A satellite image of Aleppo circulated by Amnesty International to illustrate concerns over the use of heavy weapons in civilian areas.

The bombardment of Syria’s largest city Aleppo adds weight to the calls from civil society, the UN, ICRC and several states for an end to the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.  The use of airstrikes, artillery and tank shelling in and around Aleppo in recent days has sparked widespread concern about deaths and injuries to civilians and destruction of vital infrastructure. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled Aleppo and humanitarian access is severely limited for those who are unable to leave.

The situation in Aleppo is another illustration of the ongoing pattern of harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.  It comes only shortly after the same tragic pattern of harm was experienced in the city of Homs. Reflecting the language of recent UN Security Council resolutions, media coverage highlights the use of ‘heavy weapons’ in residential or civilian areas. Amnesty International issued a press release based on satellite imagery of Aleppo noting that the images: “show an increased use of heavy weaponry, including near residential areas.”  The UN Security Council has passed resolutions calling for an end to “the use of heavy weapons in population centres” and endorsed the same call by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan made as part of his six-point plan to resolve the situation in Syria.

These concerns over the use of heavy weapons in residential areas highlight the same humanitarian problem that led to the establishment in March 2011 of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), whose members include Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, and Save the Children.  The UN Secretary General and the ICRC have echoed the coalition’s call for an end to the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects.  Over the past two years around 20 states as well as regional organisations and informal groups of states have acknowledged the need to address the humanitarian problem of explosive weapons in populated areas, and it was a prominent theme in the most recent Security Council open debate on protection of civilians.

The term ‘heavy weapons’ is not defined in international law, but a policy note from Article 36 sets out how the term refers primarily to larger explosive weapons – broadly speaking large calibre mortars, artillery, rockets and aircraft bombs.  Concern at the use of such heavy explosive weapons is that their blast and fragmentation effects cause deaths and injuries over wide areas.  Such wide area effects may be caused by the scale of blast and fragmentation from an individual explosive weapon, the inaccuracy of the delivery of individual weapons, the use of multiple explosive weapons in an area, or a combination of these factors. They can also cause long-term damage to infrastructure vital to the civilian population.

With the UN Security Council, the UN Secretary-General, the ICRC, states and NGOs recognising that the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas causes unacceptable levels of harm there is an urgent need to establish new international standards that can serve as a stronger barrier to such a pattern of violence in the future.  While calling on others to end the use of heavy weapons in population centres, states should themselves commit not to use explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, and to work urgently for a collective agreement reinforcing this.

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