An international agreement under negotiation at the United Nations this week seeks to reduce harm to civilians by curbing the use of heavy explosive weapons in cities, towns and villages.
The Ukrainian city of Mariupol is one of the latest examples of a populated area that has been turned to rubble by the relentless use of heavy explosive weapons. Ongoing bombing and shelling of cities and towns in Yemen, Ethiopia, and Syria, among others, are devastating whole communities and causing irreparable harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Data collected over the past decade show 123 countries have experienced a similar fate. The International Network on Explosive Weapons, a coalition of non-governmental activists, says tens of thousands of civilians are killed and wounded every year using explosive weapons in populated areas. It says civilians comprise 90 percent of the victims.
The coordinator of the network, Laura Boillot, says restrictions must be placed on the use of explosive weapons such as aircraft bombs, multi-barrel rocket systems, rocket launchers, and mortars.
Boillot says direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited under the rules of armed conflict and international humanitarian law. She notes, however, the use of explosive weapons is not illegal per se.
“But what we are seeing, and finding is that too often warring parties are killing and injuring civilians with outdated, inaccurate and heavy explosive weapons systems in towns and cities and this is because of their wide area affects, which makes them particularly risky when used in urban environments,” she said.
The crisis and conflict researcher for Human Rights Watch, Richard Weir, is in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Weir has seen for himself the havoc caused by explosive weapons on populated areas. He says they have a long-lasting, harmful impact on communities.
“They litter their impact areas with the remnants of their weapons and leave a deadly legacy in the form of unexploded ordnance… The effects of these weapons are devastating. They are present and they are continuing. And that is why these negotiations are important. That is why states need to commit now to avoiding their use in populated areas,” he said.
Activists are calling on negotiators to set new standards to reduce harm to civilians. They say the new international agreement also should contain commitments to assist the victims and families of those killed and injured, and to address the long-lasting humanitarian impact of explosive weapons.