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From Aleppo to Mariupol: Stopping use of explosive weapons in populated areas

The work of sappers of the International Mine Action Center of the Russian Ministry of Defense in Aleppo (Syria), December 2016.

Russian use of aerial, artillery and missile barrages against Ukrainian cities recalls the criminal devastation of Aleppo and other Syrian cities. Ian Davis assesses the possibilities and urgent moral imperative to protect civilians by banning the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).

As Russia’s offensive in Ukraine edges closer to central Kyiv a series of artillery strikes have been hitting residential neighbourhoods in the capital, killing and injuring civilians. Every day the list of attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine by the Russian military using explosive weapons grows longer: the killing of five people in missile strikes on the Kyiv television tower (01 March); an airstrike that reportedly killed 47 civilians in Chernihiv as they queued for bread (03 March); the notorious airstrike on Mariupol maternity hospital (09 March) and theatre (17 March).

These incidents are undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg as shelling and missile strikes have intensified in several cities and towns across Ukraine in recent days. New satellite imagery of Mariupol, for example, revealed the widespread damage suffered since Russian forces surrounded the city less than two weeks earlier. More than 1,500 civilians are thought to have been killed in the city, and humanitarian aid groups said those remaining had no access to water or medication.

According to the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces on 11 March, Russia had launched 328 cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities, towns and villages since the start of the invasion. And on 09 March the World Health Organization said attacks on Ukrainian hospitals, ambulances and other healthcare facilities had increased “rapidly”, with vital medical supplies running low.

Although Russian officials deny targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure, explosive weapons are being widely used by Russian forces in populated areas. Cluster and thermobaric munitions have also reportedly been used. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has received “credible reports” of several cases of Russian forces using cluster munitions in populated areas in Ukraine.

War crimes

Indiscriminate use of cluster and other munitions may amount to war crimes, since directing attacks against civilians and civilian objects, as well as so-called area bombardment in towns and villages and other forms of indiscriminate attacks, are prohibited under international law. Cluster bombs explode and release smaller submunitions that scatter over a wide area.

Russia is not a party to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions banning their use although it is bound by international humanitarian law. While a total of 123 States have joined the Convention, 74 states remain outside it. In addition to Russia and Ukraine, this includes China, India and Iran, as well as the United States and six other NATO member states (Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Poland, Romania and Turkey). No state party has used cluster munitions since the Convention was adopted and most of the states still outside it abide de facto by the ban on the use and production of these weapons. Syria – and, since 2015, its Russian ally – has made “relentless use” of these weapons since 2012. Saudi Arabia has admitted to using UK-manufactured cluster bombs in Yemen.

Numerous international human rights groups and international actors have either directly accused or raised concern that Russia’s military action and bombardment of populated urban areas could amount to war crimes. The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into these allegations. In the current conflict, only a permanent ceasefire can stop this mass murder of civilians. But to help prevent attacks on towns and cities in future conflicts the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) must be banned by an international treaty. While this may sound utopian, Ireland is already leading an international process towards such an end.

Protecting civilians from EWIPA

The use of EWIPA by Russia in Ukraine is neither a new phenomenon nor one that is confined to that conflict. The use of EWIPA—and especially the use of explosive weapons with a large destructive radius (e.g. weapons that fire in salvos, such as multiple-launch rocket systems, large air dropped bombs, and surface-to-surface missiles), an inaccurate delivery system (so-called ‘dumb bombs’ or indirect fire weapons, such as artillery, rockets and mortars) or the capacity to deliver multiple munitions over a wide area (e.g. cluster bombs) — has frequently led to situations in which over 90 per cent of casualties in populated areas are civilian rather than combatants.

One study by AOAV recorded 357,370 casualties (155,118 people killed and 202,252 injured) from explosive weapons in the decade 2011–20, 73 per cent of which were civilians. Of the recorded incidents, 60 per cent took place in populated areas, and civilians accounted for 91 per cent of the casualties (238,892) in those areas. The use of EWIPA also has reverberating effects, with impacts on water, sanitation, ecosystems, healthcare, education and psychological well-being.

One of the most notorious events in recent years was the destruction of Aleppo, Syria, where almost 36,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed in an intense aerial bombardment and a ground assault on opposition-held areas in 2016. Described by one UN official at the time as a “complete meltdown in humanity”, US and European officials accused Russian forces of using bunker-buster bombs and incendiary munitions against civilians in the city.

Today, Russian forces are accused of dropping ‘dumb bombs’ on and around multiple cities throughout Ukraine and their use—in addition to other explosives and missiles—is clearly increasing damage to civilian infrastructure and civilian casualties. However, the use of so-called ‘smart munitions’ as favoured by Western armed forces does not necessarily mean a reduction in civilian deaths when used in populated areas.

In liberating the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State in 2017, for example, at least 2,300 civilians were killed by precision-guided munitions, artillery and rocket fire used by US-led coalition forces. In August 2021, ten Afghan civilians were killed in Kabul by a missile from a US Reaper drone. The accuracy of the missile did not prevent them from being killed.

Towards a ban on EWIPA?

The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a coalition of NGOs, was first to articulate EWIPA as an issue that demanded attention in the early 2010s. This led to calls from an increasing number of states, successive UN secretary-generals, international bodies and other NGOs for measures to provide better protection for civilians and to prevent harm from EWIPA. In the UN Security Council’s annual open debate in May 2021 on the protection of civilians (POC), most participants voiced concerns about ongoing harm to civilians in armed conflict, with the majority specifically condemning the use of EWIPA and attacks on medical facilities and personnel. The UN secretary-general’s annual report on POC continued to emphasize the threats faced by civilians from the use of EWIPA, with a particular focus on the impact on healthcare services.

After many years of failing to make progress within the main framework for regulating weapons that are considered to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or to affect civilians indiscriminately—the 1981 Certain Conventional Weapons Convention (CCW Convention)—a separate process gathered momentum in late 2019 and early 2020. This process was led by Ireland, which convened a series of open consultations with the aim of developing a political declaration to address the humanitarian harm arising from the use of EWIPA. Such a declaration would aim to establish a new international norm against the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities, which could in turn drive changes in military practice at the policy and operational levels.

The Covid-19 pandemic meant that consultations and the planned adoption of the declaration in 2020 were postponed, although the process restarted in January 2021, with Ireland releasing a revised draft declaration and holding consultations online to discuss it in March 2021. Written submissions from 22 states, the Arab Group and 19 NGOs largely welcomed the revised draft with reservations. Several states (notably Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Israel, Lithuania, the United Kingdom and the United States) argued for qualifying language throughout the text that would be likely to weaken the declaration, while other states and most NGOs called for the draft declaration to be strengthened. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, argued for the commitment to be upgraded from ‘restricting’ to ‘avoiding’ the use of EWIPA.

The consultations are expected to be concluded this year and it seems likely that a political declaration will be adopted by some states, although other states that regularly use EWIPA are likely to continue as before. However, the political declaration should be seen as only the first step towards establishing an effective norm against EWIPA and eventually an international treaty that outlaws such acts of barbarism entirely.

The humanitarian disarmament imperative

A common critique is that a political declaration will be unenforceable and therefore irrelevant to the likes of President Putin. This may be true in the short-term, but the suffering of the civilian population from the use of antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions prompted states to act and seek a norm banning the use of such weapons. While there have been violations of both conventions, they have undoubtedly contributed to the stigmatization and much lower use of these types of weapons.

And although powerful states will sometimes continue to oppose humanitarian norm-building processes on the grounds of national interests, it is up to the larger body of states to show how much importance they attach to humanitarian arms control and the recognition of universal global norms. Agreement of the proposed political declaration on EWIPA would send a clear signal of the importance of the central moral principles of a future world society.


Dr Ian Davis is the founder of NATO Watch, a website platform to promote a more transparent and accountable NATO. He is also the Executive Editor of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearbook and an Associate Senior Fellow within Conflict and Peace at SIPRI. Prior to joining SIPRI, he held several senior positions, including Executive Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), 2001-2007.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation (via Wikipedia): Russian troops in the ruins of Aleppo, December 2016.

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