Human Rights Council side event on barrel bombs and bombardment in Syria
At the Human Rights Council on 12th March 2015, the Permanent Mission of Austria in Geneva hosted a side event with Article 36 on “The use of barrel bombs and indiscriminate bombardment in Syria – the need to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law”. As part of a broader pattern of conflict parties’ use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, bombardment and barrel bombs have caused catastrophic harm to civilians living through the conflict in Syria. Barrel bombs are improvised explosive devices dropped from aircraft, often helicopters.
Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi of Austria chaired the event, noting in his opening remarks that civilian harm from barrel bombs and bombardment should be situated within the wider civilian protection problem of explosive weapons use.
Professor Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic established by the Human Rights Council, was the first to speak on the panel. In his remarks he emphasized the need for urgent action to address the crisis in Syria and end impunity, recognising the problem for civilians of the use of “imprecise weapons”.
In its reports, the Commission of Inquiry has consistently drawn attention to the civilian harm and potential violations of the laws of war caused by the use of barrel bombs and the bombardment of populated areas by government forces. The Commission has also highlighted the harm caused to civilians – in terms of death, disability and the destruction of property – by all parties’ use of explosives in densely populated areas. The latest discussion of the Commission of Inquiry’s findings was held on the 17th March at the Council, during which Pinheiro remarked that “the way this war has been fought, in urban areas with devastating explosive weapons, raises many questions”.
Josh Lyons of Human Rights Watch also spoke on the panel. UN Security Council Resolution 2139 on Syria in 2014 demanded that “all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs”. However, such attacks have continued unabated up until now according to the latest documentation and evidence provided by Human Rights Watch and other organisations. Lyons presented Human Rights Watch’s analysis of satellite imagery of bombing and bombardment in Syria, which shows the effects of the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects.
The use of explosive weapons in populated areas by conflict parties has caused serious humanitarian harm in Syria and other countries. On the assessment of Human Rights Watch, based on their detailed investigations on the ground, curbing the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas “would have a bigger impact on the protection of civilians during armed conflict than anything else we could do”.
Professor Andrew Clapham of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies followed in contributing his expertise to the panel. Introducing the legal issues surrounding the topic of barrel bombs and bombardment, he stressed conflict parties’ precautionary obligations when conducting attacks. He also drew attention to the need for states to consider the implications of their use of explosive weapons on individuals’ rights more broadly, including for example access to education and healthcare.
Finally, Maya Brehm of Article 36 described the problem of the use by conflict parties of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, placing the issue of barrel bombs within this. She also elaborated on the momentum that is gathering to address this issue internationally.
Brehm explained that explosive weapons kill and injure people and cause damage to buildings and infrastructure mainly by projecting blast and fragmentation outward from the point of detonation, across a potentially large area. When such weapons are used in a location containing concentrations of civilians or civilians objects, it is mostly civilians who are harmed. Explosive weapons tend to cause severe, multiple, and complex injuries, and those in the immediate vicinity of a detonation often do not survive. Explosive weapon use in populated areas also has serious negative mental health effects on those directly affected, and their relatives and friends. Through damage to infrastructure, services critical to wellbeing and survival such as hospitals, schools, water and sanitation and transport networks are affected. Explosive weapons also leave toxic and explosive remnants of war.
Brehm also described the factors that can contribute to a wide area effect in the use of explosive weapons. Wide are effects are a particular concern in populated areas. They can result from large blast and fragmentation radiuses, caused by a large amount of high explosives; inaccurate delivery of munitions; the dispersal of multiple munitions; or a combination of these factors. Barrel bombs raise wide area effect concerns as they are often powerful; they have no guidance systems, and no control can be exerted over their trajectory when thrown from an aircraft; and several tend to be dropped over any given area. The risk of harm to civilians is unacceptable. Brehm noted that through the monitoring of English-language media reports, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) have identified a number of explosive weapons used in Syria apart from barrel bombs that have similarly been particularly harmful to civilians.
Finally, Brehm described how the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is increasingly being recognised as a key challenge to the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Over forty states and other actors have now recognised the harm caused by these weapons. The UN Secretary-General has called on conflict parties to “refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effect in such areas”. He has also issued a note verbale through UN OCHA calling on states to report on their policies and practices in relation to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, in order to build stronger international standards. The International Committee of the Red Cross has also recognised the problem, recently holding an expert meeting on the subject. The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a civil society coalition, advocates on this issue. A number of expert discussions have now been convened on explosive weapons, and Austria recently announced that it would be holding a meeting to consider the issue in Vienna in September 2015. Drawing on discussions held at previous meetings, a logical next step towards building stronger standards would be for states to formally commit to refrain from using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. Such a commitment could form part of a political Declaration.
The event concluded with a question and answer session.