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A man looks at damaged buildings after deadly airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, on May 7, 2018.  © 2018 Hani Mohammed/AP Photo

(Washington, DC) – Countries should heed the United Nations secretary-general’s call for a new political declaration to protect civilians from the bombing and shelling of cities and towns, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a report on the subject with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

The 11-page document addresses the importance of a political commitment and elaborates on what it should contain. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has inflicted immediate and long-term suffering on civilians in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and other areas of recent conflict. 

“Countries should agree to a political declaration to prevent the foreseeable human suffering caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The declaration should establish that this method of war is unacceptable. Civilian lives are at stake.”

In his annual report on the “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” which he presented to the UN Security Council last week, Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the “fundamental need” for a new political declaration. It should commit countries to avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, he wrote.

Countries began the process to create a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in 2019, but the negotiations have been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While not legally binding, political declarations shape state behavior by outlining standards for national policies and practices and clarifying existing international law.

A minority of countries, including the United States, have sought to water down the declaration, recommending weaker commitments on the broader topic of urban warfare.

“A political declaration will have the greatest impact if it lays out a specific solution for a specific problem,” said Docherty, who is also the Harvard Clinic’s associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection. “Negotiators should stay focused on the humanitarian imperative to address the well-documented civilian harm inflicted by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The political declaration should address the direct, indirect, and reverberating effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, Human Rights Watch and the Clinic said. Explosive weapons, such as aircraft bombs, rockets, and missiles, not only kill and injure civilians at the time of attack but also have serious ripple effects. Destruction of power stations, water treatment plants, hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure interferes with the provision of basic services, such as health care and education. The damage also causes forced displacement, and lingering explosive remnants of war make it difficult to return safely.

The wide-area effects of some explosive weapons – which result from a broad blast and fragmentation radius, inaccuracy, and/or the delivery of multiple munitions at once – greatly exacerbate the humanitarian consequences. 

To prevent such harm, the declaration should commit counties to avoid using these weapons in populated areas. They should also consider the foreseeable harm caused by the practice when assessing the proportionality of a proposed attack.

The declaration should, in addition, incorporate a robust commitment to assist affected individuals, families, and communities. It should include provisions to collect and share data, which is essential to document the problem and inform a response.

Finally, the declaration should commit countries to meet annually to review the implementation and effectiveness of the declaration. Such meetings should include international and nongovernmental organizations.

In October, Austria initiated the process to develop a political commitment to reduce the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. At two meetings hosted by Ireland at the UN in Geneva, more than 70 countries discussed the elements of the declaration and started to consider specific language. Despite the inability to hold in-person negotiations at this point, Ireland has sought comment on a draft text and plans to resume the process as soon as it is safe to do so.

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the International Network on Explosive Weapons, a coalition established by humanitarian, legal, and other civil society groups in 2011 to push for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

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