Data collection for reducing harm from explosive weapons in populated areas

Four soldiers carry weapons near a helicopter   Four soldiers carry weapons near a helicopter Somchai Kongkamsri / Pexels

Data collection remains an important task for civil society organizations, which over time have helped to respond to civilian harm caused by explosive weapons in populated areas.


On the occasion of Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Weeks, held in Geneva in April 2023, a panel was held on Reducing harm from explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA), with a focus on Data Collection as the basis for effective harm reduction. The speakers of the Conference were Katherine Young, Explosive Weapons Monitor; Ingrid Schoyen, Team lead Humanitarian Affairs, Disarmament Affairs, Permanent Representation of Norway to the United Nations, Geneva; Dominique Gassauer, Humanitarian Affairs Officer, OCHA Civil-Military Coordination Service;  Dr. Eirini Giorgou, Legal Advisor, ICRC; the moderator of the event was Laura Boillot, International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW). 

The bombing and shelling of populated areas is a top humanitarian issue, when it comes to designing the strengthening of the Protection of Civilians in armed Conflicts (PoC). In fact, civilians suffer the most, and not only in terms of tens of thousands killed and injured each year as a result of the bombing and shelling, but as the result of the damage and destruction of critical civilian infrastructure and l impacts on the provision of essential services. ​​It's also an issue that has been the focus of a political track of work over the past three years, which led to the adoption of the International Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons in November 2022, which eighty-three countries have signed on to.

During her intervention, Katherine Young talked about the key findings of the Explosive Weapons Monitor, a civil society research initiative by INEW focusing on the analysis on the humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons. Explosive weapons globally inflicted more than thirty- two thousand civilian casualties in 2021 and 2022, across seventy-one countries and territories, as recorded by Action and Harm Violence. Similarly, Security Insight recorded more than hundred-fifty incidents of explosive weapons use affecting access to healthcare education and humanitarian aid, reported across forty countries and territories in these two years. This shows that beyond death and injury, civilians experienced other indirect/reverberating/ knock-on effects, with far-reaching humanitarian consequences. The data collected illustrate how different patterns of harm overlap and compound the harm caused by these weapons, and they also serve to humanize the numbers and figures provided. A significant proportion of civilian harm caused by EWIPA comes from the reverberating effects resulting from damage to civilian infrastructure and the disruption of essential services; this includes attacks on hospitals, ambulances, as well as aid workers, or healthcare workers.

As far as the key concerns illustrated by ICRC representative Eirini Giorgou, Ingrid Schoyen stated that the ICRC's serious concerns have mostly to do with the use of heavy explosive weapons, that have an impact over a wide area or put wide areas at risk, meaning zones that go well beyond their actual target each time. Types of heavy weapons are large bombs, large missiles, large artillery, large caliber artillery, mortars, and large improvised explosive devices. The first thing noticed by working throughout conflicts in urban warfare, but also during their aftermath, is that the number and type of injury seen by heavy explosive weapons are different to those that are caused by other weapons - whether light explosive weapons - in terms of the gravity and the complexity of injuries. Whether there is a protracted armed conflict, the efficient work of the healthcare system is, at times, impossible, because hospitals cannot cope with the flux of injured and the complexity and gravity of injuries, many of which are also long-term, if not lifelong, as when we talk about disabilities as a result of amputations, or grave mental harm as well, especially when bombing and shelling are protracted in cities. The destruction of critical infrastructures which are indispensable to run vital services, like energy provision in general, is a huge indirect effect of explosive weapon use. Essential service systems collapse, the construction and reconstruction take a long time, and sometimes they are impossible to rehabilitate. Moreover, the ICRC legal analysis has shown that there are several difficulties in using these bombs - heavy explosive or inaccurate devices- in a manner in compliance with International Humanitarian Law. 

Another significant issue addressed during the Conference concerns the changes required on military policies and practices. The first and essential change is the mindset shifting, both political and military. The next step should be a reversal of the starting point in military thinking: EWIPA should be restricted and limited, unless there is the security that it will not cause civilian harm, in compliance with one of the commitments of the Political Declaration of November 2022. Other changes are required at multiple, strategic, operational, and tactical levels, like the need of adopting preventive and mitigation measures. In peacetime, these measures should include revising appropriate military doctrine, training arm forces to implement these restrictions and identifying the critical structures to reduce the impact. During wartime, the measures include the appropriate equipment of the armed forces and the provision of the location of critical infrastructures, to name just a few examples. 

The event closed with the expectations and hopes about the future. Next year, around the second half of 2024, the first international meeting under the Declaration will take place in Oslo. Norway's expectations are to continue to set the agenda, to fill the Declaration with real substance, to bring the states together, to have new monitoring reports launched, and to look at what really needs to be done to fulfil the commitments of the Declaration. Moreover, another expectation concerns the achievement of regional balance, in order to take an active role and to have regional leaders in implementing the Declaration. Last but not least, one of the main hopes will be to achieve the universality of the Declaration, and as it happened with the “Safe Schools Declaration” of 2015, which was signed by 37 states and now counts 110 countries, the hope will be the same for the 2022 Political Declaration. The main commitments will be to provide assistance to affected communities, to introduce changes to the military policies and practices, to better understand how to anticipate the effect of explosive weapons use, to provide an effective response, and to expand the agenda in order to include the attacks on civil infrastructures. In conclusion, the three keywords about the hopes and expectations are: Implementation, Filling, Universalization. 


For more information, please read the 2022 Report by the Explosive Weapons Monitor:


by Chiara Cacciatore

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