Hannah Bryce
Assistant Head, International Security
The UN/Red Cross joint statement on stopping this practice can be an important step in establishing a fundamental requirement to better protect civilians in conflict.
A woman dismantles debris on the roof of her house after shelling in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk on 6 April 2015. Photo by Getty Images.A woman dismantles debris on the roof of her house after shelling in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk on 6 April 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

In a joint statement last week Ban Ki-Moon, secretary general of the UN, and Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), issued an unprecedented joint call for action to address the significant human suffering resulting from conflict today. From a list requesting somewhat general, if important, actions, including redoubling efforts to find sustainable solutions to conflict, and condemning those who commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, one call for action was noticeably more specific: stop the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. 

This would certainly be a welcome and necessary step in reducing human suffering, but many states already recognize the disproportionate civilian harm these weapons cause when used in populated areas and limit their use. The challenge then is creating the conditions to encourage states that don’t currently recognize or respect the disproportionate impact on civilians that using these weapons causes to change their practices.

In three of the major conflicts currently ongoing – in Syria, Ukraine and Yemen – the use of wide-impact explosive weapons such as missiles, artillery and air-dropped bombs, are causing large-scale casualties and major damage to infrastructure, forcing people to seek refuge in other towns, cities and countries. The use of these weapons is particularly detrimental to civilians, with civilians making up 90 per cent of casualties when explosive weapons are used in populated areas. In a recent report published in the British Medical Journal the authors also found that explosive weapons in populated areas have disproportionately lethal effects on women and children.

The NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) have estimated that globally at least 112,000 civilians have been killed or injured by explosive weapons between 2011 and 2014, representing 78 per cent of total casualties. In Yemen between January and July of this year alone 124 incidents of explosive weapons use were recorded resulting in 5,239 deaths, and of explosive weapons used in populated areas 95 per cent of the casualties were civilian. Their impact goes beyond direct deaths and injuries, also destroying essential infrastructure such as healthcare facilities, sanitation services and power supplies, rendering communities vulnerable to disease outbreaks, loss of income and denied access to basic services. Their use has a long-term humanitarian impact on the communities that are affected by them, heightening the need for humanitarian assistance while also hindering its delivery.

Legal issues

International humanitarian law (IHL) prohibits attacks against civilians and civilian objects, as well as indiscriminate attacks; the design of certain wide impact explosive weapons raises the question whether they can ever be used against targets in populated areas to an extent that can be considered compliant with the law. The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining is currently undertaking a project that examines specific weapon systems to judge their immediate destructive effects when used in populated areas. The first study in the series considered multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL), and specifically the Grad, a fairly ubiquitous MBRL of Russian design also known as the BM21. The report, due to be published in January 2016, found that this weapon, capable of firing salvos of up to 40 unguided rockets at a time and saturating an area the size of a football stadium with lethal explosive fragments, is by design so imprecise and inaccurate that it cannot be targeted sufficiently in a populated area to hit only a specific military target. Despite this there have been many recently recorded incidents of its use in both Ukraine and Syria.

The application of the IHL rules in this regard is not straight forward and, as noted in a recent ICRC expert meeting report, there is a ‘need to have a better understanding of the requirements in terms of expected accuracy and foreseeable effects of explosive weapons when used in populated areas…’ It is this area of uncertainty that is problematic and that has led to a complementary process driven by INEW – a coalition of civil society groups – to petition states to build on their obligations under existing international law and develop further international standards to restrict, limit and, where appropriate, prohibit the use of explosive weapons in populated areas by states.  Developing these international standards would be a further way of reinforcing the fundamental requirements for the protection of civilians.

The ICRC and UN call to end the use of certain heavy explosive weapons, like the Grad, in populated areas is not only an essential step to immediately reducing civilian suffering. It is also a welcome call to arms, as it were, for responsible states to take the lead in instituting concrete measures for all to follow, raising standards more widely and better protecting civilians in conflict.

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