States, civil society, and international organizations will meet in Geneva on 17 June 2022 to finalize a milestone international agreement on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The political declaration will serve as a major contribution to the protection of civilians from the extensive harm caused by bombing and shelling in towns and cities laying out an agenda for further action by states. This includes imposing limits on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, gathering data and working to address the immediate and long-term effects on civilians including from damage to infrastructure, and providing assistance to victims and affected communities.
“The adoption of the political declaration is a major milestone – the key thing now is that states join this political declaration at the earliest opportunity, and start the important process of work to implement it to impose limits on the use of explosive weapons and work to end this pattern of harm,” said Laura Boillot, Coordinator of INEW.
This meeting will mark the end of a three-year process to develop the political declaration. Ireland has chaired the process and will formally present the final draft text during the meeting, but it will not open the text to substantive changes. Ireland will also share information about the signing conference for the declaration at the meeting.
More than 65 states have participated in this political declaration process, including some major users of explosive weapons. Once the text is finalized, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) will call on all states to join the political declaration at the earliest opportunity and, in doing so, to demonstrate their commitment to strengthening the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
Widespread pattern of harm
Explosive weapons devastate towns, cities and other populated areas. The bombing of populated areas kills and injures civilians – data shows that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of victims are civilians. Critical infrastructure is damaged and destroyed, disrupting water and power supplies which, in turn, affects the provision of essential services and healthcare to the wider civilian population. Homes, schools, and businesses are destroyed, and people are forced to flee. Continuous bombing and shelling results in unexploded ordnance contamination, which poses a threat to the safe return of civilians to their homes, as well as the recovery of infrastructure, long after the conflict has ended.
Ukraine is one current example of the devastating consequences civilians face when towns and cities are bombed, but this is a pattern of harm that is seen across a range of contexts over many years, including in Gaza, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Ethiopia.
Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch, said:
“The repeated and extensive use of explosive weapons with wide area effects has torn apart numerous cities and communities across the world, damaged critical infrastructure, including hospitals, imperilled access to basic necessities and services, such as food, water, and healthcare, and killed, maimed and injured untold numbers of civilians. These effects are felt immediately, repeatedly, and in many communities endure for years after fighting has ended.”
New international agreement to reduce civilian harm
The political declaration commits states to strengthen the protection of civilians in conflict, and provides an agenda for further action, committing states to:
- Develop new national policies and practices to limit the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
- Address the immediate and long-term ‘reverberating’ effects of military operations, arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, including on civilian infrastructure which impacts the provision of essential services to the civilian population.
- Gather and share data to better understand humanitarian impacts.
- Provide assistance to victims and affected communities.
Crucial to this work will be the requirement for states to impose limits on the use of explosive weapons in towns, cities and other populated areas in order to avoid civilian harm. Effective implementation of this requirement will be of critical importance to preventing civilian harm by avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. Wide area effects often the result of a weapon’s explosive power, inaccuracy or the number of munitions – risk factors which are recognised in the text of the declaration.
Changing military practice and moving away from the use of explosive weapons will be a long-term undertaking. As such, the declaration is a starting point – not an end point.
Alma Taslidzan Al-Osta, from Humanity and Inclusion, said:
“The words of this declaration must now be turned into meaningful action on the ground. Its measure of success will be whether states join and implement it in a way that works to prevent harm and help those communities already devastated by bombing and shelling.”
There is a lot more that needs to be done to adopt standards and rules that better protect civilians, and those states that join this declaration will be committing to work together to set those new standards. INEW will be working to ensure they make a meaningful difference.
INEW calls on all states to join the political declaration at the earliest opportunity and, in doing so, to demonstrate their commitment to strengthening the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
- What is the International Network on Explosive Weapons – INEW?
- The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) is an NGO partnership calling for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. It comprises more than 40 organisations from across 25 countries. The steering committee is comprised of AOAV, Article 36, CIVIC, Humanity and Inclusion (HI), Human Rights Watch, PAX, Norwegian People’s Aid, Oxfam, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Save the Children and SEHLAC.
www.inew.org | @explosiveweapon
- What are the negotiating meetings that have taken place at the United Nations in Geneva since 2019 ?
- Governments, UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and civil society organisations have met several times at the United Nations in Geneva for consultations to negotiate a new international agreement to reduce civilian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas at the meeting “Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare: Towards a political declaration to address the humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas”. Around 70 states have participated in the meetings.
- The government of Ireland has been chairing the negotiations and penholder, drafting the text of the new agreement under negotiation. The negotiations resumed again in-person in April 2022 after being halted for over two years due to Covid-19 restrictions.
- The meetings follow calls by civil society organisations in the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) to prevent human suffering from bombing and shelling in towns, cities and other populated areas over the past decade.
- The current and previous UN Secretary-General and President of the International Committee of the Red Cross have also issued repeated calls on states and parties to conflict to avoid use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects, including through this joint appeal in 2019.
- On 17 June, the final draft of the political declaration will be presented by Ireland to Member states, international and civil society organisations that have taken part in the negotiation process. The final one-day consultation will be livestreamed and can be accessed through either of the following links:
Livestream – Department of Foreign Affairs (dfa.ie)
IrishForeignMinistry – YouTube
- What will the new political agreement require states to do?
- The draft international political declaration is aimed at reducing civilian harm and strengthening the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas both during and after conflict. Some of the key provisions in it, that are under negotiation include:
- A commitment to curb use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas – this is the centrepiece of the declaration, and most contested part of the agreement – especially from users of explosive weapons.
- A commitment to address the long-term impacts, stemming in particular from damage and destruction to civilian infrastructure.
- A provision to assist victims including people injured, and families of those killed and injured. • A requirement for states to collect and share data on civilian harm from explosive weapon use.
- Follow up meetings to monitor implementation of the agreement, and to share examples of military policy and practice to protect civilians from explosive weapon use.
- What are explosive weapons?
- Explosive weapons include air-dropped bombs, rockets, artillery, missiles, mortars and improvised explosive devices.
- Airdropped bombs have large payloads. Just one 2000lb aircraft bomb can kill people and destroy everything within a 7 metre radius through the projection of blast and fragmentation, propelling lethal fragments over a wider area of 365 metres. Even if some air dropped bombs are precision-guided and can be aimed more accurately at a target, it contains significant amounts of explosives. Unguided bombs are more likely to miss their target. Air-dropped bombs are among the most commonly used weapons in modern conflicts.
- A multi-barrel rocket launcher can launch up to 40 rockets in 20 seconds, firing multiple munitions across a wider area. Fired at a distance of 20 km from a target, a salvo of 40 rockets can create a very large lethal area of 360,000 meters2. Over half of all rockets are likely to land in the surrounding area placing anyone in that area at risk of death or injury and are inappropriate for use in populated areas.
- Mortars are indirect fire weapons that fire mortar bombs in an arc at targets that are often out of the line-of-sight. Their delivery is inaccurate – when at maximum range, around half land over 100 meters from the target. A single 120mm mortar has a lethal radius of approximately 30 metres. Blast and fragmentation effects extend even further, causing damage and injury.
- Firing of artillery rounds, or ‘shells’, is highly inaccurate. So they are often fired as a ‘battery’ saturating a wide area. A single howitzer shell has a lethal radius of around 50 metres. Blast and fragmentation effects extend even further, causing damage and injury.
- Explosive weapons are conventional weapons that detonate to affect an area with blast and fragmentation, and are designed for use in open battlefields but puts civilians at a heightened risk of harm and is likely to result in the destruction of, or damage to buildings and infrastructure when used in populated areas.
- Particular concerns are focused on explosive weapons with wide area effects, which, due to their scale of explosive force have a wide blast and fragmentation radius, or are inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions across a targeted area, or have a combination of these characteristics – causing widespread damage and as such are inappropriate choices for use in towns and cities.
- What is the pattern of civilian harm?
- When explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of casualties are civilians. This pattern of harm has been consistently recorded over the last 10 years by Action on Armed Violence (aoav.org.uk– an INEW member)
- Every year tens of thousands of civilians are killed and injured by bombing and shelling in towns, cities and other populated areas. In 2021 at least 11,000 civilians were reported directly killed and injured by the use of explosive weapons in 64 countries/territories, according to AOAV.
- Many more suffer from destruction of housing, hospitals, schools and destruction of critical public infrastructure such as power networks, water and sanitation systems which has severe and long lasting knock-on effects.
- Explosive weapon use in towns and cities also causes displacement and prevents people from returning home. Survivors of explosive weapon use experience long term medical and psychological impacts, often in a context of inadequate support services.
- What are some examples of use?
- Data collected show that 123 countries or territories were affected by the use of explosive weapons in the past decade, making this a widespread global issue.
- In Ukraine, extensive use of multi-barrel rocket systems, unguided missiles and air-dropped bombs by Russian forces in major towns and cities including Kyiv, Mariupol, and Kharkiv has killed and injured civilians, forced 4 million people to flee for safety and left many others trapped and unable to leave, and damaged and destroyed homes and infrastructure.
- In the last four months, Yemen has experienced the most sustained period of heavy bombing since 2018, indicating a new trend of consistent, higher rates of air raids being carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, according to the Yemen Data Project. In this time, civilians experienced at least 200 air raids per month, exacerbating a continuously worsening humanitarian crisis in which over four million people have been displaced and 17.4 million are going hungry. (Sources: Yemen Data Project, Oxfam)
- In Ethiopia, civilian harm from airstrikes by Ethiopian military forces has killed and injured at least 677 people since November 2021, according to a UNHCR estimate. One such strike, in which an armed drone reportedly dropped three bombs, hit a school compound hosting thousands of displaced Tigrayans, killing at least 57 civilians and wounding more than 42. (Source: Human Rights Watch)
- Military actions by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during its bombardment of Gaza in May 2021 killed at least 151 civilians, a third of whom were children, according to estimates by Airwars. Israel conducted more than 1,500 air and artillery strikes, mostly within densely populated areas of Gaza, destroying critical civilian infrastructure, including four high-rise buildings, neighboring residences and scores of businesses in Gaza City. (Sources: Airwars, Human Rights Watch).
- In Syria, the Syrian-Russian military alliance has conducted aerial bombing of critical civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and markets, exacerbating civilian harm where 12.4 million people are already food insecure and 6.8 million are internally displaced. The Russian air force alone has carried out around 39,000 airstrikes in Syria since 2015, according to Airwars, and continued attacks put civilians in danger still. (Human Rights Watch, UN World Food Programme)
- What actors are using explosive weapons?
- Explosive weapons are used both by state forces and non-state armed groups. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been responsible for high levels of civilian harm and are often associated with non-state violence. Professionally trained militaries are among those causing this harm.
- What is the legal position?
- Direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects are illegal under the laws of armed conflict, but using explosive weapons in armed conflict is not illegal per se. The primary concern and subject of negotiations is use of heavy explosive weapons that, because of their wide area effects, which cause significant civilian harm if used in a populated area – even if directed at an intended military target.
- Is change possible?
- Changes to military policy on the choice of weapons can reduce civilian harm. For example, between 2009 and 2014 in Afghanistan, civilian casualties from airstrikes progressively and significantly decreased year on year, because international forces (ISAF/NATO) adopted progressively stricter policies on when airstrikes could be used.
- Who supports action on this issue?
- 110 states have expressed concern at harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In September 2019, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres and ICRC President, Peter Maurer, issued a joint appeal urging that the civilian devastation and suffering from explosive weapons in cities must stop.