Explosive weapons

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What are explosive weapons?
Why are we concerned with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA)?
Gender and explosive weapons
Explosive weapons and victim assistance
When have EWIPA been used?
EWIPA and international law
Intergovernmental efforts to stop the use of EWIPA
Information sources
Further reading

What are explosive weapons?

Explosive weapons are conventional weapons that “affect an area around the point of detonation usually through the effects of blast and fragmentation.” This includes, for example, mortar bombs, grenades, rockets, artillery shells, aircraft bombs, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Different types of explosive weapons may be delivered in different ways (some are thrown, others are fired from the ground or dropped from the air).

Explosive weapons may vary in the scale of effects that they create, but they all affect an area with blast and fragmentation. The basic immediate effects of explosive weapons are: 1) a blast wave—a wave of pressure that radiates out from the detonation at high speed; 2) fragmentation—material is broken up and projected outwards from around the point of detonation, creating high-velocity fragments; and 3) heat—the detonation of explosives creates high temperatures.

The wider the area of effect, the more harm they pose to civilians. When an explosive weapon has a wide-area impact, it has a large destructive radius, is inherently inaccurate, and is designed to deliver multiple munitions. These types of weapons are referred to as explosive weapons with wide area effects.

Why are we concerned with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA)?

The term “populated areas” can be considered to equate to “concentrations of civilians,” which is used in Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), and which is also used in human rights jurisprudence on the use of force. Protocol III lists cities, towns, villages, or camps and columns of refugees or evaucees as examples of populated areas.

When explosive weapons are used in populated areas, over 90 per cent of casualties are civilians. Particularly the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects creates an unacceptably high risk of indiscriminate harm for civilians. The following provides an overview of some of the harms caused by the use of EWIPA:

Direct harms

Death and injury are the most immediate harms caused by explosive weapons. Civilians next to the detonation of a large explosive weapon are almost inevitably killed. Injuries, many of which are life-altering or result in death at a later stage, include severe burns from the heat of an explosion. Blast waves can cause traumatic amputation of limbs and fatal blood-loss, traumatic brain injuries, and systemic air embolism, and the damaging of internal organs caused. Weapon fragments can cause traumatic amputations, puncture wounds, and lacerations. The physical effects can be especially acute for children, whose smaller, younger bodies are more vulnerable and for whom treatment can prove more difficult.

Long-term effects of direct harms

For survivors, their injuries can result in long-term debilitating physical conditions including loss of limbs, blindness, loss of hearing, and brain trauma. Moreover, those exposed to explosive weapons can suffer from severe mental trauma and psychological harm. This can have far-reaching consequences preventing them to function in society, and exposing them to a higher risk of chronic disease. The exposure to explosive weapons can be particularly traumatic to children at a critical time in their psychological development.

Indirect harms/reverberating effects

The effects created at the moment and point of detonation reverberate outward in space and time. Explosive weapons also have reverberating effects that propagate through the interconnected infrastructures that support populated areas, extending the harm caused both in time and geography. Explosive weapons have significant capacity to damage and destroy housing, health facilities, schools, places of worship, markets, roads, power, and water and sanitation utilities. As a result of the destruction of essential services, civilians are deprived from accessing basic necessities. Destruction of hospitals, housing, or schools has a direct effect on access to healthcare, shelter, and education. The damage of infrastructure critical to the provision of power, water, and sanitation cuts off services that depend on these capacities. This can cause health, social, and economic effects far beyond the immediate area or the immediate time and place of the blast.

The damage to social and economic infrastructure exposes civilians to extreme vulnerabilities, deny their enjoyment of human right and causes prolonged psychological distress and trauma. As a result, the reverberating effects of the use of explosive weapons can destroy the social and economic fabric of communities. These circumstances force millions of people each year to leave their homes, contributing to unprecedented levels of mass displacement.

Explosive weapons also contaminate the environment. Toxic remnants of war are introduced or released into the environment by explosions, including hazardous chemicals, heavy metals, and fuel hydrocarbons. This also poses long-term harm to human health. As well, unexploded ordnance (UXO), which are weapons launched in conflict but that do not explode, pose an insidious threat to civilians for generations.

Gender and explosive weapons

The damage and destruction caused by explosive weapons affect different groups in society differently. Factors such as gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, bodily ability, age, and many other factors play a role in the way people experience the effects of explosive violence and armed conflict more broadly.

Because there are gendered impacts of the use of explosive weapons, it is important to deploy a gender analysis as it can help all parties understand the situation more accurately. A gender analysis takes a comprehensive approach to all genders and gender identities, including analysing and challenging conceptions of masculinities and femininities. The following is not meant to reinforce gender binaries but to reflect some of the existing social and economic disparities presented by gender norms.

In many societies and cultures, women have different experiences in conflicts compared to men because they are afforded a different status and place in family and public structures.Men are traditionally treated as the key actors in war and reconstruction, because they typically constitute the highest number of combatants and casualties. However, this means that women’s roles in armed conflict and post-conflict situations are often overlooked. Assessing the direct impacts of explosive weapons use on the diverse experiences, agencies, and interests of women can help improve needs assessment efforts, ensure that all people affected by the crisis are taken into equal consideration, and allow for a more appropriate and effective response and prevention measures. It can illuminate some of the underlying factors in structural violence that both precede and follow conflicts and can shed light on women’s engagement in conflict.

There continues to be little disaggregated data recorded on the gendered dimensions and effects of explosive weapons. But the body of research on the topic is slowly increasing. For instance, reports by WILPF from 2014 and 2019 find that there are specific impacts of explosive weapons on women. In terms of direct physical impacts, pregnant women are at a higher risk of miscarriage after being exposed to blast waves. They are also at a heightened risk of complications in pregnancy and childbirth, including maternal deaths, due to the lack of intact health infrastructure in conflict settings. 

Moreover, the destruction of other civilian infrastructure, and attacks on residential areas such as markets disproportionately affect women, as they often have primary responsibility for buying food and household goods at markets. The destruction of infrastructure through explosive weapons poses further obstacles to women’s mobility and possibilities to access politics, decision-making roles, and media.

Where men are killed or injured, women often have to take on new roles as the sole income provider for their families. Due to persistent cultural constructions of gender roles and identities, this can trigger increased domestic violence if men may not be able to play their traditional role as a provider and therefore feel humiliated by that, as well as by not being able to protect their family from harm. Because of systematic discrimination against women in the labour market and patriarchal customs within communities and societies, women-headed households are at higher risk of economic and social marginalisation. This can lead to women becoming more vulnerable to physical attacks and sexual exploitation. Women, girls, and LGBTQ+ people who are displaced from their homes, villages, or cities as a result of explosive violence are often at a greater risk of harassment, domestic violence, rape, trafficking, forced prostitution, and other forms of gender-based violence.

Explosive weapons and victim assistance

Victim assistance is an obligation under IHL. It is codified in the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, Protocol V on Explosive Remnants of War to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions. States’ commitment to victim assistance has also been included in many political declarations, including the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration, the 2019 Oslo Commitments on Armed Violence, or the 2013 Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

According to Humanity & Inclusion, one of the leading organisations providing victim assistance in conflict and post-conflict settings, victims are all persons who have been killed or suffered physical or psychological injury, economic loss, social marginalisation or substantial impairment of the realisation of their rights caused by the use of EWIPA. Victims include the people killed and injured by these weapons, as well as affected families and communities. The term ‘survivor’ is used to describe people who were directly and physically affected by EWIPA and survived.

Victim assistance encompasses a wide range of measures devoted to remediating ongoing human suffering regardless of when it was caused. States are required to provide gender- and age-sensitive emergency and continuing medical care, physical rehabilitation, psychological and psycho-social support, measures to ensure the social and economic inclusion of survivors, and the adoption or adjustment of relevant laws and public policies supported by data collection and analysis. Victim assistance also includes support for the rebuilding of public infrastructure and compensation for the loss of property and livelihoods.

Humanity & Inclusion asserts that providing assistance to victims encompasses specific challenges in contexts where EWIPA are used. These challenges relate to the need for affected communities to have access to principled humanitarian aid, the scope of psychological trauma, the additional barriers preventing access to basic vital services due to the continuous and cumulative damage to critical infrastructures, and the risks attached to forced displacement in contexts where explosive remnants of war can be present.

When have explosive weapons in populated areas been used?

Both government armed forces and non-state armed groups have used explosive weapons in populated areas. The use of so-called carpet bombings, which refers to a devastating bombing attack that seeks to destroy every part of a wide area, was used during World War II and the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s, including in Korea and Viet Nam. New international rules constraining the bombardment of towns and cities were developed in response to the inhumanity of these bombings. While the bombing and bombardment of towns and cities has generally become less accepted since then, the use of explosive weapons continues to this day, and fluctuates depending on the patterns of conflict and violence. Their use can be detected in the vast majority of past and current conflicts. With the rapid urbanisation over recent years, there has been an increase in urban warfare, and therefore an escalation of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Since 2011, the non-governmental organisation Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has tracked all reported incidents of the use of EWIPA and their impact on civilians in English-language media. While it does not capture every incident and each casualty, it is the most comprehensive data available, and provides an overview of the countless uses of EWIPA and their devastating impacts on civilians. In its 2018 report for instance, AOAV found that the most affected countries and territories by the use of EWIPA were Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, India, Philippines, Ethiopia, Gaza, Mali, Ukraine, and Burundi. In nearly every year since 2011, over 90 per cent of casualties were civilians when EWIPA were used.

EWIPA and international law

Certain types of explosive weapons are subject to legal restrictions or prohibitions. The use of landmines is prohibited by the 1997 Antipersonnel Mine Ban Convention (Mine Ban Convention). Cluster munitions are prohibited by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CMC). IEDs are also restricted under the 1996 Amended Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) regulates the international arms trade of conventional weapons, including all types of explosive weapons. It prohibits the sale of weapons if they are used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva Conventions, attacks against civilians or civilian objects, or other war crimes. It also requires that states take into account the risk of the weapons being used to undermine peace and security; violate international humanitarian law or human rights law (including gender-based violence); or commit acts of terrorism or transnational organised crime.

International humanitarian law and its limitations with respect to EWIPA

While explosive weapons are not defined or regulated as a category under international law, the use of all weapons, including all types of explosive weapons, must comply with international legal rules, including those of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL).

IHL protects civilians against the dangers arising from military operations. It prohibits direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects. Consequently, attackers must always distinguish between combatants and civilians (and between military objectives and civilian objects) and direct attacks only against the former. IHL prohibits disproportionate attacks and indiscriminate attacks, including area bombardment (treating separate targets as one) in populated areas, and it requires that attackers take precautionary measures to avoid, and at any rate, to minimise harm to civilians. These basic rules of distinction, proportionality, and precaution on the conduct of hostilities are of customary nature and apply to all parties to international or non-international armed conflicts.

The problem with using explosive weapons, especially those that have wide area effects, in a populated area is that these effects extend beyond the military target, placing civilians at an unacceptably high risk of harm. This lack of accuracy makes discriminating between civilians and combatants during an attack on a populated area virtually impossible. 

While it is clear that the targeting of civilians and civilian objects is in violation of IHL, explosive weapons are not considered inherently illegal in the absence of a specific treaty prohibition (such as the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions or the Mine Ban Convention). IHL does not contain specific guidelines or rules for consistent application in relation to the use of EWIPA. The legality of a weapon or of its use tends to be determined on an attack-by-attack basis, taking into consideration the specific circumstances of every individual attack. This approach does not lend itself to a categorical finding regarding the legality of the broad category of explosive weapons in a general type of setting, namely populated areas. Therefore, it does not set a clear boundary against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in even densely populated areas.

Moreover, despite the fact that major arms exporting countries are states parties to the ATT, there have been countless examples of irresponsible arms transfers of different types of explosive weapons. Many of these weapons have been used to bomb towns and cities in conflicts around the world, resulting in the deaths of and damage to civilians. States parties to the ATT continue to engage in arms transfers that result in human suffering, highlighting the limitations of the ATT, and a critical gap between law and practice.

Intergovernmental efforts to stop the use of EWIPA

Coordinated activist pressure to end the use of EWIPA started in 2011 with the formation of the International Network of Explosive Weapons (INEW). Members of the Network have engaged in research, policy, and advocacy to promote greater understanding of the issues that arise from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and concrete steps that can be taken to address it. INEW has consistently called for improved government policy and operational practice at a national level, and for the development of stronger standards internationally.

In 2013, Chatham House, Norway, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) hosted an expert level meeting to discuss ways to strengthen the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In 2014, Norway and OCHA organised a follow-up meeting. In 2015, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also hosted an expert level meeting. The use of EWIPA has also been discussed for many years at the UN Security Council's Protection of Civilians and its Children and Armed Conflict debates, as well as at the UN General Assembly First Committee, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, and other forums.

Political declaration process

In 2015, a group of governments, UN agencies, and civil society organisations affiliated with INEW met in Vienna to discuss how to prevent harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. While many of the participating governments indicated support for developing a political commitment on this issue, it took another four years for the process to really take off.

After a decade of concerted efforts by INEW, the ICRC, UN Secretary-Generals, OCHA, other high-level officials, and governments, 2019 saw important milestones that re-energised the process to develop a political declaration on the use of EWIPA. These included regional communiqués from 17 African states and 23 Latin American states, a joint statement from 70 states at the 2019 UN First Committee, and the joint appeal by the ICRC and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres calling on conflict parties to avoid using EWIPA.

In October 2019, Austria hosted the Vienna Conference on the Protection of Civilians in Urban Warfare. It helped to foster common understanding by discussing the various forms of harm caused by the use of EWIPA, the legal context, and examples of military practices. It paved the way to advance the UN Secretary-General’s proposal to develop a political declaration on this issue.

In November 2019, Ireland held the first of a series of informal and open consultations with a view towards developing a political declaration to address the humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Ireland used the inputs from states, international organisations, humanitarian groups, non-governmental organisations, and activists submitted for the first consultation to develop a paper containing draft elements for the declaration. The paper provided the basis for input for the second consultation in February 2020. The third consultation was scheduled to take place in March 2020 but had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. However, Ireland circulated a first draft of the political declaration after the February consultations, and will release a second draft based on written inputs by governments, civil society, and international organisations later in 2020.

WILPF and other INEW members have provided input to each of these drafts, urging the strengthening of the declaration so that it is a viable tool for preventing human suffering and ending the use of EWIPA. INEW groups have also advocated strongly for provisions related to victim assistance to ensure that people who have been impacted by the use of EWIPA see their rights fulfilled. All public NGO and government input to the declaration process is available online

Throughout the open consultations, the vast majority of states parties, and all participating civil society groups and international organisations have consistently called for the declaration to contain a clear commitment against the use of explosive weapons that have wide area effects in populated areas. Yet a small number of states are seeking to weaken this commitment. For these details and others related to the process for the development of a political declaration, please see the Reaching Critical Will website.

Information sources

The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) is an international network of NGOs that calls for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of EWIPA and hosts a wide range of resources on the humanitarian impacts of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Reaching Critical Will collates all available documentation on intergovernmental processes on EWIPA since 2015, and published research reports on the gendered impacts of EWIPA.

Humanity & Inclusion is an NGO working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster. It has a comprehensive list of resources, case studies, and first-hand analyses on the impact of explosive weapons, focusing particularly on victim assistance.  

The London-based NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) monitors the harm on civilians caused by explosive violence, and runs a global monitor on the topic since 2010.

The NGO Article 36 focuses on reducing harm from weapons, and features in-depth legal analyses of the use of EWIPA.

Save the Children works for the protection of children’s rights, and hosts resources that expose the impact of explosive violence on children.

The Dutch-based NGO PAX works to build just and peaceful societies all over the world, and focuses on the technical aspects of explosive weapons and their impacts in populated areas.

Human Rights Watch investigates and reports on violations of human rights and IHL in countries across the globe affected by the use of explosive weapons.  

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) features material on linkages between international humanitarian law (IHL) and the use EWIPA.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) hosts fact sheets and expert meeting summaries on EWIPA on its site.

Webpage by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland is hosting all available documents of the process for a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).

Further reading

“Explosive weapons devastating for civilians: International action needed to curtail deaths, long-term harm in populated areas,” Human Rights Watch, 6 February 2020

“Protecting civilians from the effects of explosive weapons in populated areas: questions of IHL compliance,”Article 36, February 2020

“A persistent danger: Unexploded ordnance in populated areas,” Mines Advisory Group (Mag), Humanity & Inclusion, and Norwegian People’s Aid, 2020

“Explosive weapons in populated areas–key questions and answers,” International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), September 2019

Jennifer Dathan, “The challenges of conflict reporting–when injuries from explosive weapons don’t make the news,” Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), July 2019

Jennifer Dathan, “Explosive violence monitor 2018,“ Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), June 2019

“Explosive weapons: Protecting civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas,” Article 36, August 2018

“Compilation of military policy and practice: Reducing the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2017

Isabel Robinson and Ellen Nohle, Proportionality in attack: The reverberating effects of using explosive weapons in populated areas, International Review of the Red Cross 98(901), January 2017

“Victim assistance in the context of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas: Recommendations for a future political declaration,” Humanity & Inclusion, August 2016

“Explosive weapons and the right to health, education, and adequate housing,” WILPF, May 2016

Ian Overton, Iona Craig, Robert Perkins, “Wide-area impact: Investigating the wide-area effect of explosive weapons,” Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), February 2016

Rihab Elhaj and Hannah Tonkin, “Shattered lives: Civilians suffer from the use of explosive weapons in Libya,”PAX and the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), September 2015

Ray Acheson, “Trading arms, bombing towns: The lethal connection between the international arms trade and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas,” WILPF, 2015

Maya Brehm, “Unacceptable risk: Use of explosive weapons in populated areas through the lens of three cases before the ICTY,” PAX, November 2014

Gabriella Irsten, “Women and explosive weapons,” WILPF, 2014

Kerry Smith, “Devastating impact: Explosive weapons and children,” Save the Children, 2011

“Documentation of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas,” Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, November 2011

Maya Brehm and John Borrie, “Explosive weapons: Framing the problem,” United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)

Selected country-specific resources


Rasha Jarhum and Alice Bonfatti, We are still here–Mosulite women 500 day after the conclusion of the coalition military operation, WILPF, January 2019

“Explosive violence in Iraq,” up-to-date data on civilian deaths and injuries from explosive violence, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV)

“Explosive hazards: Another fear for the population in Mosul,” Humanity & Inclusion, July 2018

Dr. Marcia Brophy, “An unbearable reality: The impact of war and displacement on children’s mental health in Iraq,” Save the Children, 2017

Jenna Corderoy and Robert Perkins, “A tale of two cities: The use of explosive weapons in Basra and Fallujah, Iraq, 2003-4,” Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), December 2014


Rihab Elhaj, Hannah Tonkin, “Shattered lives: Civilians suffer from the use of explosive weapons in Libya,”PAX and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), September 2015

“Case studies of explosive violence: Libya,” Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), June 2012


“Explosive violence in Syria,” up-to-date data on civilian deaths and injuries from explosive violence, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV)

“Without school: The impact of attacks on education in North West Syria on children,”  Save the Children, March 2020

“The waiting list: Addressing the immediate and long-term needs of victims of explosive violence in Syria,”Humanity & Inclusion, 2019

“Responding to the humanitarian needs of today, preparing for the Syrian response tomorrow,” Humanity & Inclusion, February 2019

Jennifer Dathan, “The reverberating effects of explosive weapons use in Syria,” Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), January 2019 

“Blast injuries: The impact of explosive violence on children in conflict,” Save the Children, 2019

Alun McDonald, “Invisible wounds: The impact of six years of war on the mental health of Syria’s children,”Save the Children, 2017

“Syria, a mutilated future: A focus on the persons injured by explosive weapons,” Humanity & Inclusion, May 2016

“Kobani: A city of rubble and unexploded devices,” Humanity & Inclusion, May 2015

“The use of explosive weapons in Syria: A time bomb in the making,” Humanity & Inclusion, May 2015


“Operating under fire: The effects of explosive weapons on health care in the East of Ukraine,” PAX and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), May 2017

“Collateral: The human cost of explosive violence in Ukraine,” PAX and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), September 2015

“Ukraine: Unguided rockets killing civilians: Stop use of grads in populated areas,” Human Rights Watch, 24 June 2014


Lucia Withers and Mark Kaye, “Nowhere safe for Yemen’s children: The deadly impact of explosive weapons in Yemen,” Save the Children, 2015

Robert Perkins, “State of crisis: Explosive weapons in Yemen,” Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)