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Explosive Weapons Devastating for Civilians

International Action Needed to Curtail Deaths, Long-Term Harm in Populated Areas

(Geneva) – Governments should make a commitment to avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in cities and towns, Human Rights Watch said today.

A diplomatic meeting on February 10, 2020 in Geneva should endorse a political declaration that would better protect civilians in populated areas from these weapons. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic submitted an analysis of the draft elements of the declaration to the meeting.

“Governments should recognize the devastating effect that explosive weapons have on civilians in cities, towns, and villages,” said Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “A common pledge is urgently needed to avoid using these indiscriminate weapons in populated areas.”

Human Rights Watch’s research over the last decade on the effects of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas shows the toll they have on civilians, underscoring the need for a strong political declaration to avoid their use and develop better practices.

Explosive weapons with wide-area effects include weapons that produce a large blast area or spread fragments widely. They also include certain air-dropped bombs, weapons that deliver multiple munitions that saturate a large area, such as Grad rockets, and weapons so inaccurate that they cannot be effectively targeted, such as “barrel bombs.” All should fall within the proposed international declaration.

Because of the foreseeable indiscriminate harm these weapons cause to civilians, a declaration should establish that their use should be avoided in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said.

Explosive weapons with wide-area effects have caused devastating harm to civilians and civilian objects. The increasing urbanization of conflict has placed millions of civilians at risk from these weapons, causing deaths and injuries to tens of thousands in places such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Human Rights Watch has long documented the unlawful use of explosive weapons by both government armed forces and non-state armed groups in numerous armed conflicts. The nongovernmental group Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) found that in nearly every year of the past decade, civilians suffered over 90 percent of the casualties when explosive weapons were used in populated areas.

Explosive weapons with wide-area effects have frequently damaged or destroyed civilian infrastructure such as bridges, water pipes, power stations, hospitals, and schools, which in turn have reverberating effects on essential services. Their use in populated areas forces people to flee their homes, exacerbating humanitarian needs.

Countries attending the Geneva meeting should develop and endorse a strong political declaration recognizing the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects and pledge to avoid their use in populated areas. The declaration should help clarify international humanitarian law by establishing a presumption against the use of these weapons in populated areas, as Human Rights Watch and other organizations have urged.

The declaration should commit countries to develop, and, where appropriate, revise relevant laws, policies, and military doctrine. Countries should also make a commitment to assist victims of explosive weapons by, for example, providing medical care and psychosocial support, and ensuring socio-economic inclusion. They should support reconstruction efforts, promptly compensate people for laws-of-war violations and, where possible, provide ex gratia payments for deaths, injuries, and property damage. Assistance should target people with disabilities. Countries should also make a commitment to gather and share positive practices and disaggregated data, particularly for tracking civilian casualties and other harm from explosive weapons, and to share their practices through regular meetings.

While the recently released draft elements of the political declaration presents a strong starting point for discussion, an analysis by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic identified several areas to be amended to improve the protection of civilians. The declaration should articulate a commitment to “avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas,” and establish a clear presumption that use is unacceptable given the foreseeability of indiscriminate harm. The declaration should also strengthen and elaborate on the commitment to assist victims. It should focus more attention on the reverberating effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, strengthen the commitments on data collection and sharing, and establish a framework for regular follow-up meetings.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, prohibits the use of weapons and attacks that cause indiscriminate or disproportionate loss to civilians and civilian objects and requires parties to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. While there is no specific prohibition against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, certain weapons, particularly those whose effects cannot be adequately limited, may be unlawful. Two types of explosive weapons – antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions – have been prohibited outright due to their inherently indiscriminate effects on civilians.

Political declarations commit countries to achieve agreed-upon goals. While not legally binding, such commitments carry significant weight because they outline standards for conduct and can help clarify existing international law. For example, the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration, currently endorsed by 101 countries, seeks to restrict the military use of schools and keep children in school during conflicts.

Human Rights Watch, along with the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a network co-founded by Human Rights Watch, has sought limitations on the use of these weapons since 2011, calling for “immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.”

“This past decade has laid bare not only the destruction wrought by explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas but the horrors their use inevitably causes,” Weir said. “Countries should mutually agree on ways to enhance the protection of civilians from the devastating effects of these weapons.”

Explosive Weapons and a Decade of Destruction

Human Rights Watch has long documented the extensive use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas in numerous armed conflicts. In many cases, this has amounted to violations of the laws of war in which war crimes were committed. Both government armed forces and non-state armed groups have used explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas with devasting impacts on civilians. The examples below from the past decade provide a snapshot of this practice and its consequences for civilians. It does not represent the totality of entities that use them or the full scope of their use.

Momentum toward a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas has been building over the past 10 years. In 2015, Austria convened a meeting on the topic with numerous countries and nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch. Two subsequent regional meetings were held, one with African countries and another with Latin American and the Caribbean countries. In November 2018, 50 countries signed a strong, unprecedented joint statement to the United Nations General Assembly on the need for a political declaration limiting the use of these weapons in populated areas.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, issued a joint appeal in September 2019 in support of a political declaration and called for the development of standards and policies to address the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

At a conference in Vienna in October 2019, Austria initiated a process to work toward a new political declaration. A total of 133 countries participated, and the vast majority that spoke expressed support. Ireland opened diplomatic consultations on a political declaration the following month in Geneva. At the February 10 meeting, countries will comment on a recently released draft of elements of a declaration. After additional consultations, Ireland’s goal is to finalize the text and open it for endorsement by May or June.

Explosive Weapons and Civilian Casualties

Explosive weapons with wide-area effects may have a large destructive radius, be inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time, causing high civilian loss. Often a single weapon will fall into two of these categories. For example, unguided rockets and large caliber artillery may both be inaccurate and produce blast and fragments over wide areas.

Weapons with a Large Destructive Radius

Numerous explosive weapons have wide-area effects as a consequence of their design or use, often producing a large blast radius or dispersing fragments over wide areas. They include various types of weapons, such as air-delivered weapons, some rockets, and large-caliber artillery. Air-delivered weapons that produce a large lethal blast or fragmentation areas are frequently linked to high levels of civilian harm. Human Rights Watch has documented the extensive use of these weapons in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, and Sudan, among other countries. Regardless of whether these weapons are guided, their size can create blast and fragmentation effects that severely affect civilians and civilian structures, even when not directly targeted.

The Syrian and Russian governments and members of the United States-led coalition have used guided and unguided air-delivered weapons throughout the Syrian conflict, causing numerous civilian casualties and property damage. AOAV, which compiles data on incidents through English-language media reports, found that air-delivered weapons caused 45 percent of all civilian casualties in Syria from 2011 to 2018.

In December 2019, the group found that Syria was the country most affected by explosive weapons, with 74 percent of the 617 reported civilian casualties caused by government forces and 55 percent caused by airstrikes. Since April 2019, airstrikes in Idlib governorate by the Syrian-Russian military alliance have killed over 1,500 civilians, according to the UN. One set of apparently unlawful strikes that Human Rights Watch documented in May 2019 hit 2 homes and killed 10 civilians, including 4 children, and illustrated the destructive power of large air-delivered weapons. A witness said:

We were sitting inside. Suddenly something, pressure, it moved us. Windows fell. Doors opened up. Glass flew everywhere. It was horrible. The second strike, around 1 minute, 1 minute and 15 seconds later, was similar – you’re sitting and you suddenly hear the explosion, you don’t hear the warplane, you don’t hear the [munitions], you don’t hear anything, except the explosion. The third strike was a minute later. Fourth also, between each strike and another, a minute or less. Horrible day. You don’t hear it. You cannot feel [whether] it is going to hit you or not. Suddenly, flames erupt, and there are stones from every direction.

The use of large air-dropped munitions by the US-led coalition in northeast Syria also wounded and killed civilians who remained during the campaign to oust the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) from the territory while causing severe damage to civilian infrastructure. The fighting in Raqqa governorate was one of the most intense operations carried out by the coalition, and Human Rights Watch documented numerous airstrikes that caused significant civilian harm.

Israeli forces also have repeatedly used air-dropped munitions in numerous operations in Gaza. During its 51-day air and ground campaign in 2014, Israel launched over 6,000 airstrikes and fired tens of thousands of tank and artillery projectiles, according to the UN. In total, more than 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed. Human Rights Watch documented a number of apparently unlawful airstrikes during the operation that struck evidently civilian structures, many of them in populated areas. One strike killed a woman, Amal Abed Ghafour, who was 7 months pregnant, and her 1-year-old daughter, and wounded her husband and 3-year-old son. The family lived across the street from an apartment building that was struck with several missiles, witnesses said.

In Afghanistan, nearly two decades of conflict involving US and Afghan government forces and Taliban and other armed groups have resulted in considerable civilian harm, including casualties, property destruction, and damage to people’s mental health. Rising civilian casualties from air and artillery strikes by US and international forces began to decline with the imposition of “tactical directives” issued to address civilian casualties beginning in 2007 that ultimately restricted the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. However, these restrictions have apparently loosened in the last few years, and with that a precipitous rise in civilian casualties from both US and Afghan government-led airstrikes. In one such airstrike in 2017, Human Rights Watch documented the killing of nine people by a US drone strike after Afghan government forces attacked fighters affiliated with ISIS in Khorasan Province. A witness whose mother, sister, and sister-in-law were killed in the airstrike, said:

There was a mourning ceremony and [people] were there to sympathize with the family.… My sister and mother were entering the guesthouse gate, and my sister-in-law was close by when the bomb hit. Their car is half buried in a ditch. The house was in between where there was fighting, about 200 meters in each direction. The airstrikes hit the guesthouse and the car.

Thousands of civilians have also been killed and injured in insurgent attacks using large explosive weapons such as improvised explosive devices, many by the Taliban in Kabul. Deaths from US and Afghan government operations exceeded those caused by the Taliban for the first time in the first half of 2019, largely due to a sharp increase in US airstrikes.

Inaccurate Weapons and Weapon Systems

Several types of weapons and weapon delivery systems, both manufactured and improvised, are inherently difficult to use in populated areas without a substantial risk of indiscriminate attack. Weapons such as mortars, artillery, and rockets, when firing unguided munitions, are fundamentally inaccurate systems. In some cases, armed forces can compensate by observing impacts and making adjustments, but the initial impacts and the relatively large area over which they could land regardless of adjustments make them unsuitable for use in populated areas. Improvised munitions, such as barrel bombs and unguided rockets fired from the ground and air, are also fundamentally inaccurate. This lack of accuracy can make discriminating between civilians and combatants during an attack on a populated area virtually impossible.

In Yemen, artillery and mortar shelling by both government forces and the Houthi armed group has caused numerous casualties in the country’s largest cities. In one spate of attacks in May 2017, Human Rights Watch documented 7 attacks by both Houthi and government-affiliated forces that killed at least 12 civilians, including 4 children, and wounded 29, including 10 children. The strikes occurred hundreds of meters from the front lines and other military objectives, hitting residential neighborhoods, a market, and a fruit cart.

In South Sudan, the use of mortars and artillery in densely populated areas by government and opposition forces in 2016 led to numerous casualties during fighting around Juba. Both government and opposition forces fired artillery and mortars at or over protection-of-civilians sites set up by the UN, with some of the shells landing inside a camp where about 30,000 internally displaced people were taking shelter. Another shell hit and damaged a medical clinic run by the international nongovernmental medical organization International Medical Corps.

Human Rights Watch and others have documented extensive civilian casualties and harm from the pervasive use of barrel bombs by the Syrian, Iraqi, and Sudanese governments. These improvised bombs are unguided high explosive weapons that are cheaply made, locally produced, and typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders, and water tanks, filled with high explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, and then dropped from helicopters usually flying at high altitude.

The devastating effects of these weapons were observed by Marwan, 15, in Anadan, in Aleppo governorate in Syria, on June 14, 2014, when a barrel bomb fell on a market. He said:

I don’t remember anything other than waking up and seeing people killed. A two-story building fell on me and people were pulling me out from under the rubble.… I saw several people on the ground. I was told later in [the hospital in Turkey in] Kilis that 20 people died and 16 others were injured.

Between February 22, 2014 and January 25, 2015, Human Rights Watch identified over 1,000 large impact sites with damage signatures strongly consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions, including improvised barrel and conventional bombs dropped by helicopters. Rockets, missiles, and fuel-air bombs may also have been used in a number of instances.

Human Rights Watch also documented the use of so-called improvised rocket assisted munitions (IRAM) by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division and Federal Police during the fighting to retake Mosul from ISIS. The munitions had no visible sighting or system for adjusting the weapon’s direction on the vehicles or launching pods, which would have allowed the position of the weapon to be shifted to hit a specific target, making attempts to aim the rockets with any accuracy impossible.

Armed opposition groups in Syria have also used improvised artillery locally referred to as “hell’s cannon” – a rocket motor fitted with an explosives-filled gas canister – and other locally produced rockets to shell the villages of al-Zahraa and Nubul in the Aleppo countryside in what appeared to be indiscriminate attacks.

Over the past decade, Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza have fired thousands of unguided rockets toward civilian population centers in Israel, including the second-largest city, Tel Aviv, wounding and killing civilians and causing damage to civilian structures. These inherently inaccurate rockets have also killed and injured civilians inside Gaza, apparently as recently as November.

Multiple Munitions Weapons

Explosive weapons designed to deliver multiple munitions to create effects over a wide area, such as multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) intended to saturate a large area, are of particular concern. Russian-designed Grad rockets offer one example, and their characteristics illustrate the concerns. From its aim point, the rocket could land anywhere within a rectangle of approximately 54,000 square meters. Human Rights Watch has documented these weapons’ use in numerous conflicts over the last decade in populated areas that have killed and injured civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure.

In eastern Ukraine, government forces and Russia-backed separatists have used Grad rockets since 2014, killing and injuring numerous civilians. The indiscriminate impact of these weapons was documented in one attack most likely carried out by Ukrainian government forces on a neighborhood in Petrovsky district. Ukrainian government forces appeared to have launched multiple rockets that created 19 impact craters over a 600-meter-wide area, including in gardens and homes. A 62-year-old woman said:

I was in my room when I first heard a whistling sound. The walls and windows started to shake and then there were many loud bangs. My son was in the kitchen. He came running when the attack started, probably trying to save me, but shrapnel hit him in the leg. What’s here that they wanted to attack? There is no factory here, no fighters, just poor houses.

An attack on government-held areas of Mariupol in January 2015 killed at least 29 civilians and 1 service member and injured another 90 civilians. Human Rights Watch’s field research indicated that the rockets were fired from the territory to the east, controlled by Russia-backed armed groups. Human Rights Watch found 31 impact craters from Grad rockets on the ground and buildings, including 1 school. A witness said:

There were dead bodies lying by the market. I saw one dead body, then another. A third dead body belonged to a girl who used to work in the used clothes store. Her head had been crushed. A rocket fell right on the market, destroying it. Luckily, there were no students in the school when the rocket fell here. Otherwise, we would have had dozens of dead children here.

Long-Term and “Reverberating” Consequences for Civilians

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has effects that extend beyond the immediate casualties. Part of the inherent risk associated with explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas is the disproportionate impact on civilian buildings and infrastructure. The weapons often damage and destroy homes, businesses, and infrastructure, such as power stations, hospitals, sanitation systems, and schools. When healthcare and sanitation facilities are damaged or destroyed, the risk of infectious disease can vastly increase. Destroyed power stations can affect the water supply. Damaged educational facilities have long-lasting consequences for children who are forced to suspend or terminate their education, which is more likely to negatively affect girls.

The reverberating consequences of damage to vital services can disproportionately affect women and vulnerable populations, such as children, older people, and people with disabilities.

These factors force many civilians to flee their homes, towns, or cities. People with disabilities are at higher risk of harm because they may be unable to flee. Displacement, both internally and across borders, increases the risk of exposure to myriad other concerns, including, but not limited to, loss of access to water, health care, and sanitation. This can affect women and girls disproportionately, for reasons including their responsibility for gathering water, medical needs of pregnant women, and barriers to menstrual hygiene management. Flight also increases the risk of violence, including sexual violence, human trafficking, child marriage, and exploitation that disproportionately affects women and girls. People with disabilities who reach sites for internally displaced people or refugees often face difficulties accessing food, sanitation, and medical assistance.

The use of these weapons often results in contamination of the areas targeted with munitions that did not explode as intended, so-called explosive remnants of war, increasing the danger to civilians who remain or attempt to return. Children are especially vulnerable to explosive remnants of war.

The physical injuries and risks associated with these weapons is magnified by the psychological harm associated with the violence and loss that explosive weapons visit upon civilians, which also particularly affect children.

These consequences have been observed in numerous countries over the past decade, such as Syria, where Human Rights Watch and others have documented the extensive destruction of civilian infrastructure. Much of the destroyed infrastructure was for civilian – not military – benefit and should not have been targeted under the laws of war. The Syrian government, supported by its allies – Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah – conducted hundreds of targeted and indiscriminate attacks on schools and hospitals, often without any military objectives in the vicinity of the sites or causing disproportionate harm to civilians. Following the thousands of munitions used by the US-led coalition in its attacks against ISIS in Raqqa, nearly 70 percent of Raqqa city was destroyed or damaged. Additionally, preliminary analysis of satellite imagery by Human Rights Watch revealed extensive levels of building damage in Deir al-Zor governorate from US-led coalition strikes.

These attacks, carried out by many parties to Syria’s conflict, mostly with large air-dropped munitions, artillery, mortars, and inaccurate barrel bombs, have left large parts of Syria in ruins. According to the UN, by 2017, 50 percent of the social infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, in Syria had been damaged or destroyed. A July 2017 World Bank study of 8 governorates found that since 2011 the war had partially damaged 20 percent and destroyed 7 percent of the country’s housing, as well as about two-thirds of its medical and educational facilities.

Countrywide UN estimates from a 2019 report indicate that the hostilities affected 50 percent of the sewage systems. In the same report, the UN stated that the country faced multiple infectious disease outbreaks. As of March 2019, 2.1 million children were out of school. The estimated cost of rebuilding Syria is between US$250 billion and $500 billion.

Libya has also been devastated by nearly a decade of intermittent armed conflict and localized fighting, with explosive weapons used repeatedly in populated areas. Air-dropped bombs, mortars, artillery, and rockets deployed by numerous warring parties have killed and injured thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands while damaging civilian infrastructure across several cities. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous such attacks that damaged medical facilities and civilian homes. The impact of this damage has led to increased vulnerability of civilians and endangered their access to water, health care, sanitation, and education.

During 2019, repeated explosive weapons attacks by the eastern-based armed group known as the Libyan National Army (LNA) killed hundreds of civilians and displaced tens of thousands in the capital, Tripoli, which is controlled by armed groups supporting the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). According to the UN, airstrikes were the leading cause of civilian casualties as a result of the fighting in western Libya, accounting for 182 out of 284 documented civilian deaths in 2019. Human Rights Watch documented 1 apparent LNA airstrike on Tripoli on December 1, 2019 that killed 6 civilians, including 4 children. The strike damaged 6 homes, destroying 2, and harmed other civilian property.

The fighting has dramatically affected access to education. A UN report covering 2018 found that over 250 schools had been damaged or destroyed in Libya. Additional fighting has caused hundreds more schools to close and interrupted education for over 100,000 students. The situation also severely affected health care, with nearly 20 percent of public, primary, and specialist hospitals closed as a result of damage or destruction, according to a 2019 UN report.

The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas of Libya has contaminated homes and neighborhoods with explosive remnants of war that are maiming and killing civilians, inhibiting access to services, and prolonging displacement.

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