The devastating harm caused by explosive weapons falling on population centres has been seen again and again, from Syria to Ethiopia, Myanmar and Iraq. The flood of images coming out of Ukraine have shocked many. On top of the deaths, the use of these weapons is a cause for long-term harm, destroying livelihoods, and vital infrastructure such as health care facilities.
Secretary-General António Guterres has been consistently advocating for nations to adopt a commitment to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
Below we examine the effect that these weapons have on civilian populations, and some of the ways in which nations, the UN, and partners around the world are working to reduce the humanitarian impacts.
1. What are explosive weapons?
Explosive weapons are systems that use munitions or devices whose primary destructive effect is caused by the detonation of a high explosives creating a blast and fragmentation zone. There are many different types of explosive weapons in use by national military forces and non-State armed groups.
Examples include indirect fire weapons, such as artillery, rockets, and mortars; weapons that fire in salvos, such as multi-launch rocket systems; large air-dropped and sea-launched bombs; surface-to-surface ballistic missiles; and improvised explosive devices.
Explosive weapons with “wide area effects” form a major subset of explosive weapons. They include weapons that use munitions with a large destructive radius, that fire in salvos or that deliver multiple munitions over a wide area.
Armed conflicts are increasingly fought in population centres. This urbanization of warfare has resulted in devastating and well documented impacts on civilians, often due to the use of weapons systems that are designed for traditional open battlefields.
Many of these weapons have foreseeable and indiscriminate effects when used in populated areas and result in increased civilian casualties and devastating humanitarian impacts.
2. What are the humanitarian impacts and consequences of the use of these weapons in populated areas?
When used in villages, towns, cities, or other populated areas, explosive weapons create a consistent pattern of immediate and longer-term harm to civilians, destroying lives, livelihoods, and vital infrastructure.
In addition to immediate impact, many civilians are affected by the indirect and often long-term impact of the weapons – also referred to as reverberating effects. Children are particularly vulnerable to various forms of psychological or emotional trauma.
Health-care facilities are hit, hampering the delivery of medical care. Housing and essential infrastructure, such as drinking water and wastewater treatment plants and electricity supply systems, are damaged or destroyed, increasing the risk and spread of disease and further burdening the healthcare system.
Schools are blown up, interrupting or halting access to education, posing considerable risk to children and often exposing gender inequalities. The use of these weapons in populated areas can also contribute to large scale displacement, forcing people to leave their homes, often for long periods and in precarious conditions.
The use of these weapons virtually always leaves explosive remnants of war that can kill and injure civilians, particularly children, long after hostilities have ended. The remnants can also prevent or delay reconstruction work or agricultural production, as well as the return of refugees and displaced persons.
3. What are the UN and partners doing to reduce the civilian death toll?
Since 2009, UN chief António Guterres, and his predecessors, have repeatedly called on parties to conflict to avoid their use, notably through his Agenda for Disarmament, which commits to supporting UN Member States in developing a political declaration that addresses the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, as well as limitations, common standards, and operational policies, in line with international humanitarian law.
In 2019, together with the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Mr. Guterres appealed to parties to conflict to employ strategies and tactics that take combat outside populated areas and “try to reduce urban fighting altogether”.
Fully documenting the short and long-term humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, including collecting data on civilian casualties, is key to taking appropriate action.
The United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and NGOs across the globe have published numerous studies to inform debate and to improve military policies and practice.
Some military forces have adopted policies to avoid or restrict the use of certain explosive weapons in certain situations in order to better protect civilians, such as the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and the African Union Mission in Somalia.
4. What else is happening at a global level?
Over the last decades, coalitions of governments and civil society have successfully campaigned for the conclusion of new instruments that address humanitarian harm, such as the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Safe Schools Declaration.
Since 2010, humanitarian actors, including civil society, have led efforts to raise awareness about the indiscriminate and severe humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
A consultation process for the development of an international political declaration addressing the humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas – led by Ireland – has been ongoing since 2019, following years of steadfast advocacy efforts. After a hiatus due to the pandemic, States reconvened last April to negotiate a political declaration, which is expected to conclude in June.
The Secretary-General has expressed his full support for this process, and continues to advocate for a political declaration that includes a clear commitment to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
5. What difference could a political declaration make?
The adoption of a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas could go a long way towards reducing the associated humanitarian harm, by recognizing that conflict cannot be fought in populated areas in the same way it is fought in open battlefields.
States should commit to develop operational policies based on a presumption against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas to foster behavioural change, promote concrete steps to protect civilians and ultimately enhance compliance with International Humanitarian Law.