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Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

From Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya to Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a major cause of civilian deaths and injuries. In 2018, an estimated 20,384 civilians were reported killed and injured by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. A report in 2019 by Save the Children found that suicide bombs, landmines, unexploded ordinance and air strikes account for 72 per cent of child deaths and injuries across the world’s deadliest conflicts. 

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas also has a severe long-term humanitarian impact:

  • People injured by explosive weapons often require specialist medical and psychosocial care, in both the immediate and long term, which is often unavailable in conflict situations.
  • Housing and essential infrastructure, such as water and electricity supply systems, are damaged or destroyed.
  • People often have no choice but to leave their homes, often for long periods and in precarious conditions.
  • Damage and destruction of water and sanitation systems can increase the risk and spread of disease.
  • Explosive weapons are a leading cause of damage to health-care facilities during armed conflict.
  • Schools are damaged or destroyed, interrupting or halting access to education. In some places, families do not send their children to school because of the fear of explosive-weapon attacks.
  • Jobs are lost as factories, workshops and commercial property are damaged or destroyed.
  • Explosive weapons leave explosive remnants of war. Until they are removed, they can kill and injure civilians long after hostilities have ended, and prevent or delay reconstruction work as well as the return of refugees and displaced persons.
  • The widespread destruction caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has a dramatic effect on post-conflict reconstruction requirements and costs.

People collected ammunition remnants from Misrata city, and made an open air museum in Tripoli Street, Misrata

Taking action

The United Nations Secretary-General has called on all parties to conflict – both national armed forces and non-State armed groups – to avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.

There has been important progress in this area. Some military forces, such as the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and the African Union Mission in Somalia, put in place policies to avoid or restrict the use of certain explosive weapons in certain situations in order to better protect civilians.

In 2017, OCHA documented these and other practices in a compilation of military policy and practice relating to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The compilation has been shared with States, national armed forces and other relevant actors to help promote and contribute to a change in practice.

OCHA works closely on this issue with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), an NGO partnership calling for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Towards a political declaration

The United Nations Secretary-General has called on States to develop an international political declaration as one means of addressing the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons. To date, more than 80 States have expressed support for a political declaration on explosive weapons.

Following the International Conference on Protection of Civilians in Urban Warfare in Vienna in October 2019, States have begun work to develop a political declaration in a process that is being led by Ireland.

The Secretary-General has noted that to be most effective, it is essential that a declaration include a commitment to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area-effects in populated areas. It should also commit States to develop operational policy that is based on a presumption against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. 

joint statement by the United Nations and other actors engaged in humanitarian action also called for the declaration to commit States to:

  • Review and adapt their military policy and practice, including doctrine, training and equipment, so as to better prepare their armed forces for urban warfare.
  • Identify, develop and exchange “good practices” in relation to weapon-target matching, targeting procedures, planning and training, as well as civilian casualty tracking, battle damage assessments and lessons learned, exports of heavy explosive weapons and support to parties to armed conflict, to mitigate civilian harm.
  • Develop mechanisms and tools to strengthen the collection of data on the types of weapons used in populated areas and their effects, both direct and indirect, on civilians (disaggregated by age and sex).
  • Take all appropriate measures to provide victims of explosive weapons in populated areas with adequate assistance, including in the form of physical rehabilitation, psychosocial support and socioeconomic reintegration, and to support and facilitate clearance of explosive remnants of war.

A political declaration that contains these various elements would make a significant and lasting impact in addressing and preventing harm to civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.  

Types of explosive weapons

Many types of explosive weapons exist, and many are in use by national military forces and armed groups. These include aircraft bombs, artillery shells, missile and rocket warheads, mortar bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Some are launched from the air, others from the ground.

Different technical features dictate their precision and explosive effect, but these weapons generally create a blast-and-fragmentation zone that makes their use highly problematic in populated areas. Particular concern exists over the higher risk to civilians posed by the use in populated areas of explosive weapons that have “wide-area effects”. This is because of the scale of their blast, their inaccuracy, the use of multiple warheads across an area or a combination thereof.

OCHA Fact Sheet: Protecting civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (2017)
OCHA/Chatham House Expert meeting on reducing the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas London, 23-24 September 2013  
OCHA/Norway Informal Expert Meeting on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, Oslo 17-18 June 2014
OCHA/Geneva Call, Expert meeting on addressing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas by armed non-state actors, Geneva, 19 November 2018
OCHA, Reducing the Humanitarian Impact of the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: Compilation of Military Policy and Practice (2017) 
International Network on Explosive Weapons:


In numbers

  • A total of 32,110 people were reported killed or injured by explosive weapons in 2018. Of these 22,342 people were civilians.  
  • When explosive weapons were used in populated areas, 90% of those killed or injured were civilians. This compares with 20% in other areas.  
  • Civilian deaths and injuries from State use of explosive weapons (10,040) were almost as high as those from non-State use of explosive weapons (10,716).
  • IEDs were responsible for at least 42% of all civilian casualties from explosive violence.
  • Air-launched explosive weapons were responsible for 32% of all civilian deaths and injuries.
  • Ground-launched explosive weapons were responsible for 15%. 
  • The remaining 11% were caused by incidents using multiples types of explosive weapons (9%), mines (1%), naval-launched explosives (< 1%).

Source: Action on Armed Violence, Explosive Violence Monitor 2018 (2019)