On 19 October 2015 Austria hosted a side event to the UN General Assembly First Committee on protecting civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Opening the event, Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi of Austria noted the unacceptable toll on civilians caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. He highlighted both the direct civilian deaths and injuries that bombing and shelling in towns and cities cause — where 90% of casualties from the use of explosive weapons will be civilians — as well as indirect harm including damage to infrastructure and refugee flows from conflict areas.

The side event panel (Peter Asaro)

The side event panel (Peter Asaro)

Kathleen Lawand of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s Arms Unit gave a clear presentation on the ICRC’s independent work on the humanitarian problems posed by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The ICRC, which hosted an expert meeting on this topic in February, is concerned with the use in populated areas of explosive weapons that have wide area effects. Examples of such weapons could include large or unguided aircraft bombs, unguided artillery and mortars, and multi-barrel rocket systems. Given that such weapons are commonplace in most military arsenals, this is a problem that concerns all states, she said.

Lawand reiterated the ICRC position, adopted by the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, that all parties to conflict should avoid the use of such weapons in densely populated areas. Such use is likely to fall foul of the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks and the rule of proportionality, Lawand said. She described the reverberating effects of explosive weapons in populated areas, including through a short, but powerful animated film available on the ICRC website. One example of these reverberating effects is the way in which bombing and shelling can cut off water and electricity supplies, shutting down hospitals and disrupting medical care, causing knock on effects of disease and further deaths. The consistent pattern of harm in modern conflict makes such reverberating effects reasonably predictable and foreseeable and provides a strong case for commanders to take this into account when conducting proportionality assessments prior to undertaking an attack.

The ICRC will continue to work on this theme and is inviting states to share their policies and practices in relation to the use of these weapons in populated areas. The forthcoming ICRC report on international humanitarian law (IHL) and the challenges of contemporary armed conflict will include a section on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Richard Moyes of Article 36 and the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) described the work of INEW member organisations to gather data; assess particular attacks; help communities to protect themselves and to assist survivors as well as to deal with unexploded ordnance; and work on the broader development and humanitarian challenges of countries affected by conflict.

The city of Sa'ada has been heavily hit by airstrikes during the conflict in Yemen in 2015 (© Philippe Krops/OCHA)

The city of Sa’ada has been heavily hit by airstrikes during the conflict in Yemen in 2015 (© Philippe Krops/OCHA)

The work of INEW is motivated by a humanitarian imperative, based on a clear pattern of harm that is consistent over a period of several years of systematic data gathering. Like the ICRC, INEW is particularly concerned by the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects. Moyes noted that this is one of the most fundamental and central questions for protection of civilians in armed conflict and as such it presents very significant challenges. Reflecting on the prominence of barrel bombs, Moyes pointed out that the problem with such weapons is not that they are made from barrels, but that they are an example of an explosive weapon with wide area effects.

Many thousands of lives are made unliveable by the widespread use of explosive force and this is not just happening in Syria, he noted. The Gaza Commission of Inquiry highlighted harm from use of explosive weapons with wide area effects. In Yemen thousands of civilians have been killed and injured, mainly from aerial bombardment in populated areas. The conflict in Ukraine has been characterised by bombing and shelling in towns and cities. This is a problem, then, in a wide range of contexts.

The numbers of casualties represent real people and real experiences, Moyes said. It is the physical pain of death and injury, but also the pain of dealing with the deaths and injuries of family members and loved ones. Echoing the ICRC’s concerns with reverberating effects, Moyes also noted the longer term effects caused by bombing and shelling: “If you destroy people’s houses you are going to move a lot of people.”

INEW is calling for a response to this pattern harm, which cannot just be seen as an inevitable result of conflict. There has been strong engagement on this theme within the protection of civilians context, including through reports and statements by the UN Secertary-General as well as by states in Security Council open debates. During the Vienna meeting in September there was positive recognition that this is an issue about which something can be done, and a move towards setting a stronger standard internationally against the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in towns and cities.

A formal political commitment would be a good first step, Moyes suggested. It should speak against the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects, call on states to review policies, require them to gather data on use and casualties, promote operational work to strengthen civilian protection, and recognise the rights of survivors and their families. Even if some states will not join, that will not join prevent responsible states from setting those standards, Moyes concluded.

Aurelien Buffler of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) described the way in which use of explosive weapons in populated areas has become a priority for the humanitarian community. A recent report by OCHA and Action on Armed Violence found that in Yemen, 95% of casualties from explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians.

Some of the audience at the side event (Peter Asaro)

Some of the audience at the side event (Peter Asaro)

Currently, OCHA is working on a compilation of policy and good practice, building on examples from ISAF and AMISOM, who constrained the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. OCHA is also working to put a human face on the issue, through case studies on UkraineYemen, and Libya.

Ambassador Hajnoczi concluded by providing a summary of the Vienna expert meeting his government hosted with OCHA in September. This meeting followed two previous expert meetings held at Chatham House in London in 2013 and in Oslo, Norway in 2014. The key outcome from the Vienna meeting was the discussion amongst states of possible elements for a political declaration to prevent harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Some of the elements Hajnoczi set out included: reiterating the overarching goal of protection of civilians, building awareness of the problem, acknowledging the humanitarian impact, reconfirming existing IHL, calling for better compliance with international law, recognising the concerns caused by non-state armed groups, and making specific commitments such as refraining from the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, collecting data, sharing good practices and policies, supporting victims, assessing impact of strikes, ensuring access to those affected, and ensuring practical measures to protect civilians. Hajnoczi noted that there was broad support at the Vienna meeting to take this idea up and to start work on a declaration.

This side event report was first published in First Committee Monitor, a weekly bulletin from INEW member Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Reaching Critical Will programme.

Posted in: Explosive weapons, Protection of civilians,