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October 26, 2022

Preventing Civilian Harm from Explosive Weapons: Report Calls for Endorsement and Strong Interpretation of New Political Declarations


All countries should endorse a new political commitment aimed at protecting civilians from the bombing and shelling of cities and towns during wartime, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) said today in a report released with Human Rights Watch.

The 23-page report, “Safeguarding Civilians,” examines the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, which opens for countries to endorse in Dublin, Ireland on November 18, 2022. Governments should endorse the declaration and interpret its provisions to be most protective of civilians in their statements to the conference in Dublin and beyond.

“The declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas offers a valuable tool to safeguard civilians from one of the greatest threats in contemporary armed conflict,” said Bonnie Docherty, IHRC’s associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection. “All countries should endorse the declaration at the highest levels and in the strongest terms to demonstrate their commitment to its success in practice.”

Civilians account for the vast majority of people who are killed or injured when explosive weapons, such as aerial bombs, rockets, artillery and mortar projectiles, and missiles, are used in populated areas. The immediate impacts include deaths, injuries, and psychological harm, as well as damage to and destruction of homes and other civilian structures.

All countries should endorse a new political commitment aimed at protecting civilians from the bombing and shelling of cities and towns during wartime, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) said today in a report released with Human Rights Watch.The indirect, or reverberating, effects caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas include damage to or destruction of critical civilian infrastructure, such as power plants, healthcare facilities, and water and sanitation systems. This interferes with the delivery of basic services, such as health care and education, infringing on human rights. Explosive weapons also harm the environment and drive displacement of civilians.

The declaration finds that the wide-area effects of certain explosive weapons heighten the risk of “devastating impacts on civilians.” Explosive weapons have wide-area effects if they have a large blast and fragmentation radius, are inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at once, or have a combination of these characteristics. Examples include certain air-delivered weapons, large-caliber artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers, mortars, artillery, and rockets that fire unguided munitions.

IHRC, Human Rights Watch, and other groups have documented the direct and indirect effects of explosive weapons in recent armed conflicts, including in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen.

Recognizing the acute need for action, more than 70 countries began a political process in 2019 to address the civilian harm inflicted by the bombing and shelling of towns and cities.

Governments agreed to the final text of the draft declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas at the United Nations in Geneva on June 17, 2022.

Under the declaration’s core commitment, countries agree to adopt and implement national policies and practices that strive to avoid civilian harm by “restricting or refraining from” the use of explosive weapons in towns, cities, and other populated areas.

“Governments should pledge to refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas due to the foreseeable harm to civilians,” said Docherty, also a senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Explosive weapons with wide-area effects are a completely inappropriate choice for use in populated areas as they pose a heightened risk of harm to civilians.”

Countries should further state they will restrict the use of all other explosive weapons in populated areas when civilian harm is expected.

IHRC and Human Rights Watch also interpret other key commitments of the declaration in their report. Governments should pledge to take both the direct and indirect effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas into account in planning and executing attacks because they are reasonably foreseeable.

Governments should adopt robust and inclusive victim assistance programs and collect and share operational data as well as information on the effects of explosive weapons. They should, in addition, clarify the regularity and substance of their future work on the declaration, including meetings to promote the declaration’s commitments.

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the International Network on Explosive Weapons, the coalition of civil society groups that has pushed for such a political declaration since 2011.

“This declaration goes beyond simply restating existing international law by committing states to take additional steps that help advance humanitarian ends,” Docherty said. “Countries should interpret the declaration in a way that will maximize its goal of civilian protection as a critical first step toward ensuring it is effectively carried out.”

Bonnie Docherty co-authored and supervised the production this report. IHRC students Madeleine Cavanagh JD ’23, Gayane Matevosyan JD ’23, Hina Uddin JD ’24, and Laila Ujayli JD ’24  also contributed significantly to the research and writing of this report.



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