Explosive Weapons: Declaration to Curb Civilian Harm

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Damage caused to residential buildings by a Russian attack on March 13, 2022 on Myru Avenue in Chernihiv city, April 19, 2022. Local official said at least six people were killed.
© 2022 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Geneva, June 16, 2022) – A new political declaration holds great potential to protect civilians in armed conflict by having governments commit to avoid bombing and shelling populated villages, towns, and cities, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments will meet at the United Nations in Geneva on June 17, 2022 to conclude the final text of the draft Declaration on the Protection of Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.

Explosive weapons such as aerial bombs, rockets, artillery projectiles, and missiles not only kill and injure civilians at the time of attack but also have long-term ripple, or “reverberating,” effects. They damage infrastructure, which in turn interferes with basic services, such as health care and education, infringing on human rights. They also cause environmental damage and displace communities.

“Today’s armed conflicts show the urgent need to unite around the goal of preventing foreseeable harm to civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “All countries should agree to the proposed declaration on curbing explosive weapons and work to implement it effectively to prevent civilian harm.”

In his 2022 annual report to the UN Security Council on the “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted this pattern of harm in calling for a declaration committing countries to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. The practice has inflicted immediate and long-term harm on civilians in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and other conflicts in recent years.

The political declaration advances the protection of civilians in several ways, Human Rights Watch said. It recognizes that both the direct and reverberating effects of explosive weapons are foreseeable when they are used in populated areas. And it notes that the risks increase depending on the weapons’ explosive power, level of accuracy, and the number of munitions used. Those factors create wide area effects and make explosive weapons an inappropriate choice for use in populated villages, towns, and cities, Human Rights Watch said.

The political declaration commits governments to undertake national policies and practices that strive to avoid civilian harm by “restricting or refraining from” the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. That provision should be understood to mean that countries should refrain from using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas and should restrict the use of other explosive weapons.

Other key provisions of the declaration include commitments to assist victims, facilitate humanitarian access, collect and share data about the effects of explosive weapons, and hold follow-up meetings to promote the commitments in the declaration.

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. These weapons should never be used by any armed force or group under any circumstances, Human Rights Watch said.

“If governments properly implement the declaration on explosive weapons, it has the potential to positively shape the behavior of militaries around the world,” Goose said. “The declaration’s success depends on articulating strong interpretations, setting standards in national policies, adapting military doctrine, and refining practices.”

Political declarations commit countries to achieve agreed-upon goals. While not legally binding, such commitments carry significant weight because they can help clarify existing international law’s applicability to a specific situation or outline standards for conduct that go beyond existing law. For example, the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration, currently endorsed by 114 countries, seeks to restrict the military use of schools and keep children in school during conflicts.

The process to create a political declaration on explosive weapons began after Austria hosted a conference on “Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare” in October 2019. Ireland organized the first two rounds of consultations on the text in 2019 and 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic postponed the final diplomatic negotiations until this year.

More than 70 countries attended the last round of negotiations on April 6 to 8. Relevant UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and nongovernmental organizations also participated.

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the International Network on Explosive Weapons, a coalition established by humanitarian, human rights, legal, and other groups in 2011 to push for such a declaration as well as for operational and policy positions aimed at ending the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

After agreement on the political declaration is reached, it will be opened for all states to endorse at a high-level signing event later in 2022. It is unclear if the United States will sign. It was one of a minority of countries that sought to water down the declaration by proposing weaker commitments on the broader topic of urban warfare.

“The explosive weapons declaration responds to a proven and devastating pattern of harm caused to civilians, which drives people to flee their homes and causes them to lose their livelihoods,” Goose said. “Countries that are committed to complying with the laws of war should not hesitate to endorse the declaration and ensure effective policies and procedures to carry it out.”

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