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The phrase “explosive weapons in populated areas” is an emerging term in the field of international humanitarian law. The weapons involved and the impact such weapons have on civilians, however, are not new. Human Rights Watch has for decades researched and sought to minimize the harmful effects on civilians of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, even though it, other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments, and UN agencies are only beginning to characterize them in that way. International conventions have completely banned two types of explosive weapons—antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions—due to their devastating impact on civilian populations, but the broader issue of “explosive weapons in populated areas” is a widespread and longstanding one to which the international community should turn a focused and watchful eye.

Explosive weapons have been defined as weapons that “affect an area around the point of detonation, usually through the effects of blast and fragmentation.”[1] They range from hand grenades to air-dropped bombs. Populated areas can be understood as the same as “concentrations of civilians,” a term defined broadly in Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons.[2]

Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a network of NGOs created in March 2011 that seeks “immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.” INEW calls on states and other actors to acknowledge and “strive to avoid” the harm caused by such use of these weapons; gather and make available any relevant data; realize the rights of victims and survivors; and develop stronger international standards in this area.[3]

This paper advances INEW’s call by illuminating the humanitarian problems associated with explosive weapons in populated areas through selected documentation by Human Rights Watch. It also highlights Human Rights Watch’s concerns about these problems, which predate the articulation of the language of “explosive weapons.”


[1] International Network on Explosive Weapons, “INEW Call Commentary,” 2011, (accessed November 2, 2011).

[2] Ibid.


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