Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: A Student Perspective

In Canada, we are fortunate to be able to live relatively safe lives, the risk associated with leaving our households to do simple daily tasks is relatively low. Unfortunately, not all countries around the world share this same experience. In some countries, even running errands can be considered a dangerous affair due to frequent attacks on civilians. Every year, the detonation of explosive weapons such as grenades, missiles and bombs, kill and injure thousands of civilians indiscriminately with their blast and fragmentation. However, despite this worrisome trend, many students remain uninformed on the issue of explosive weapons. While not occurring on our home territory, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a prominent issue that needs international efforts to be resolved. Here are five of the many reasons why students should expand their knowledge of disarmament issues, specifically the use of explosive weapons in cities and towns and what is being done politically to reduce their impact on civilians

  1. Effect on Civilians: First, the impact of explosive weapons in populated areas felt disproportionally by civilians, rather than military targets. In 2020, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) recorded 18,747 deaths and injuries as a result of explosive weapons; of those, civilians accounted for 11,056 or 59% of the deaths. When used in populated areas, the percentage of civilians affected was even higher; in 2020, 89% of those harmed by explosive weapons in populated areas were reportedly civilians. In addition to the immediate civilian casualties caused by explosive weapons, casualties can also occur as a result of a disruption of essential services such as damage to essential healthcare infrastructure. The indiscriminate and disproportionate harm these weapons cause to civilians is one reason that students should pay attention to the issue.
  2. Urbanization and Increasing Threat: Second, with the tactics of war changing and urbanization trends increasing, civilians are more greatly at risk of being affected by explosive weapons than ever before. While wars were traditionally fought strictly between soldiers on open fields, in today’s world, it is not uncommon for wars to take place in city centres and for civilians to experience harm as a result. Civilians now face the burden of war more than ever before with higher risks of experiencing death, injury or displacement. This trend will be exacerbated by the rapid urbanization occurring in developing nations. By 2030, two-thirds of the global population is predicted to be living in cities; 96% of this urban growth is expected to take place in developing countries in cities that are already at a higher risk of experiencing fragility. Together, the trends of wars increasingly being fought in urban areas, and more individuals re-locating to urban areas will cause more civilians to be at risk of experiencing the traumatic effects of explosive weapons in populated areas. Many students may have friends or family who live in the areas that are most affected by explosive weapons; these worrisome trends may put loved ones at risk of being targeted by such attacks.
  3. Environmental Impact: Third, explosive weapons have negative implications on the environment. Currently, our world is facing a climate crisis that continues to worsen and accelerate. It is well-known that we are quickly approaching a point of no return for global warming, which could have devastating effects on our planet in the future. Unknown to many, explosive weapons can have devastating effects on the environment in numerous ways. One example of such is how explosive weapons leave behind unexploded ordnance, which results in long-term harm and can cause contamination of water, soil and air for years. In Syria, it is believed it will take more than 30 years to clear the contamination. This contamination can as a result hinder agricultural efforts, kill livestock and cause harmful human health effects. In addition, the destruction caused by the crumble of infrastructure can release other hazardous materials into the air and the ground, such as toxic smoke. With explosive weapons having such negative environmental effects on our planet, it is essential students educate themselves on these weapons, so student climate activists can take these negative consequences into account when advocating for climate action and building their climate platforms.
  4. The Power of Education: Another reason for students to inform themselves on the issue is the power of education and the positive effect it can have. By educating themselves on explosive weapons and the political efforts being put forth to help reduce the consequences they have on civilians, students can help to create change on the issue by raising public awareness, as well as, empowering more individuals and future generations to explore the subject. Education is believed to be crucially important in keeping peace and reducing future risks of violence and is recognized by many NGOs as critical to creating positive change in the world. Another political declaration, the Safe Schools Declaration, focuses on the impact of armed conflict on education and the military use of schools and universities. It has commitments designed to strengthen the protection of education and ensure it continues during armed conflict and those commitments are having an impact on behaviour in conflict. A political declaration on explosive weapons used in populated areas could build on this success further.
  5. Immigration / Past Experiences: Lastly, while explosive weapons may not be a large threat within Canada, the country’s large immigration numbers mean that it is likely that most students have a relative or a friend who has in some way been impacted by the use of explosive weapons. In Canada, immigrants make up around 9 percent of the total population, meaning that Canada is compiled of individuals from all different walks of life with different experiences. In 2019 alone, Canada welcomed 10,121 new permanent residents from Syria, that same year,  7,268 civilian casualties were recorded in Syria as a result of explosive weapons, the most of any country. This is one current example of Canada welcoming individuals who have possibly experienced first-hand the negative consequences of explosive weapons. For other individuals, the connection to explosive weapons may date back further to their grandparents or great-grandparents fleeing bombings from World War II or other conflicts since then. Regardless, most students likely have at least one connection to someone who has in some been negatively impacted by the use of explosive weapons, whether they be a friend, family member, neighbour, or simply an acquaintance. By educating themselves on the topic of disarmament of explosive weapons, students can show empathy and compassion for their fellow Canadians who may have been exposed to explosive weapons in their family histories.

It is essential for students to remain invested in the progress being made in the disarmament of explosive weapons. It is through the expansion of knowledge on this subject that progress can be made, so that future generations can live in a world without the dangers associated with explosive weapons that many individuals around the world know and fear today.

Danika Brown is an Undergraduate Student at the University of Ottawa and completed an extracurricular volunteer placement as a Research Assistant at Mines Action Canada.