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Parties to conflict should avoid using heavy explosive weapons in populated areas

Law and Conflict / Videos 7 mins read

In this video, the head of ICRC’s Arms Unit, Kathleen Lawand, discusses the humanitarian consequences and legal implications of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. She emphasizes the need for military forces to adapt their choice of means and methods of warfare when conducting hostilities in such areas, in order to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL).

The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas has devastating consequences for civilians affected by conflict around the world. The humanitarian cost includes death, injuries, destruction and damage to infrastructures that are essential to the survival of civilians – such as water and electricity facilities, and hospitals. In turn, this can lead to the spread of disease, further deaths and displacements.

Based on these severe humanitarian consequences, the ICRC and the rest of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are calling on parties to armed conflicts to avoid using explosive weapons with a wide impact area in densely populated areas due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects. Indeed, employing an explosive weapon that has wide-area effects against a military objective located in a concentration of civilians entails a high risk of violating the IHL prohibitions of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.

Indiscriminate attacks are those of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction, notably because they employ a weapon which cannot be directed at a specific military objective or the effects of which cannot be limited as required by IHL. Disproportionate attacks are those which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

Based on the extensive civilian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas that has been witnessed in recent armed conflicts, there are serious questions regarding how those using such weapons are applying these rules.


Why should we be concerned about the use of explosive weapons in populated areas today?

Kathleen Lawand: The use of heavy explosive weapons (i.e. explosive weapons that project massive explosive force over a wide area) in populated areas is a major cause of civilian harm and, therefore, a major humanitarian issue.

We are witnessing this in recent armed conflicts and ongoing armed conflicts such as in Gaza, Libya, Syria and Yemen. And as armed conflicts are increasingly being fought in populated areas, this is a major cause of concern and a major cause of civilian harm.

Warfare is moving into populated areas. What are the implications for international humanitarian law?

KL: Warfare is moving increasingly into populated areas and the consequence of this is when belligerents are fighting each other and they are attacking each other’s military targets with weapons systems that were originally designed for use in open battlefields, and have wide-area effects, then there is a significant likelihood of harm to civilians and civilian structures surrounding the military objectives. The fact that the enemy is located in a populated area does not suspend or somehow limit the obligations of the attacking party to fully respect IHL: the prohibition of indiscriminative attacks, the rule of proportionality in attack, and the obligation to take all feasible precaution in the choice of means and weapons of warfare. So the choice of means and methods of warfare is extremely important, and IHL is very demanding in this respect when armed conflict is fought in populated areas.

We believe that existing law should be able to protect civilians adequately in populated areas. But there are serious questions about whether existing law is indeed being appropriately interpreted and applied. Some even question whether existing law is sufficient and whether there is a need for new standards and rules. But be that as it may, there is a need now for dialogue. We want to have a dialogue with states to armed conflicts to understand how they are, in their military policies and practices, applying the rules prohibiting indiscriminate attacks, applying proportionality in attack and precautions in their choice of means and methods of warfare, to ensure that civilians will be spared as far as possible.

Critically, certain weapons systems, and these heavy explosive weapon systems that I spoke of, with wide-area effects, raise particular concerns in view of the rules of IHL. This has lead the ICRC to find, based on our observations of what is happening in current and ongoing conflicts, that the use of such weapons entails a significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects.

How does the use of explosive weapons affect the civilian populations living in these areas?

KL: Heavy explosive weapons will typically damage critical civilian infrastructure, such as water supply networks, electrical supply networks, water plants, hospitals for that matter; which in turn will have an impact on civilian access to essential services, be it healthcare services, water supply, waste management services etc.

And all of this, especially when an armed conflict is protracted – and we are seeing the ongoing protracted use of heavy explosive weapons for long periods of time in populated areas – can result, in addition to the very high civilian casualties immediately, in civilians experiencing disease and other health problems that will lead to further deaths.

It could also lead to displacement. It often does – it is a major cause of displacement. People will flee areas because of the lack of access to services essential to their survival. So all of these impacts, in our view, are foreseeable, and because of that we are asking parties to armed conflicts to avoid using weapons with wide-area effects in densely populated areas.

Too often, an enemy will deliberately shield its military activities in populated areas. What are the legal implications?

KL: When the enemy deliberately shields itself in and among the civilian population, this in and of itself is a major cause for concern under IHL. Parties to armed conflicts must take precautions to protect the civilians in areas under their control and must avoid locating military objectives within or near a populated area. That is an obligation of parties to armed conflict.

Now if the enemy violates that obligation, that does not suspend the obligations of the attacking party to respect IHL in all circumstances. This is what is critical – when prosecuting armed conflicts in populated areas, attacking parties must at all times respect the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks, the rule of proportionality in attack, the prohibition of aerial bombardment, which is a type of indiscriminate attack. All of these rules have an impact on their choice of methods and means of warfare regardless of the behaviour of their enemy. These rules must strictly be respected at all times and this means the armed forces and groups must adapt their means and methods of warfare.

What we have found in the course of our research and in our dialogue with many armed forces is that there appear to be few armed forces today that specifically train for urban warfare and specifically adopt procedures and rules of engagement that will limit the kinds of weapons they can use in populated areas. This is something we wish to have further discussions with armed forces about, because we see this from the evidence in countless conflicts going on right now in populated areas, there is clearly a problem with the choice of certain means and methods of warfare in those environments.

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