The bombing and shelling of towns and cities is a major cause of death, injury, and destroyed livelihoods. The International Network on Explosive Weapons is a civil society partnership working to prevent and reduce that harm. Explosive weapons include mortars, rockets, artillery shells, aircraft bombs, improvised explosive devices, and other munitions. When used in populated areas, these weapons tend to cause high levels of harm to individuals and communities.
The British NGO Action on Armed Violence recorded from English language newswire reports 34,758 people killed or injured by explosive weapons in 2012. Of those affected, more than 27,000 were reported as civilians. When explosive weapons were used in populated areas, 91% of victims were civilians.
Destruction of infrastructure vital to the civilian population, including water and sanitation, housing, schools and hospitals, results in a pattern of wider, long-term suffering. Victims and survivors of explosive weapons can face long-term challenges of disability, psychological harm, economic hardship and social exclusion.
The worsening humanitarian situation in Syria, including the bombardment of Homs, Aleppo and other populated areas, led the President of the UN Security Council to call on parties to “end the use of heavy weapons in population centres.” The use in populated areas of explosive weapons such as multiple launch rocket systems, makeshift air-dropped bombs, high explosive artillery and mortar shells, and powerful improvised explosive devices, has been a leading cause of civilian harm in Syria. Heavy explosive weapons such as these are particularly problematic because their effects can extend across a wide area. Their use in populated areas should be stopped.
This problem is not new, but over recent years the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has attracted increasing concern within the international community as an issue that requires a structured response. Two types of explosive weapons – antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions – have already been prohibited outright due to their devastating impact on civilian populations, but the broader problem of humanitarian harm from explosive weapons used in populated areas must also be addressed as a priority.
An increasing number of actors are calling for greater restraint in the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
In May 2013, the Co-Chairs summary for an international conference attended by 94 states on “Reclaiming the Protection of Civilians Under International Humanitarian Law” stated that “the use of explosive force in military operations in densely populated areas has devastating humanitarian consequences for civilians. In particular, the use of explosive weapons with a wide area effect should be avoided.”
The 2012 UN Secretary-General’s Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict urged parties “to refrain from using explosive weapons with a wide-area impact in densely populated areas.” This message has been reinforced in subsequent UN Security Council Open Debates.
The UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict has noted the devastating impact the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has on civilians, and especially children.
In 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross 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.”
Across different forums some 30 countries have directly expressed concern on this issue.
States, international organisations and civil society have a responsibility to take action to prevent humanitarian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
States should endorse the repeated calls from the UN Secretary-General that the use in densely populated areas of explosive weapons with wide-area effects should be avoided, and should undertake focused discussion on this issue.
As requested by the UN Secretary-General, states should also set out national policies on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, including outlining “which explosive weapons may and may not be used” in such areas.
Warring party transparency in such policies as well as the creation of mechanisms to track, analyse, and respond to civilian harm can provide a basis for practical strategies to reduce harm, such as those that have been undertaken by ISAF in Afghanistan and AMISOM in Somalia. Recording casualties from violence provides an essential basis for developing practical and policy responses, and is the first step to ensuring the rights of victims.
Action on Armed Violence, “An Explosive Situation: Monitoring Explosive Violence in 2012”, April 2013, http://aoav.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/an-explosive-situation-explosive-violence-in-2012.pdf
 Action on Armed Violence, “An Explosive Situation: Monitoring Explosive Violence in 2012”, April 2013, http://aoav.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/an-explosive-situation-explosive-violence-in-2012.pdf
 Article 36, “The bombing of Aleppo: Heavy weapons and Civilian Protection”, 10 August 2012, http://www.article36.org/cat1-explosive-weapons/bombardment-of-aleppo-heavy-weapons-and-civilian-protection/
 Statement by the President of the Security Council, 21 March 2012, S/PRST/2012/6
 Co-Chairs Summary from the “Reclaiming the Protection of Civilians under International Humanitarian Law” conference, Oslo, Norway, 23-24 May 2013: http://www.regjeringen.no/upload/UD/Vedlegg/Hum/reclaime_recommendations.pdf
 United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict,” UN Security Council, S/2012/376, 22 May 2012, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full_Report_4150.pdf
 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), International Humanitarian Law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts, October 2011, 31IC/11/5.1.2