohibition for specific types of weapons, the ICRC considers that explosive weapons with a wide impact area should be avoided in densely populated areas”, see http://bit.ly/2uLSsJm
See for example UN Office in Geneva, ‘World at a turning point: Heads of UN and Red Cross issue joint warning,’ October 2015, http://bit.ly/2vI6jOc
Action on Armed Violence, ‘Patterns of Harm: Five years of explosive violence 2011 – 2015’, June 2016 http://www.inew.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Patterns-of-Harm.pdf
Action on Armed Violence, ‘Explosive Truths: Monitoring Explosive Violence in 2016, April 2017, http://bit.ly/2waipCV
See for example ICRC, ‘Explosive weapons in populated areas: The consequences for civilians,’ June 2015 http://bit.ly/2weUp0u, and Harvard Law School and PAX, ‘Operating under fire: The effects of explosive weapons on healthcare in the East of Ukraine’, May 2017, http://bit.ly/2i4Is8d
ICRC, ‘Yemen: Health system at breaking point as cholera epidemic spreads at unprecedented rate’, June 2017, http://bit.ly/2uLZWfx
 Landmine Action, ‘Explosive violence: The problem of explosive weapons,’ August 2009, http://bit.ly/2vLJSrC, and Handicap International, ‘The use of explosive weapons in populated areas – it’s time to act’, 2016, http://bit.ly/2x7WLvq
See Insecurity Insight, ‘Aid in Danger’ http://www.insecurityinsight.org/aidindanger/explosives/
See for example ICRC, ‘Explosive weapons in populated areas: The consequences for civilians,’ June 2015 http://bit.ly/2weUp0u and Landmine Action, ‘Explosive violence: The problem of explosive weapons,’ August 2009, http://bit.ly/2vLJSrC
Article 36, ‘The impact of explosive weapons on mental health and psycho-social wellbeing’, September 2013, http://bit.ly/1ATCBSo
Maya Brehm, UNIDIR, “Protecting Civilians from the Effects of Explosive Weapons: An Analysis of International Legal and Policy Standards” (2012)
Article 36 and PAX, ‘Areas of harm: Understanding explosive weapons with wide area effects’, October 2016, http://bit.ly/2dGaVLx
OCHA, ‘Compilation of Military Policy and Practice: Reducing the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, October 2017, http://bit.ly/2ANCyhf
Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict’ (S/2017/414).