Protecting civilians from explosive weapons: time for a change of practice

February 8, 2016
Dr. Simon Bagshaw
Ruins in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 2014

Legitimate target? Accurately struck? Precision or unguided munitions? Does it matter at all for those on the ground? Whether in the towns, cities or villages of Syria, Ukraine, Yemen or elsewhere; whether in compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) or not, the bottom line is often the same. Using explosive weapons in populated areas has a profoundly devastating impact on civilians. As conflicts are increasingly fought in populated areas, it’s a practice that must change.

Explosive weapons

Many types of explosive weapons are currently in use, including air-dropped bombs, artillery shells, missiles, rockets and mortars. Some are air launched, others are ground launched. These weapons generally create a zone of blast and fragmentation which has the potential to kill, injure or damage anyone or anything within it. This makes their use in populated areas – such as towns, cities, markets and refugee camps – particularly problematic. The problems are compounded if the weapon’s effects extend across a wide area because of the scale of blast, their inaccuracy, the use of multiple munitions, or a combination of these.

A predictable, wide-ranging and expansive pattern of humanitarian harm

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas may, in some circumstances, comply with IHL. Irrespective of this, however, mounting empirical evidence shows a predictable, widespread, short- and long-term pattern of harm to civilians. Data from Action on Armed Violence shows that in 2014, 41,847 people were killed or injured by explosive weapons. Of these, 78% were civilians (32,662). In populated areas, 92% of casualties were civilians. See Action on Armed Violence, Explosive States: Monitoring Explosive Violence in 2014 (2015), available at:

The victims of explosive weapons often suffer complex injuries, which require emergency and specialist medical treatment, rehabilitation and psycho-social services that are often unavailable. For example, during the 2011 hostilities in Libya, an identified lack of training in dealing with such injuries led to many seriously injured civilians being sent abroad for treatment. AOAV, Case Studies of Explosive Violence – Libya (June 2012)

Access to healthcare may also be impossible because the use of explosive weapons has left hospitals and clinics damaged or destroyed, killed healthcare personnel or cut off supplies. Between March 2011 and the end of November 2015, Physicians for Human Rights documented 336 attacks on 240 separate medical facilities involving rockets, missiles and barrel bombs in Syria. Physicians for Human Rights, Anatomy of a Crisis – A Map of Attacks on Health Care in Syria – Findings as of November 2015, available at:

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a major driver of displacement within and across borders as people flee in fear of, or as a result of, attacks that damage or destroy their homes. Approximately 11 million people have been displaced from their homes in Syria, many as a result of the widespread use of such weapons as mortars, rockets and barrel bombs in Aleppo, Homs and other parts of the country. “The use of barrel bombs and indiscriminate bombardment in Syria: the need to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law”. Statement by Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic Presented at a side event hosted by the Permanent Mission of Austria and Article 36, Geneva 12 March 2015.  The majority of Ukraine’s displaced originate from places such as Mariupol and Donetsk that have been repeatedly attacked with Grad rockets and other explosive weapons. See, for example, BBC News, “Rockets Kill Dozens in Ukraine Port of Mariupol” (24 January 2015),

Explosive weapons frequently damage or destroy water, sanitation and electricity services with sometimes drastic consequences for civilians. The interdependencies between services mean that the destruction of a single electrical transformer, for example, can compromise safe drinking water supplies and the treatment and disposal of sewage, increasing the risk of disease. ICRC, Report of the ICRC Expert Meeting on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: Humanitarian, Legal, Technical and Military Aspects – Chavannes de Bogis, Switzerland, 24-25 February 2015 (2015).  Power shortages also affect hospitals and the provision of life-saving healthcare, as well as food production and storage. These impacts are accentuated when the use of explosive weapons is protracted, with a consequent decline in essential services over time giving rise to serious public health risks.

Explosive weapons can also halt access to education and ruin livelihoods through the destruction of commercial property, such as factories and workshops. The summer 2014 hostilities in Gaza completely destroyed 22 schools and cost small-scale enterprises more than US$186 million in damage. UNDP, Detailed Infrastructure Damage Assessment Gaza 2014 (2014),

Finally, the use of explosive weapons invariably results in explosive remnants of war (ERW). ERW are present in over 85 countries UNICEF, Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse – Landmines and Explosive Weapons, at  and continue to cause civilian casualties years after hostilities have ceased. They deprive civilians of access to land, schools, water points and religious sites. The destruction wrought by explosive weapons also has a dramatic impact on post-conflict reconstruction costs.

Towards a change in practice

Strengthening the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a key concern for the United Nations (UN), the International Committee of the Red Cross, civil society (as represented through the International Network on Explosive Weapons – INEW) and an increasing number of States. The UN Secretary-General has repeatedly called on warring parties to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, S/2015/453 (18 June 2015), paras.30 and 63, available at:

The protection of civilians has been strengthened in some countries by the adoption of policy that limits the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force started directing its commanders to use the least destructive force to obtain a military purpose in defensive operations. The African Union’s Mission in Somalia’s indirect fire policy limited the use of mortars in populated areas. In both contexts, harm was reduced by avoiding the use of certain weapons in certain situations. See for example, UNAMA/OHCHR, Afghanistan – Protection of Civilians Mid-Year Report 2012 (July 2012),  These are precedents that can be used to inform a change in practice more widely. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is collecting these and other examples of policy and will make them available to armed forces to promote and contribute to changes in practice.

Meanwhile, in September last year, Austria launched discussions on a political declaration that would recognize the humanitarian impact of using explosive weapons in populated areas and commit states to address it. Sebastian Kurz, Austrian Foreign Minister, “It is time to stop the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of urban areas”, The Guardian (22 December 2015),  Work on the development of this declaration will be carried out over the coming months. In his latest protection of civilians report, the UN Secretary-General encouraged States to engage constructively in this process. Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, S/2015/453 (18 June 2015), paras.30 and 63, available at:

So too, should humanitarian organizations. Past – successful – processes on landmines and cluster munitions prove how important evidence from organizations on the ground is to successfully advocating for the prohibition or limitation of the use of those weapons. The initiatives outlined provide humanitarians with a unique opportunity to collect, report and share data on the grave and unacceptable harm these weapons cause, which can support and shape the state-led discussions on this pressing issue.

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Dr. Simon Bagshaw is currently on sabbatical from his post as Senior Policy Advisor in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The views herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or OCHA.


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