Disarmament Times article on explosive weapons

INEW Coordinators Richard Moyes and Thomas Nash have published an article in the Summer 2011 issue of Disarmament Times entitled ‘A New Agenda on Explosive Force’. The article is available to read below and is also available to read online and download as a PDF on the Disarmament Times website.

A New Agenda on Explosive Force

By Richard Moyes and Thomas Nash

In the first half of this year, Libya and Cote d’Ivoire have provided high-profile examples of explosive force being used where civilians are concentrated, but this pattern of violence is being repeated on a daily basis in both conflict and non-conflict environments.

Between October 2010 and May 2011, researchers at the United Kingdom-based Action on Armed Violence recorded 18,360 deaths and injuries from the use of explosive weapons globally (1). Of these, 13,875 were civilians. A vast majority of these civilian casualties — 87% — occurred when the explosive weapons were used in populated areas. The figures are a conservative estimate, since they are based only on English language media reports and apply a restrictive methodology in counting the casualties.

Explosive weapons include both conventional explosive ordnance (such as mortars, rockets and high explosive artillery) and improvised explosive devices (such as car bombs and roadside bombs). Such weapons generally use a combination of blast and fast flying fragments, projected out from the point where they detonate, to damage material and to kill and injure people in the surrounding area. They are weapons of conflict rather than policing.

Depending on the weapon type, the radius of effect can be very large. For example, according to U.S. “danger close” policies, a person some 250 meters from a Mk-82 500-pound bomb strike has a 10 percent chance of being incapacitated. So when they are used in built up areas they can cause severe harm. They kill and injure people who are within the radius of effect; they destroy buildings and vital infrastructure damaging livelihoods and economies. This destruction often forces people to leave their homes, causing widespread displacement. Survivors can be left to overcome long-term physical disabilities, and the particular psychological effects of exposure to bombing are not yet fully understood.

It is against this background, that eight non-governmental organizations came together to establish the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) on 29 March 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland. Action on Armed Violence, Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, IKV Pax Christi, Medact, Norwegian People’s Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children will work to build up a civil society platform capable of bringing about changes to the policy and practice of states and other actors using explosive weapons in populated areas.

The founding INEW call, which will be further developed as the network grows, is “for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.” Over the months and years ahead, INEW will be building on the research of its members and undertaking advocacy with NGOs, international organizations, states and other users of explosive weapons to develop concrete measures to enhance protection.

Of course, the bombing of urban areas is not a new phenomenon, nor is public disquiet about it. Since the bombing of major European cities during the Second World War and the massive bombardment of Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, there has been a growing stigma against the widespread use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Terms such as “carpet-bombing” conjure up images of total war and the Additional Protocols added to the Geneva Conventions in 1977 specifically restrict “bombardment” within urban areas and concentrations of civilians.

Away from conflict, it is generally accepted that explosive weapons should not be used in domestic policing.  Whereas lethal force through firearms might be acceptable, the use of explosive force presents wider risks that would place the population in danger and indicate a breakdown of the state’s commitment to protect its citizens.

The explosive weapons agenda provides an opportunity to strengthen these norms proscribing the use of explosive weapons in situations other than armed conflict and restricting their use in populated areas.  The first step towards this is to build recognition of the particular humanitarian and moral challenges around this category of technology.

In a number of recent conflicts where fighting has taken place in populated areas, specific problematic weapons such as cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and uranium weapons (whether they are actually used or not) have been a focus of concern. Yet in many of these conflicts it is the widespread use of conventional high explosive weapons that has caused the majority of the harm to civilians. By shining a spotlight on this pattern, we can start to address what has been called a “moral outrage gap,” where the general use of explosive weapons in populated areas has tended to escape the scrutiny of humanitarian organizations, governments and the media.

This lack of effective focus on the impact of explosive weapons in populated areas is already being addressed. The U.N. Secretary General’s report on the Protection of Civilians published in November 2010 asks member states to look into the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in order to enhance protection for civilians. When the U.N. Security Council last debated the issue of Protection of Civilians, a number of states, as well as the European Union, highlighted the problem. Earlier this year, the U.N.’s Emergency Relief Coordinator expressed her grave concern over the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. So we are beginning to see an acknowledgement that explosive weapons as a category pose particular problems and require certain responses.

Although some explosive weapons have been banned outright due to their effects on civilians (such as cluster munitions and antipersonnel landmines) this effort on explosive weapons is not focused on the prohibition of particular types of weapons. Rather it is questioning in what contexts their use should be considered unacceptable. While concerned with a category of weapons, it is focused on changes to practice based on humanitarian evidence rather than on “disarmament” as a model. Explosive weapons form a broad category and states will argue that they have many legitimate uses in certain circumstances. This agenda should establish greater scrutiny around when and in what forms explosive weapon use is considered acceptable.

What is needed now is for governments and other actors to acknowledge the suffering caused by explosive weapons used in populated areas, to work to fulfil the human rights of victims of explosive weapons, to share data on the use and impact of explosive weapons, and to strengthen their policies and practice on use in order to enhance the protection of civilians. Beyond that, consideration will need to be given to the need for certain prohibitions and restrictions on the use of explosive weapons, in particular in populated areas.


1. See Action on Armed Violence’s Explosive Violence Monitoring Project at

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