The collateral damage produced by explosive weapons

Two strong explosions in Damascus, Syria Two strong explosions in Damascus, Syria © The Telegraph

Explosive violence in densely populated areas remains a source of concern, as the vast majority of victims are civilians.

Practice of modern conflicts shows dramatic new trends in combat, with wars increasingly being fought in densely populated areas and explosive weapons, with wide area radius, intensively being employed in urban centres. In such circumstances, the effects of military attacks are likely to be indiscriminate, and the number of civilian casualties is massively elevated.

Explosive weapons are not defined or regulated under international law. Generally speaking, the term is usually used to refer to a broad category of weapons, including mortar bombs, tank grenades, rockets, missiles, and aircraft delivered bombs. Their main feature is that, as immediate consequence of their use, they directly affect the area around the point of detonation, usually through blast or fragmentation.

While the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is not explicitly prohibited under international humanitarian law, as long as the principle of distinction is respected, such use may still violate the two fundamental principles of proportionality and precautions in attacks (to read more on this topic, please visit: This happens every time that the indirect effects of using explosive weapons are not taken into account.

Indirect or reverberating effects of an attack are usually defined as those consequences that, despite not being directly and immediately caused by a determined military action, are nevertheless the product thereof (for example, damage to water, sanitation systems, power stations, houses, roads, schools, hospitals, communication facilities, etc.) As clarified by PAX in its 2019 Policy Paper entitled Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: Where Civilians Pay the Price, “the term refers to an interlinked pattern of harm which extends in time and place beyond the direct attack. These effects are usually less visible than the direct and immediate ones, but they are equally devastating, as they can cause “permanent physical disabilities, psychological suffering, loss of socio-economic infrastructure and lack of basic services”.

Given the above, PAX, as a founding member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), urges state parties to conflicts to stop using explosive devices in densely populated areas and calls upon them to review their national policies and practices, in order to strengthen the protection of civilians and recognize the rights of survivors.  

Yet recent events in Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen raise questions about the scope of the law that applies to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, as they reflect a consistent pattern of harm that has persisted, and even increased, over the years. Too often collateral damage is seen as an unfortunate yet normal or inevitable consequence of war. This needs to be changed. As remarked by Isabel Robinson and Ellen Nohle in the article suggested below, “while international debate concerning the legal obligation to take into account the reverberating effects of an attack has evolved significantly over the last years […] there is still no consensus on the scope of this obligation as it applies to the rules of proportionality and precautions in attack”.

Measures capable of enhancing compliance with international humanitarian law and accountability for violations urgently need to be implemented.


Written by Federica Pira
Edited by Ellen Barth

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