Responding to the impact of explosive weapons

Richard Moyes
Coordinator International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW)
Richard Moyes

Richard Moyes

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas tends to cause high levels of harm to individuals and their communities.  Whether it is the shelling of market places in Mogadishu, air strikes in villages in Afghanistan, car bombs in Iraq or children killed by mortars in Gaza, the combination of explosive force and dense populations produces a predictable pattern of suffering.  Such incidents have often been considered a normal, if unfortunate, part of conflict or political violence. A new NGO partnership, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) – founded by Action on Armed Violence, Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, IKV Pax Christi, Medact, Norwegian People's Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children UK - believes that this pattern can be challenged and deaths and injuries prevented.

Explosive weapons use blast and fragmentation to kill and injure people in the area where they detonate, as well as to damage objects, buildings and infrastructure.  They encompass a broad spectrum of weapons, from small hand grenades to large air-dropped bombs and multiple launch rocket systems. Despite this diversity in functioning and size, these weapons share the technical characteristics of blast and fragmentation around the point of detonation.

These weapons are also treated as a broad category in the common practice of states: they are generally excluded from use in domestic policing.  Although the police may have recourse to lethal force in the form of firearms, and other force options such as chemical sprays, explosive weapons are rarely considered acceptable as tools of policing because of the risk they present to people who are not the targets.  So for states, the transition to the use of explosive weapons indicates a shift from 'policing' to a more aggressive orientation, where bystanders will be exposed to potentially deadly risk.

Media monitoring by the UK- based NGO Action on Armed Violence, has identified the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in 59 countries and territories between October 2010 and May 2011. Of the 13,406 people killed and injured in those incidents, 87% were civilians. Save the Children has highlighted the particular impact of this pattern of violence on children.

Beyond these direct deaths and injuries, 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 then face long-term challenges of disability, psychological harm, and social and economic exclusion.

The incidents that produce this pattern of harm include attacks by both state and non-state actors, some are part of established 'armed conflicts,' others are not. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed increasing concern at this pattern of suffering, and in his 2010 report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict he urged increased cooperation by states to make available data on harm and on their own policies in this area.1

In response to this pattern of harm there are three tracks of response that can be worked through:

A first track can raise questions about the acceptability of certain explosive weapons when used in populated areas.  Weapons that are particularly inaccurate or have substantial area-effects, if used in areas where civilians are known to be concentrated, are very hard to reconcile with the moral obligation to keep civilian harm to a minimum. For example, Amnesty International have said in response to the use of "Grad" rockets in Misratah that, "these rockets are indiscriminate weapons which cannot be directed at a particular target and their use may amount to war crimes".2 Previously, Human Rights Watch has highlighted the indiscriminate effects of heavy artillery in populated areas.1 The broad pattern of concern identified by INEW member organisations provides a platform for asking questions about the acceptability of such systems and calling on users of explosive weapons to justify continued use far more rigorously than they have to date.

A second track should recognise that use of explosive weapons by a state amongst its own population is an indicator of a form of crisis unfolding.  Such incidents illustrate an orientation by the state to its citizens that accepts their exposure to high levels of risk, and that is at odds with normal standards of protection enshrined in national legislation and human rights law.  The use of explosive weapons should be explicitly adopted into the array of indicators used for purposes of early warning, conflict prevention and prevention of grave violations, because it suggests a trajectory of violence escalating and protection being weakened.

Finally, concern at the impact of explosive weapon use in populated areas can provide another lens through which to view certain patterns of violence that are otherwise seen in political terms, often under the label of terrorism.  This categorisation based on 'motivation' is open to political manipulation – with different groups using the label to suit their own ends.  The problem of explosive weapons in populated areas does not come loaded with that same political baggage.  Yet it allows us to see an international pattern of harm from such violence that should be recognised as a significant humanitarian concern.

In 2011-2012, INEW will be building up a wider civil society partnership to work on these themes, and is calling on states and other actors to take action to address this pattern of harm.3

1. Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, 11 November 2010, S/2010/578, paras 48-51. (Back)
2. Amnesty International, Libya: Renewed Rocket Attacks Target Civilians in Misratah at, 24 June 2011; see also Amnesty International Public Statement, 23 June 2011 (IOR 63/002/2011), African Union must prioritize the protection of civilians in conflict situations, "Pro-al-Gaddafi forces used inherently indiscriminate weapons including those banned internationally such as anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs, and artillery, mortars and rockets in residential areas". (Back)
3. Further background information can be found on the website of the United Nations Disarmament Research Institute project on explosive weapons: (Back)