Vienna conference on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas

21–22 September 2015, Vienna, Austria
Ray Acheson, WILPF

A group of governments, UN agencies, and civil society organisations affiliated with the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) met in Vienna on 21–22 September to discuss how to prevent harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. At the end of the meeting, many of the participating governments indicated support for developing a political commitment on this issue. Work on the development of this commitment will be carried out over the coming months.

This outcome is a great step toward reducing human suffering. INEW has consistently called for a commitment to end the use explosive weapons, especially those with wide area effects, in populated areas. Bombing in cities, towns, and villages kills and injures civilians. INEW-member Action on Armed Violence has found that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of the resulting causalities are civilians. Such practices also damage or destroy buildings and other infrastructure, which results in long-term suffering from lack of water, sanitation, and access to hospitals, leading to more deaths and to displacement. Victims and survivors of explosive weapons can also face challenges of disability, psychological harm, and social and economic exclusion.

The meeting in Vienna follows from expert meetings hosted by Norway, Chatham House, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and independently the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It also extends from concern expressed by over 40 governments in UN Security Council debates on the protection of civilians and children and armed conflict, at which the UN Secretary-General has also urged international action on this issue.

Participants of the Vienna meeting heard expert presentations from INEW members Action on Armed Violence, Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, and PAX, as well as the ICRC, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, and states. They also heard testimony from Adnan Piric, a survivor of explosive violence in Bosnia. Through presentations and discussions, participants examined many of the immediate and long-term effects of the use of explosive weapons on civilian populations and considered the relationship of a new commitment to existing laws and norms.

One of the key messages articulated at the Vienna meeting is that while international humanitarian law (IHL) is relevant to prevent actions that harm civilian populations in conflict, it is on its own insufficient for addressing the problem. Speaking on behalf of the Geneva Academy, legal expert Maya Brehm noted that IHL is general and abstract, leaving it open to a number of interpretations with no specific guidelines or rules for consistent application. States have not been forthcoming about their interpretation of what the law requires and thus which practices would be illegal, and the rules of IHL do not on their own draw a clear boundary against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The general agreement at the meeting was that key issue is preventing humanitarian harm and that this should be the basis for a political instrument on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

INEW has called on all states to commit to stop the use in populated areas of explosive weapons. In doing so, they will need to review national policy and practice and make changes that will strengthen the protection of civilians. States should also support stronger data-gathering on the use and impact of explosive weapons, including age-, sex-, and disability-disaggregated recording of casualties. They should recognise the rights of survivors, families of those killed or injured, and affected communities, and ensure a response to their short- and long-term needs.

At WILPF, we also believe that states need to prevent those that use explosive weapons in populated areas from acquiring arms. Even if a state commits itself to not using such weapons in populated areas, arms transfers they approve may end up being used to bomb civilians. Regardless of whether or not states are party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), they must not transfer weapons to countries that are bombing or shelling in villages, towns, cities, or other populated areas.

As INEW has argues in its recent publication A Commitment to Act, too often the dropping of bombs or firing of rockets or mortars into populated areas is considered inevitable in armed conflict. But experience shows that states and other armed actors can stop the use of certain weapons and by doing so prevent devastating civilian harm. The current pattern of harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is unacceptable. States have a responsibility to take action now to prevent human suffering.