Every year, explosive weapons harm and kill thousands around the globe. In 2019, there were at least 29,499 documented civilian deaths from explosive weapons, while in 2018 a total of 32,110 people were reportedly killed or injured by the weapons.
Taking many forms, such as bombs, grenades, missiles and more, these weapons use explosive force to affect the area surrounding their detonation, killing and injuring individuals indiscriminately with their blast and fragmentation. When used in populated areas, these weapons are known to disproportionately affect civilians with both immediate and long-term effects. Specifically, civilian deaths and injuries account for approximately 90% of casualties when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, compared to 20% when they are used in other areas. Particular concern exists over the higher risk posed to civilians by the use of explosive weapons with “wide-area effects.” This concern is due to their increasingly dangerous characteristics such as their inaccuracy, the scale of their blast or their use of multiple warheads.
As a result of the trauma endured by experiencing explosive weapon attacks, civilians often experience psychological and psychosocial harm, in addition to physical harm. The suffering of civilians is also exacerbated due to the destruction of infrastructure, such as sanitation systems or energy networks, within their communities that occur as a by-product of attacks. Consequently, this destruction causes indirect effects, referred to as “reverberating effects,” on essential services, such as healthcare, that individuals within the community depend on. From an environmental standpoint, these destructive weapons are harmful to the natural environment, as they can contaminate the air, the soil, and other natural resources.
While international law offers a series of protections to civilians during armed conflict to help reduce the harm inflicted on them, the legal perimeters for the use of explosive weapons is thought to be “incoherent and fragmentary,” with inadequacy to sufficiently regulate the use of the dangerous weapons. Due to this gap in the legal framework, several states and international actors have expressed a desire to urgently enhance the protection of civilians from explosive weapons through other means. In total, 112 states and territories, as well as, numerous UN actors, have publicly acknowledged the harm caused by explosive weapons in populated areas.
The International Network for Explosive Weapons, INEW, is an international network of NGOs that plays a large role in working towards reducing human suffering as a result of explosive weapons. Through research, policy and advocacy, the network’s members work to increase awareness of the negative effects of these destructive weapons, while also taking concrete steps to address their negative implications. Mines Action Canada is a co-founder of INEW and we continue to work closely with the network. This work on explosive weapons is directly related to and informed by our efforts to end the suffering caused by landmines and cluster munitions.
Because much of the international community is concerned about the humanitarian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons, particularly in populated areas, discussions are currently underway to create a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). The declaration intends to emphasize the importance of offering protection to civilians from such weapons and the importance of compliance with international humanitarian law. While not new international law, a political declaration has the ability to change behaviours. Additionally, it seeks to provide tools that could reduce the impact of such weapons, such as the implementation of policies and changes to practices by militaries to reduce civilian harm. Such a political declaration can reinforce and enhance current international humanitarian law and the obligations that come with it.