Blog: Explosive Weapons. Human Rights Watch

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June 19, 2015

New Joint Report on Civilian Harm from Explosive Weapons

Press Release

Civilian Harm from Explosive Weapons

Agreement Needed to Curb Use in Towns, Cities

(Geneva, June 19, 2015) – Extensive civilian casualties caused by the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities around the globe show the urgent need for countries to agree to curb the use of these weapons in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Air-dropped bombs, artillery projectiles, mortars, rockets, and other explosive weapons kill or injure tens of thousands of civilians every year. In the first half of 2015, Human Rights Watch documented incidents involving the use of explosive weapons that claimed civilian lives and destroyed vital infrastructure in populated areas of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Ukraine, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Remains of the Luhansk airport terminal in eastern Ukraine, which was destroyed by repeated use of explosive weapons. © 2014 Human Rights Watch
Remains of the Luhansk airport terminal in eastern Ukraine, which was destroyed by repeated use of explosive weapons. © 2014 Human Rights Watch

The 35-page report, “Making a Commitment: Paths to Curbing the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas,” published jointly with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, says that countries should develop and implement a new non-binding agreement to reduce the harm from explosive weapons and offers options for developing such an agreement.

“The high levels of civilian death and destruction from explosive weapons are avoidable,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “Nations should agree to curtail the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and stop using those with wide-area effects entirely.”

Explosive weapons that produce wide-area effects are particularly dangerous. They encompass weapons that produce a large blast and/or spread fragments over a wide radius, such as aircraft bombs; weapons that deliver multiple munitions that saturate a large area, such as Grad rockets and others from multi-barrel rocket launchers; and weapons that are so inaccurate that they cannot be effectively targeted, such as barrel bombs.

Momentum for international action is growing as recognition of the harm caused by explosive weapons in populated areas increases. In September, Austria will host a meeting to consider how to improve protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The new report seeks to inform these discussions by providing options for a non-binding instrument – a political commitment – in which countries would agree to restrict the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The report examines about 30 relevant commitments that could serve as models for the shape of an explosive weapons commitment and the process to achieve it.

A new political commitment could take a variety of forms including a declaration, compilation of regulations, set of guidelines, manual, or combination of these types. The process of developing a commitment could be led by countries, emerge from the United Nations system, or be a mix of those two options.

Developers of the commitment would also have to decide on a mechanism for countries to endorse the final document.

Whatever process is followed, nongovernmental organizations should be actively involved because they would bring extensive expertise as well as humanitarian concerns to the process, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.

Over the past few years, the UN secretary-general, several UN agencies – notably the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – and the International Committee of the Red Cross have all acknowledged the need to address the civilian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.

Many countries have echoed their concerns, and the September meeting in Austria follows a 2014 meeting about the subject in Norway. The Austria meeting provides an opportunity for countries to take the next step to initiating a process to develop a new commitment on explosive weapons.

“Extensive precedent shows that the timely development of an explosive weapons commitment is feasible,” said Docherty, who is also a lecturer on law at the Harvard clinic. “Countries need only recognize the urgency of the problem and bring political will to deal with it.”

This report was written by Docherty and Anna Crowe, clinical advocacy fellow, with significant research and writing contributions from Ben Bastomski, JD ’15, Kate Boulton, JD, ’15, and Ishita Kala, JD ’16.

For more information on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, please visit:

For more information, please contact:
In Boston, Bonnie Docherty (English): +1-617-669-1636 (mobile); or [email protected]

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November 7, 2011

Setting the Terms: Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

Posted by Sarah Fenstemaker, JD '12

In preparation for this week’s United Nations Security Council debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch have released a briefing paper on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The paper examines the concept of “explosive weapons in populated areas,” an emerging term in the field of international humanitarian law.  Although the term is new, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has for decades documented and sought to minimize the significant effects on civilians of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.  Explosive weapons, which cause injury through blast and fragmentation, range from hand grenades to air-dropped bombs.  Earlier this year, HRW helped found the International Network on Explosive Weapons, which seeks to raise awareness of the concept and reduce the human suffering explosive weapons cause.

This paper released on Friday  illuminates the humanitarian problems associated with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas through three recent case studies—Sri Lanka, Somalia, and Libya.  For each, the paper provides information, drawn from past HRW research, about users and types of explosive weapons, patterns of use in populated areas, and civilian harm.

The case studies exemplify the ongoing nature of the problem as well as the range of responsible actors, categories of munitions, and location of attacks.  The case studies also shed light on the shared characteristics of the harm to civilians, which include death and bodily injury, destruction of infrastructure, and long-term effects on individual lives and livelihoods.  Commonalities in the use of these weapons and the harms they produce underline the need for the international community to focus on and address the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The Clinic’s Explosive Weapons team—Ian Boyle Harper, LLM ’12, Anna Crowe, LLM ’12, and Sarah Fenstemaker, JD ’12—researched and drafted the paper under the supervision of Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty.  Their work  is part of an ongoing partnership between the Clinic and HRW.

Sarah Fenstemaker, JD’12, is a member of the Clinic and a student in Bonnie’s seminar The Promises and Challenges of Disarmament.

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