EXPLOSIVE WEAPONS IN POPULATED AREAS
Armed conflicts are increasingly taking place in population centres and populated areas. This urbanization of armed conflict and the use of weapons with high explosive force and with the capability to affect large areas is resulting in devastating and well-documented impacts on civilians.
What is understood by explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) and what is the main concern?
Explosive weapons are a subset of what is commonly referred to as conventional weapons.
Technologically speaking there are many types of explosive weapons, including bombs, artillery shells, grenades, missiles, landmines and improvised explosive devices, which are activated by detonation of a high explosive substance.
Types of weapons that are particularly problematic include indirect fire weapons, such as artillery, rockets and mortars, weapons that fire in salvos, such as multi-launch rocket systems, large air-dropped bombs and surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. Such systems variously involve munitions with a large destructive radius, weapons with inaccurate delivery systems or weapon systems that deliver multiple munitions over a wide area.
A populated area is generally understood as a permanent or temporary concentration of civilians and/or civilian objects.
A leading concern is the use of explosive weapons, in particular those with wide-area impacts, in populated areas. Many of these weapons were originally designed for use in open battlefields and are inherently indiscriminate when used in populated areas and therefore result in increased civilian casualties and devastating humanitarian impacts.
Their use in cities, towns, and villages causes thousands of civilian casualties around the world each year and continues to be one of the greatest threats to civilians during armed conflict.
But civilian suffering includes not only death and injury. Many more are affected by the reverberating effects of such use when social, commercial, infrastructural, cultural, educational, religious, and health-care facilities are shattered, and when living spaces are severely restricted due to high levels of explosive ordnance contamination that continue to kill and injure civilians years after the fighting has stopped, hamper reconstruction efforts and create barriers to return.
The Position of the United Nations
The Secretary-General of the United Nations has highlighted the indiscriminate and severe humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas since 2009. He has consistently used his reports to the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict to bring attention to the devastating effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas on civilians; and continues to appeal to parties to armed conflict and States to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, to work to remove conflict from urban areas altogether and to avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.
Security Council – Reports of the Secretary-General
In his Agenda for Disarmament Securing Our Common Future, the Secretary-General placed special emphasis on addressing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and committed to support States in developing a political declaration as well as limitations, common standards and operational policies in conformity with international humanitarian law.
In his New Agenda for Peace, the Secretary-General recommends that States, building on Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament, “Strengthen protection of civilians in populated areas in conflict zones, take combat out of urban areas altogether, including through the implementation of the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, adopted on 18 November 2022, and establish mechanisms to mitigate and investigate harm to civilians and ensure accountability of perpetrators”.
In September 2019, the Secretary-General and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a joint appeal calling on parties to armed conflicts to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects.
In November 2022 in a joint press release the heads of three United Nations entities Izumi Nakamitsu, United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs; Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator; Catherine Russell, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director, and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, recognized the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas as a major collective milestone in protecting civilians from the increasing urbanization of armed conflict and appealed to States to endorse it.
Data collection and the Sustainable Development Goals
Target 16.1 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes a commitment to significantly reduce all forms of violence and related deaths everywhere. Indicator 16.1.2 includes collection of data on conflict-related deaths per 100,000 population, disaggregated by age group, sex, and cause. The collection of disaggregated data on the category of arms used in conflict-related deaths can contribute to evidence-based dialogue to support the development of practice, policies and norms at the global, regional and national levels aimed at protecting civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
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ICRC, “International Humanitarian Law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts”, Chapter 7, part 2, October 2015.
ICRC, “Even war must have limits”, January 2016.
Civil Society Resources
CIVIC, “A Primer on Civilian Harm Mitigation in Urban Operations”, June 2022.
Human Rights Watch, “Safeguarding Civilians: A Humanitarian Interpretation of the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas”, October 2022.