States should curb urban slaughter of civilians from explosive weapons

  • Virtual consultations this week move closer to a diplomatic agreement to protect civilians
  • Amnesty International has documented disastrous impact of explosive weapons on civilians in multiple conflicts
  • Global civil society network outlines key changes needed

Dozens of states convening this week must forge a strong new political agreement that will help to minimize civilian casualties from explosive weapons that cause widespread destruction in cities and towns during armed conflicts, Amnesty International said today.

Virtual consultations being hosted by the Irish government from 3-5 March will move closer to finalizing “a political declaration to ensure the protection of civilians from humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.” The text agreed at the end of the week will open for signature at a high-level diplomatic conference later this year.

“It is high time for states to commit to stop using explosive weapons designed decades ago for open battlefields – such as artillery, rockets and heavy, air-delivered bombs – in populated civilian areas,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.

It is high time for states to commit to stop using explosive weapons designed decades ago for open battlefields – such as artillery, rockets and heavy, air-delivered bombs – in populated civilian areas.
Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International


“Using these explosive weapons with wide-area effects in cities and towns full of civilians has foreseeably indiscriminate effects and as such is prohibited under international humanitarian law – the laws of war.”

Urban warfare

Warfare in the 21st century increasingly takes place in urban areas, causing unspeakable suffering for civilians trapped under relentless bombardment from ground and air-launched explosive weapons.

Bombarding populated areas with salvo after salvo from afar often means that civilian homes and infrastructure get pulverized by inaccurate or overly destructive munitions which cause massive damage well beyond their intended targets.

“It’s like using a jackhammer to hit a thumbtack, with devastating consequences for civilian lives and livelihoods. To protect civilians, it is essential that the political declaration include a firm commitment by states to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas,” said Donatella Rovera.

In recent years, Amnesty International investigators have spent months on the ground in conflict zones where they witnessed first-hand the impact on civilians of explosive weapons with wide-area effects. This has included:

In these cases, the organization documented evidence of militaries using explosive weapons that were inappropriate for the military objective – either because they have too large a payload and therefore cause too wide a blast and fragmentation area; are too inaccurate; deliver multiple munitions and saturate a targeted area; or have a combination of these characteristics. Such attacks have killed and injured very large numbers of civilians, destroyed key civilian infrastructure, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee as internally displaced persons and refugees.

Weapons unsuitable for use in populated civilian areas

Artillery strikes are ground-launched from howitzers which can be based 20km or more away from the intended objective and have a margin of error of up to 300m. Similarly, unguided ground-launched rocket strikes – using systems such as the ubiquitous 122mm Grad – notoriously miss their target, often by half a kilometre or more.

Due to the inherent inaccuracy of both weapons, which were designed to attack large groups of soldiers out in the open, this type of bombardment is wholly unsuitable in built-up civilian areas. Even worse, rockets and artillery are typically fired in volleys that rain down across entire neighbourhoods, killing and maiming indiscriminately.

Air strikes using bombs with large payloads can be aimed more accurately, but contain significant amounts of explosives that produce large blast waves and throw lethal fragments up to a kilometre from the strike site. This causes huge destruction around the target and often demolishes whole buildings in an instant – killing or injuring any civilians in the vicinity.

Under international humanitarian law, all warring parties have an obligation to take all feasible precautions to spare civilians and to ensure that their forces do not carry out direct attacks on civilians or attacks which are indiscriminate or disproportionate. This includes a duty for commanders to choose weapon types and attack methods that reduce the risk of harming civilians and destroying civilian objects.

Global network calling for change

In the 21st century, there is no excuse to use explosive weapons haphazardly near civilians. Militaries often have much more accurate and precise munitions at their disposal but use cheaper options instead. This may cut costs for the fighting forces but fundamentally it’s civilians who pay the ultimate price, with their lives.
Donatella Rovera

Amnesty International joins with dozens of NGOs globally in the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) in calling for the strongest possible agreement to come out of this week’s consultations.

Notably, states should agree on:

  • a clearer and stricter commitment against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas;
  • a clear commitment to address the long-lasting humanitarian impact when infrastructure is destroyed, particularly when it disrupts water and power supplies, which in turn affects hospitals, provision of medical care and services to the wider civilian population; and
  • a stronger provision to assist victims, including those directly affected, their families and communities.

“The international community must not normalize the devastation we’ve seen in war-ravaged cities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Gaza and elsewhere. In the 21st century, there is no excuse to use explosive weapons haphazardly near civilians. Militaries often have much more accurate and precise munitions at their disposal but use cheaper options instead. This may cut costs for the fighting forces but fundamentally it’s civilians who pay the ultimate price, with their lives,” said Donatella Rovera.

“States joining the consultations this week must take this message to heart – more can and should be done to protect civilians in armed conflict, and indeed the laws of war demand it. Ending the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects near civilians would be a very welcome step in this direction.”