Explosive weapons

What are explosive weapons?

Explosive weapons include bombs, cluster munitions, grenades, improvised explosive devices (IED), mines, missiles, mortars, and rockets. Though they differ in composition, design, and the way they are used, these weapons share certain fundamental characteristics. They use explosive force to affect an area around the point of detonation, usually through the effects of blast and fragmentation.[1] Although they may differ in size, in how they are delivered to a target and in many other details, all of these weapons use explosives as the primary means of causing damage.[2]

When used in populated areas, explosive weapons are very likely to cause great harm to individuals as well as to communities. According to data gathered by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), between 80 and 90% of the people injured or killed are civilians in incidents where explosive weapons are used in populated areas.[3] Survivors of explosive weapon attacks can suffer from many kinds of long-term challenges such as disability, psychological harm, and social and economic exclusion.[4]

The fact that explosive weapons use blast and fragmentation to kill and injure people across an area around the point of detonation makes them especially problematic since their effects are difficult to fully anticipate and control.[5] The wider the area of effect, the more difficult this is. The use of these weapons also has an overwhelming negative impact on infrastructure such as housing, schools, hospitals, and water and sanitation systems, resulting in devastating long-term effects on people’s lives far beyond the conflict itself.

“Populated areas” broadly equates to the legal concept of “concentrations of civilians,” as used in Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).[6] This term should be interpreted and understood in a common and broad way in order to encompass all those areas where civilians are at risk of harm, but also to include the indirect harm and danger these weapons cause, such as destruction of vital infrastructure, resulting in a pattern of wider, long-term suffering.[7]

The use of explosive weapons

Explosive weapons are used in most armed conflicts, by both state and non-state actors. Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria were the top five most heavily affected by the use of explosive weapons in 2012.[8] According to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), the global numbers of civilian causalities from use of explosive weapons in populated areas were significantly higher than that of armed actor casualties throughout 2012. In addition, even when explosive weapons were used to target military areas and armed actors, over half of the casualties were civilians.[9] 93% of fatalities due to explosive weapons are civilians, far higher than the proportion of civilian deaths from other weapon use (71%).

In 2012 an increasing use of explosive weapons was registered in Iraq, with a particular noted increase in the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). IEDs are often used by non-state armed groups, and while they are used in attacks on military targets they are often also used directly against civilian populations.[10]  

Syria was the single most affected country by explosive weapons in 2012. AOAV recorded a nearly 800% increase in civilian casualties in Syria in 2012.[11] The total numbers of casualties during 2012 in Syria due to explosive weapons were 8382 people.

Legal Framework

Legal analyses have concluded that the legal regulation of explosive weapons within international law is incoherent and fragmentary.[12] A UNIDIR study found that “existing regulatory categories and notions are at times vague, ill-defined and overlapping and do not formally recognize the common functioning of explosive weapons through blast and fragmentation.”[13]

However, the provisions of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) are binding on parties during circumstances of armed conflict and impose legal obligations on all conflict parties, state and non-state actors, to protect civilians from harm and reduce unnecessary suffering. While there is no specific treaty prohibiting or regulating the use of explosive weapons as a category, their use in war is still a subject to IHL.[14] The main principles of IHL regarding protection of civilians from attacks, which are reflected in Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, also underpined by international customary law, are “distinction,” “proportionality,” and “precaution”.

What kind of impact do explosive weapons have on women?

While it is clear that consequences of the use of explosive weapons are devastating for whole communities, women’s experiences in conflict tend to be overlooked or ignored. The specific impact explosive weapon use has on women has so far been largely absent and very little has been documented of the gendered impact of explosive weapons. However, the AOAV report from March 2013 found that between 2003 and 2011, “the proportion of women and children killed and injured was significantly higher for explosive weapons than for firearm incidents and other forms of violence in Iraq.”[15]

Research done on landmines shows that women tend to face a higher risk of stigmatisation and marginalisation due to their injuries and also have more limited access to emergency care and longer-term rehabilitation assistance. Major destruction of health care structures has been identified as having a particular devastating effect on women, in particular in relation to accessing maternity care.

Furthermore, the methods and nature of armed conflict can transform the perception of women as active members of a community or a household into passive victims requiring protection. This tends to result in considering women, often grouped with children and the elderly, as passive and helpless.

   Due to the lack of data and information on the impact these weapons have
women, Reaching Critical Wills published the report
   Women and Explosive Weapons in
May 2014. The publication seeks to draw
   attention to some of the unique impacts
on women that explosive weapons
   have when used in populated areas.

Materials and resources

WILPF is part of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a partnership of non-governmental organisations working to reduce and prevent harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. For more information on explosive weapons, go to: www.inew.org

INEW Briefing paper: Explosive Weapons and the Protection of Civilians: http://www.inew.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/INEW_BriefingPaper_ReclaimingMtgMay13.pdf

UNIDIR; Explosive Weapons framing the problem: http://www.unidir.org/files/publications/pdfs/explosive-weapons-framing-the-problem-354.pdf

Joint NGO statement on causality recording: Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), Article 36, and Oxford Research Group (ORG): http://www.article36.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/ECC_Joint_NGO_Statement_Oslo_2013.pdf

Landmine Action. Explosive Violence, the Problem of explosive weapons. 2009. http://www.landmineaction.org/resources/Explosive%20violence.pdf

1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, art. 51(4)(c) the so called non-discriminatory principle is particularly important in the context of Explosive weapons in densely populated areas: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/related_material/2011_armsother_EWIPA_0.pdf page 4

Briefing paper Oslo conference “Protection of civilians under international humanitarian law: trends and challenges”: http://www.regjeringen.no/upload/UD/Vedlegg/Hum/reclaiming_background.pdf (explosive weapons from page 9 onwards)

[1] International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), INEW Call Commentary (2011), http://www.inew.org/about-inew/inew-call-commentary
[2] Ibid
[3] H. Dodd & R. Perkins, An explosive situation; monitoring explosive violence in 2012 (2013), Action on Armed Violence, p. 15
[4]International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), Learn more, http://www.inew.org/learn-more-about-inew
[5]International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), The problem, http://www.inew.org/learn-more-about-inew
[6]United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), Explosive Weapons, Framing the Problem (April 2010), UNIDIR
[7]Human Rights Watch & International Human Rights Clinic, Documentation of Use of Explosive Weapons in Populate Areas (2011),Human Rights Watch & International Human Rights Clinic, November 2011
[8]Action on Armed Violence, Fact Sheet; Explosive Weapons (2013); http://aoav.org.uk/2013/fact-sheet-explosive-weapons/
[9] Dodd, H & Perkins, R, AN EXPLOSIVE SITUATION, Monitoring explosive violence in 2012, (2013), Action on Armed Violence,
p. 12
[10]International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), Learn more, http://www.inew.org/learn-more-about-inew
[11] Dodd, H & Perkins, R, AN EXPLOSIVE SITUATION, Monitoring explosive violence in 2012, (2013), Action on Armed Violence, p. 9
[12]M. Brehm, Protecting Civilians from the Effects of Explosive Weapons An Analysis of International Legal and Policy Standards (2012), United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, UNIDIR/2012/8, p. 147
[13] Ibid
[14] J. Borrie & M. Brehm, Enhancing civilian protection from use of explosive weapons in populated areas: building a policy and research agenda (2011), International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 93, number 883 September 2011, p. 819
[15] Dodd, H & Perkins, R, AN EXPLOSIVE SITUATION, Monitoring explosive violence in 2012, (2013), Action on Armed Violence,  p. 12