Stephen Goose, director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division, was instrumental in bringing about the 2008 convention banning cluster munitions, the 1997 treaty banning antipersonnel mines, the 1995 protocol banning blinding lasers, and the 2003 protocol requiring clean-up of explosive remnants of war. He and Human Rights Watch co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. Goose created the ICBL’s Landmine Monitor initiative, the first time that non-governmental organizations around the world have worked together in a sustained and coordinated way to monitor compliance with an international disarmament or humanitarian law treaty. In 2013, he and Human Rights Watch co-founded the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 1993, Goose was a US congressional staffer and a researcher at the Center for Defense Information. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. in History from Vanderbilt University.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A pile of shoes during the annual demonstration by NGO Humanity and Inclusion denouncing antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions in Lyon on September 20, 2014.

© 2014 Getty Images
(Sydney) – The Australian Arms Control Coalition (AACC) has written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison urging him to publicly condemn the decision of the United States to lift restrictions on its use of landmines.

The letter calls for the Australian government to guarantee that Australia’s military cooperation with the US will not involve the use or transport of landmines. It also seeks a guarantee that Australia will not relax the existing ban on the manufacture and export of landmines or their components in meeting its stated ambition to become a top weapons exporter.

The US has announced the reversal of a policy banning the use of antipersonnel landmines outside of the Korean Peninsula.

The AACC is deeply concerned that the shift undermines decades of international effort to protect civilians from indiscriminate explosives in conflict zones.

“The use of antipersonnel mines is clearly prohibited in the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention which has been signed by 164 states,” states the letter to the prime minister.

“It goes against thirty years of international cooperation to ban landmines, since the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997.”

The majority of landmines and explosive remnants of war kill civilians (71 percent), and more than half of all the civilians who are killed are children (54 percent). In places like Afghanistan the percentage of child casualties is as high as 77 percent.

In 2018, Australia recommitted its support for international action towards the goal of a world free of landmines by 2025 at the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention in Geneva. As the letter states: “Australia has long been a strong supporter of mine action and is a state party to the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions.”

“Australia is supporting efforts to reduce the number of deaths and injuries from landmines, cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war through bilateral aid partnership and through the United Nations Mine Action Service.”

Given these efforts by Australia, the announcement by the US must be condemned by all countries concerned with the horrific humanitarian impact of landmines.

The AACC is calling for the Australian Government to:

  • Register Australia’s grave concern with the United States over its new policy allowing the increased use of antipersonnel landmines;
  • Ensure Australia’s military cooperation with the United States does not involve the transhipment or storage of antipersonnel landmines through US military bases on Australian soil;
  • In the case of joint operations, guarantee Australian forces will not be involved in the facilitation of landmine placement;
  • Continue to champion the ban of landmines internationally, including by funding de-mining programs and by complying with Australia’s own international commitments; and
  • Guarantee that Australia’s ambition to become a top ten defence exporter will not include the manufacture or export of antipersonnel landmines or components.

The AACC was formed in April 2019 out of shared concern around the lack of accountability and transparency in Australia’s defence exports, particularly around current arms sales to parties to the devastating war in Yemen.

Its members include Save the Children Australia, Amnesty International, SafeGround Inc, Human Rights Watch, the Australian Centre for International Justice, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network, the Medical Association for Prevention of War, Oxfam Australia, SumOfUs, Wage Peace and individual advocates.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

GNA checkpoint guard stands behind an expended cargo section of an RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb impacted into Alasfah Road near Tripoli International Airport following an attack on or around December 2, 2019, Tripoli outskirts, Libya, December 18, 2019. 

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Forces affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) used cluster munitions in a residential area in Tripoli on December 2, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The forces, under the command of Khalifa Hiftar, have been battling forces loyal to the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) for control of Tripoli, the capital. 

“Using cluster munitions shows reckless disregard for the safety of civilians,” said Stephen Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition. “Cluster munitions should never be used by anyone under any circumstances due to the foreseeable and unacceptable harm for civilians.”

The LNA or their international supporters carried out an airstrike on or around December 2 in a residential area adjacent to al-Asfah road near the Airport Road in the southern suburbs of Tripoli. There were no reports of casualties. Human Rights Watch visited the site on December 17 and found remnants of two RBK-250 PTAB 2.5M cluster bombs, as well as evidence that high-explosive air-dropped bombs were also used in the attack. The area was not known to be contaminated by cluster munitions before the attack.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions comprehensively prohibits cluster munitions and requires their clearance as well as assistance to victims. Libya has not joined the treaty, but all parties to the armed conflict in Libya should abide by the emerging norm it establishes against any use of cluster munitions in any circumstances. 

Cluster munitions have been banned because of their widespread indiscriminate effect and long-lasting danger to civilians. They typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of small bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Cluster submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like landmines. 

On February 5, 2020, Human Rights Watch emailed the office of the LNA spokesperson seeking comment on the findings of the use of cluster munitions in a residential area. Human Rights Watch did not receive a response. 

During the December 17 site visit, Human Rights Watch interviewed two men who said they were there during the attack. Both men were members of an armed force under the Tripoli-based GNA who were guarding a checkpoint on a main road al-Asfah running through the residential area. The men said there had been no casualties from the attack. 

The tail unit of an RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb found in residential area near Alasfah road, Tripoli outskirts, Libya,  December 18, 2019,

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

One of the men, who asked not to be named, said that most residents had left the area after months of sustained fighting. But he said that a cluster munition had landed in the yard of a man of about 80, who had refused to leave his home. The guard said the attack was sudden and that he heard the strong explosions of what he believes were the bombs landing in the field. 

A researcher found remnants of two cluster munitions and the small but distinctive impact craters of multiple explosive submunitions. Each RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb contains 30 PTAB-2.5M high explosive anti-tank (HE/AT) submunitions. The remnants included the tail and cargo sections of the bombs as well as the fuze rings of the submunitions that detonated. 

Larger craters from the explosion of at least two other high-explosive bombs, apparently dropped simultaneously with the cluster munitions, were in the same area. The affected area totalled 17,000 square meters of mixed residential, agricultural, and vacant land. One cargo section of the cluster bombs hit al-Asfah Road, near its intersection with Hay al-matar airport road. 

An expended cargo section of an RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb impacted into Alasfah Road near Tripoli International Airport following an attack on or around December 2, 2019, Tripoli outskirts, Libya,  December 18, 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

The intended target of the attack is unclear. Human Right Watch did not observe any military use of the location. A researcher saw three large trucks used for telecommunications wire-laying approximately 130 meters from the field where the bombs fell but could not ascertain when the trucks were moved there. Shipping containers along one side of the field appeared to have been placed there as a wall. They were locked. The guard said there had been no military use of the residential area either before or at the time of the attack.

In April 2019, fighters affiliated with the armed group known as the LNA, which is based in eastern Libya and aligned with the Interim Government headquartered in Benghazi and al-Bayda, attacked armed groups loyal to the rival Tripoli-based GNA. According to the UN, airstrikes were the leading cause of civilian casualties as a result of the fighting in western Libya, accounting for 182 out of 284 documented civilian deaths in 2019, between April and December. The UN also said that at least 150,000 people have been internally displaced because of the conflict and that 220 schools have been shuttered, affecting the schooling of at least 116.000 children. 

The LNA has received military support from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt, in violation of the Libya arms embargo, based on a report by the Panel of Experts of the Libya Sanctions Committee. The UAE has supported the LNA with armed drones and launched airstrikes in support of the LNA with its fighter jets. 

A nose fuze ring of a PTAB-2.5M submunition remaining after cluster bomb attack found in residential area near Alasfah road, Tripoli outskirts, Libya,  December 18, 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Turkey has reportedly supported the GNA with armed drones, in violation of the Security Council arms embargo, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the GNA on November 27 that lays the groundwork for military intervention and support of the GNA.

Fighters from Sudan and Chad have been fighting for both sides, and Russian fighters have been involved in fighting on behalf of the LNA, news reports said. News reports that Syrian fighters had arrived in Libya in December and have been fighting in support of the GNA were confirmed by the head of the UN mission in Libya,who estimated the number of Syrian fighters to range between 1000-2000.

To help bring an end to the cycle of impunity in Libya, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva should, during its March 2020 session, establish an International Commission of Inquiry to document violations, identify those responsible, preserve evidence where possible for future criminal proceedings, and publicly report on the human rights situation in Libya, Human Rights Watch said. 

Cluster munitions are prohibited by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which 108 countries have ratified. Libya should take the necessary steps to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions without delay, Human Rights Watch said.

“All parties to the conflict in Libya should commit not to use cluster bombs and safely destroy any stocks of these weapons,” Goose said.

Cluster Munition Use in Libya

In the past, various factions in Libya have used cluster munitions, including Muammar Gaddafi’s government in the fighting that took place during the 2011 uprising that ended his 42-year reign.

Human Rights Watch has documented cluster munitions use in Libya in the recent years, but because of the many armed groups involved in conflicts during this period, it has been difficult to independently confirm specific attacks or identify who may be responsible.

According to the Cluster Munition Monitor, which monitors compliance with the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, the status and composition of Libya’s stockpiled cluster munitions is not known, especially comprehensive information on the types, quantities, and storage locations. From the use of cluster munitions in recent years, it is clear that Libya has stockpiled air-dropped bombs (RBK-series bombs containing AO-1SCh and PTAB-2.5M submunitions), ground-fired munitions (MAT-120 mortar projectiles containing submunitions), and an unidentified type of submunition contained in Grad-type 122mm surface-to-surface rockets.

Stockpiled cluster munitions were seized by anti-government forces and civilians in 2011, after storage facilities at arms depots were abandoned by government forces and subjected to NATO airstrikes. There has been no systematic or coordinated stockpile destruction effort by successive interim governments or international actors.

In March 2012, Human Rights Watch visited an ammunition storage depot in Mizdah, 160 kilometers south of Tripoli, which NATO warplanes had attacked more than 50 times between April and July 2011. Human Rights Watch found approximately 15 PTAB-2.5M bomblets and about three dozen submunitions of an unidentified type.

Evidence of Cluster Munitions use in Post-Gaddafi Libya

On August 15 and 16, 2019, aircraft of forces affiliated with the LNA used cluster munitions in an attack on Zuwarah International Airport, according to the UN Panel of Experts report from December 2019. The UN mission in Libya (UNSMIL) dispatched an assessment mission to the location and found no military assets or military infrastructure at Zuwara Airport.

Prior to the August 2019 incidents, Human Rights Watch documented use of cluster munitions in Sirte, Watiya, and Ben Jawad, in 2015. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you, Chair.

The current draft text provides a good starting point for a strong political declaration to address the harms associated with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. It includes all of the key elements common to political declarations on armed conflict-related issues that Human Rights Watch identified in a November publication.

Further changes to this draft text are needed, however, to achieve the declaration’s goal of ensuring civilians are adequately protected from the effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The declaration should clearly commit states to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. The current language in paragraph 3.4, which merely “restricts” use, falls far short of maximizing civilian protection. On a related note, the declaration should express a presumption against the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects because the effects of such use are foreseeably indiscriminate.

The declaration’s language on victim assistance also needs to be stronger and more detailed. It should commit states to do more than “make every effort” to assist victims, and it should specify types of assistance to be provided. Elsewhere, the text should call for the voices of victims to be not only “amplified” but also taken into account, in order to ensure affected individuals are actively involved in decision-making.

There remains some ambiguity in the draft text between the terms “explosive weapons in populated areas” and “explosive weapons with wide area affects in populated areas.” The declaration should retain its references to wide area effects in certain places, such as paragraph 3.4, while recognizing that other paragraphs apply to the use of all explosive weapons in populated  areas.

Section 1 of the draft clearly describes some of the immediate and long-term harms associated with the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. It should also highlight the reverberating effects of these weapons. For example, the destruction of a power plant can shut down the provision of electricity and water, and thus interfere with health care services.

While the draft includes two paragraphs on data collection, it should emphasize the importance of sharing as well as gathering data. Moreover, the current draft language focuses on civilian casualty data. To promote a better understanding of the problem and improved responses, data collection should also encompass information on the types of weapons used, the locations of attacks, and other effects.

Finally, the declaration should include a more specific commitment to hold follow-up meetings. It should call for an annual meeting at which to review the implementation of the declaration and share best practices.

We will expand on some of these points in our interventions today, and we have published a detailed analysis of the text, which will be available at the back of the room and online.

Thank you.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The success of the Political Declaration will of course depend on the strength of the text.  But, at least equally important will be effective implementation and universalization of the Declaration.  What happens after Dublin may be more important than what happens in Dublin.

In looking to the future, paragraph 4.7 of the draft elements document simply commits states to review implementation. This is fine as far as it goes, it will help the long-term effectiveness of the Political Declaration, but more substance and detail are needed.

In particular, states should agree to create a mechanism for review and commit to holding regular meetings. At least in the early years of the Declaration, these meetings should be annual, as it is in the early years that the most intense work should be devoted to universalization and to establishing best practices for implementation.

The meetings would allow states to promote and to assess the status and implementation of the Declaration and to share best practices and lessons learned. They would also give an opportunity to analyze any ongoing effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and consider whether the Declaration’s measures are sufficient. Such meetings should be inclusive, with all endorsing states, those that have not yet endorsed, the UN, international organizations, and NGOs.

It would also be desirable to hold other meetings in addition to the annual one, perhaps on a regional basis. They could be focused on operational policies, practices, and procedures, as well as data collection and sharing, and victim assistance.

NGOs can play a crucial role in promoting universalization and full implementation, and in communicating the importance of the Declaration. NGOs can also play a vital role in monitoring and reporting, which will be essential.

In these ways, we would be building a community of practice that would underpin the effectiveness of the Declaration in offering better protections for civilians.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you, Chairperson.

The current draft text reiterates key provisions of international humanitarian law in several places and outlines measures to improve implementation. It should do more, however, to clarify how international humanitarian law applies in the context of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. 

Paragraph 2.2 recognizes the importance of “fostering clarity” as well as “enhancing the implementation” of existing obligations under this body of law. But the paragraph only welcomes the initiatives of others, and the declaration as a whole does little itself to promote clarity of the law. 

We recommend states seize the opportunity presented by this declaration to clarify how international humanitarian law applies to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Clarification can come through additions to or amendments of the draft text.

Clarifying the law involves more than simply restating existing rules. It must also address how they should be understood in a specific context. At the same time, clarification does not involve creating new law, which a political declaration by nature cannot do.

The last sentence of paragraph 2.2 illustrates the potential for clarification. That sentence implies that the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas is acceptable even if it presents difficulties in practice. Field research shows, however, the foreseeability of the immediate and reverberating effects of the use of such weapons in populated areas. Armed forces should take these foreseeably indiscriminate effects into account when assessing the proportionality of an attack, and given the likelihood an attack would be disproportionate, we agree with the International Committee of the Red Cross that there should be a presumption against using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

Therefore, we recommend deleting the clause in paragraph 2.2 that reads, “We recognize the difficulty in directing explosive weapons with wide area effects against specific military objectives within populated areas.” States could amend it to enhance legal clarity by stating, “We recognize the difficulty of using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas in a way that is fully compliant with international humanitarian law.”

This kind of clarification would promote consistency in states’ interpretation and implementation of international humanitarian law. In so doing, it would also increase the protection of civilians from the harm this political declaration seeks to address.

We have provided comments on other paragraphs of Section 2 in our written submission.

Thank you. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you, Chairperson.

The current draft text reiterates key provisions of international humanitarian law in several places and outlines measures to improve implementation. It should do more, however, to clarify how international humanitarian law applies in the context of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. 

Paragraph 2.2 recognizes the importance of “fostering clarity” as well as “enhancing the implementation” of existing obligations under this body of law, and it should be retained. But the paragraph only welcomes the initiatives of others, and the declaration as a whole does little itself to promote clarity of the law. 

We recommend states seize the opportunity presented by this declaration to clarify how international humanitarian law applies to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Clarification can come through additions to or amendments of the draft text.

Clarifying the law involves more than simply restating existing rules. It must also address how they should be understood in a specific context. At the same time, clarification does not involve creating new law, which a political declaration by nature cannot do.

The last sentence of paragraph 2.2 illustrates the potential for clarification. That sentence implies that the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas is acceptable even if it presents difficulties in practice. Field research shows, however, the foreseeability of the immediate and reverberating effects of the use of such weapons in populated areas. Armed forces should take these foreseeably indiscriminate effects into account when assessing the proportionality of an attack, and given the likelihood an attack would be disproportionate, we agree with the International Committee of the Red Cross that there should be a presumption against using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

Therefore, we recommend deleting the clause in paragraph 2.2 that reads, “We recognize the difficulty in directing explosive weapons with wide area effects against specific military objectives within populated areas.” States could amend it to enhance legal clarity by stating, “We recognize the difficulty of using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas in a way that is fully compliant with international humanitarian law.”

This kind of clarification would promote consistency in states’ interpretation and implementation of international humanitarian law. In so doing, it would also increase the protection of civilians from the harm this political declaration seeks to address.

We have provided comments on other paragraphs of Section 2 in our written submission.

Thank you.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) welcome the draft circulated by Ireland on the elements of a forthcoming political declaration “to ensure the protection of civilians from humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas” (often referred to as EWIPA). It represents a strong starting point for an effective declaration.

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The draft text appropriately focuses on the use of explosive weapons, particularly with wide area effects, in populated areas and recognizes the grave harm these weapons cause. It stresses the importance of protecting civilians and complying fully with international humanitarian law, and it identifies specific tools to advance these goals. In addition, the draft incorporates seven key elements common to previous conflict-related political declarations, which were outlined in our November 2019 paper1:

  • An introductory section identifying the problem, situating it in the context of existing international law, and recognizing parallel efforts to deal with it;
  • A general commitment to address the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas; and
  • Specific commitments to reduce this harm through:
    • Adoption of practical measures,
    • Assistance for victims,
    • Development and improvement of laws and policies,
    • Data collection and sharing, and
    • Establishment of a framework for continued engagement.

Nevertheless, while the draft text is a good basis for further work, it should be amended in several ways to improve the protection of civilians. The political declaration should better clarify how international humanitarian law applies specifically to the use of EWIPA. To that end, it should establish a clear presumption against the use, in populated areas, of explosive weapons with wide area effects given the foreseeability of indiscriminate harm. Paragraph 3.4 should be changed to articulate a commitment to “avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.”

The declaration should also strengthen and elaborate on the commitment to assist victims (paragraph 4.3) and provide for victims’ inclusion in decision-making processes. The text should maintain its references to wide area effects in certain places, but it should recognize that other paragraphs apply to the use of all explosive weapons in populated areas. Other recommended amendments include paying more attention to the reverberating effects of the use of EWIPA, strengthening the text’s paragraphs on data collection and sharing, and establishing a framework for regular follow-up meetings. The revisions to the declaration should always be guided by the underlying goal of protecting civilians from the use of EWIPA.

This paper expands on these points and provides additional comments on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. It explains why certain paragraphs should be strengthened and offers some suggestions for specific language, with proposed changes in italics. By adopting these suggestions, states can maximize the political declaration’s humanitarian impact. 

Part A, Section 1: Identifying the Problem and Challenges

Paragraph 1.1

In order to maintain the political declaration’s consistent focus on the use of EWIPA, and because “populated areas” is broader than “urban contexts,” we recommend that “in urban contexts where explosive weapons have been used” be changed to “in populated areas where explosive weapons have been used.”

Paragraph 1.2

We welcome the draft’s recognition of the short- and long-term harms associated with explosive weapons with wide area effects. The political declaration, however, should also explicitly address the reverberating effects of such weapons. Damage to infrastructure frequently has adverse reverberating effects on the provision of basic services. For example, destruction of a power plant can shut down a water treatment station, deprive a hospital of both electricity and water, and thus undermine the adequacy of health care. In addition to elaborating on these types of effects, the paragraph could add communications systems and the environment to its list of objects of destruction.

The political declaration should also clarify what it means by “wide area effects,” a term first used in paragraph 1.2. Explosive weapons with wide area effects encompass weapons that produce a large blast and/or fragmentation radius (such as aircraft bombs); weapons that deliver multiple munitions that saturate a large area (such as Grad rockets and others from multi-barrel rocket launchers); and weapons that are so inaccurate that they cannot be effectively directed at a target (such as barrel bombs).

Paragraph 1.3

Because displacement is one of the reverberating effects of the use of EWIPA, it would be appropriate to address it in the same paragraph as the other harms discussed in paragraph 1.2. In addition, it makes sense to put the sentence on explosive remnants of war (ERW) into a different paragraph because ERW threatens all local civilians, not only displaced ones returning to their homes. Therefore, we recommend moving the reference to displacement to paragraph 1.2 and keeping the discussion of ERW on its own in paragraph 1.3.

Paragraph 1.4

We recommend splitting this paragraph into two. The first sentence, which “underline[s] the imperative of addressing the … consequences of the conduct of hostilities in populated areas,” articulates the motivation for a new political declaration; putting it in its own paragraph would emphasize its importance. In addition, to be consistent with other parts of the declaration, “conduct of hostilities” should be changed to “use of explosive weapons.”

We welcome the inclusion of the second sentence, which deals with data-gathering, but once moved to its own paragraph, it should be amended in two ways. First, it should be expanded to cover data sharing as well as collection since sharing facilitates the understanding of harm and development of an appropriate response. Paragraph 1.4 should also recognize the importance of data beyond disaggregated civilian casualty statistics; other useful information includes the types of weapons used and the effects on civilian infrastructure and housing.

Paragraph 1.6

We welcome the draft’s attention to empowering people affected by the use of EWIPA . We also welcome the acknowledgement of the gendered impacts of explosive weapons. Nevertheless, states should strengthen this paragraph in three ways.

First, it is not enough to empower affected individuals and amplify their voices. States should also hear them and take their views into account. The political declaration should promote inclusivity by more clearly calling for the active involvement of affected individuals in decision-making.

Second, the word “potential” in the phrase “potential gendered impacts” should be deleted, since the existence of gendered impacts of explosive weapons with wide area effects has already been established.

Third, paragraph 1.6 could recognize disparate impacts other than those related to gender. Age, race, disability status, ethnicity, economic status, and other factors may determine how individuals are affected by the use of EWIPA. Better understanding these impacts would help ensure that they are adequately addressed.

Paragraph 1.7

The political declaration’s concern about “erosion in respect for international humanitarian law” implies that that body of law is weak. We suggest replacing “erosion in respect for international humanitarian law” with “violations of international humanitarian law.” In addition, if the declaration “condemns” specific violations in other paragraphs (1.8 and 4.1), paragraph 1.7 should condemn rather than simply express concern about these general violations.

Paragraph 1.8

This paragraph’s reference to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) raises multiple concerns and should be cut or significantly amended. IEDs are just one of a number of explosive weapons that cause severe civilian harm, and they do not always fall within the scope of the term “explosive weapons with wide area effects.” Even though the paragraph condemns their use, IEDs are not inherently unlawful. Moreover, victim-activated IEDs, which are unlawful, are already banned by the Mine Ban Treaty. 

The underlying intent of paragraph 1.8 seems to be to address violations of the obligation to take precautions against the effects of attacks. If that is the case, we recommend that the paragraph do so more explicitly. This topic is relevant to the use of EWIPA because co-locating military objectives and civilian objects can exacerbate the risks associated with these weapons. If an adversary violates this provision, however, it does not give a party justification to respond with the use, in populated areas, of explosive weapons with wide area effects.

Part A, Section 2: Legal Framework

Paragraph 2.1

We welcome the first two sentences of paragraph 2.1, which reiterate existing obligations under international humanitarian law, specify that they apply to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and stress the importance of protecting civilians and mitigating civilian harm. We note, however, that existing international humanitarian law applies to the use of all explosive weapons in populated areas, not just those with wide area effects. The phrase “with wide area effects” should therefore be deleted from the first sentence.

In addition, we are concerned that the first clause of the third sentence implies that the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas is acceptable even if it presents difficulties in practice. We recommend deleting that clause and starting the sentence with “We note that….” Alternatively, the problematic clause could be rephrased to focus on the legal rather than practical difficulties. It could read: “We recognize the difficulty of using explosive weapons in populated areas in a way that is fully compliant with international humanitarian law, and we note….”

Paragraph 2.2

We welcome the inclusion of the language in paragraph 2.2 that highlights the importance of both clarifying and implementing existing obligations under international humanitarian law, and we urge states to retain it. The political declaration itself, however, does little to promote such clarity of the law. In addition to recognizing the initiatives of other actors, the political declaration should do more to explain how international humanitarian law applies to and can best protect civilians from harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. We recommend that states seize the opportunity presented by this declaration to clarify how existing international humanitarian law should be interpreted in this context. The clarification should come, in particular, through the addition and amendment of language in its operative paragraphs.

Paragraph 2.3

While the inclusion of a paragraph recalling the key rules of international humanitarian law is valuable, as currently written, paragraph 2.3 suggests that these obligations may apply only in populated areas. To make clear that the obligations apply in all situations of armed conflict, the paragraph could delete the reference to “when conducting hostilities in populated areas,” and replace it with a final phrase in the paragraph noting that these obligations “are critical to protecting civilians when hostilities are conducted in populated areas.

Paragraph 2.4

Given that many bodies and organizations are working to enhance the protection of civilians, particularly in the context of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, this paragraph should not simply single out the work of the United Nations Security Council. If paragraph 2.4 is retained, it should recognize a broader range of parallel efforts, including the UN Secretary-General’s Reports on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, which “call on parties to conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.”2

Part B, Section 3: Operational Commitments

Paragraph 3.3

States should commit to develop, review, and improve and implement policy and practice with regard to the use of all explosive weapons in populated areas—not just those with wide area effects—given that all explosive weapons can cause harm to civilians. We therefore recommend removing the phrase “with wide area effects” from paragraph 3.3.

In addition, given that the declaration seeks to address the grave harm to civilians caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, we recommend inserting a phrase on civilian protection at the end of this paragraph. The last clause could be amended to read “to ensure full compliance with international humanitarian law and to maximize the protection of civilians from related harms.”

Paragraph 3.4

Perhaps the most important paragraph of this declaration, paragraph 3.4 is flawed on multiple fronts. While the focus on explosive weapons with wide area effects is appropriate, as currently phrased, the paragraph downplays the threats posed by the use of these weapons in populated areas. It says their use should be restricted only when “indiscriminate effects may be expected” (emphasis added). In fact, when explosive weapons have wide area effects, indiscriminate effects are always foreseeable.

The paragraph also creates a presumption that the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects is acceptable and should only be “restricted.” There should be a presumption against their use, however, given that the effects of that use are foreseeably indiscriminate.3

This political declaration seeks to maximize civilian protection and ensure full compliance with international humanitarian law with regard to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. To achieve that end, paragraph 3.4 should be rephrased in three ways. It should change “avoid civilian harm” to “minimize civilian harm”; replace “restricting the use” with “avoiding the use”; and amend the last phrase to make clear the foreseeability of indiscriminate effects. The last sentence could read: “In fulfilling existing obligations under [international humanitarian law], we will ensure that our armed forces adopt policies and practices to minimize civilian harm by avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas because indiscriminate effects are foreseeable.” These amendments would help the declaration increase the clarity of international humanitarian law, a recommendation made above.

Paragraph 3.5 

As currently written, paragraph 3.5 commits states to assist with the “identification, development and exchange of good practices.” While we welcome that commitment, better awareness of good practices is not in itself sufficient. We recommend that states add an action-oriented commitment to ensure that they implement these good practices, or better ones, at the national level. In addition, the reference to enhancing “the protection of civilians in urban warfare” could be amended to “the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas” to keep the focus on the primary subject of this declaration.

Part B, Section 4

Paragraph 4.1

This paragraph overlaps significantly with paragraph 1.8 and therefore our comments on that paragraph apply here, too. In addition, we are concerned that only certain violations of international humanitarian law are singled out for condemnation in the operative sections of the political declaration. Other violations are currently acknowledged only in the preamble (paragraph 1.7). We recommend that paragraph 4.1 be amended to condemn all relevant violations.

Paragraph 4.2

In accordance with our comments on paragraph 1.4, we welcome that paragraph 4.2 commits states to share as well as collect data. As discussed above, however, that data should extend beyond casualty statistics. Data on the types of weapons used and damage to civilian infrastructure and housing would further illuminate the problems associated with the use of EWIPA and inform the development of effective responses.

Paragraph 4.3

We welcome the inclusion of a paragraph calling for non-discriminatory assistance to victims. The language of paragraph 4.3, however, should be stronger and sharper. First, states should commit to providing victim assistance. “Mak[ing] every effort” to assist victims is not an adequate response to the harm caused by the use of EWIPA. Second, the term “victim” is commonly understood to encompass individuals, families, and affected communities. Therefore, the paragraph should list these three types of victims rather than refer to “victims, families, and affected communities.” Third, the paragraph should specify the key forms of assistance to be provided, which include medical care as well as measures to ensure socioeconomic inclusion and to promote victims’ rights. Fourth, while the attention to the rights of persons with disabilities is appropriate, victim assistance programs should also show sensitivity to age and gender. Finally, the declaration should address “supporting post-conflict stabilisation” in a separate paragraph because it is not a type of victim assistance.

We recommend replacing paragraph 4.3 with language proposed by Humanity and Inclusion, our partner in the International Network on Explosive Weapons:

Ensure that victims—people critically injured, survivors, family members of people killed and/or injured and affected communities—receive adequate assistance based on their needs in a non-discriminatory manner, including in the form of emergency medical care, physical rehabilitation, psychosocial support and socio-economic inclusion, as well as support towards the full realisation of their rights and full participation in the societies.

Paragraph 4.7

States should retain the language committing states to review implementation of this declaration because it will promote its long-term effectiveness. Paragraph 4.7 should be more specific, however, and establish a mechanism for review to ensure it takes place. In particular, the paragraph should commit states to holding regular meetings, preferably annually, to promote and to assess the status and implementation of the political declaration. These meetings would also give states an opportunity to analyze any ongoing effects of the use of EWIPA and consider whether the declaration’s current measures are sufficient.  

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Governments should make a commitment to avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in cities and towns, Human Rights Watch said today.

A diplomatic meeting on February 10, 2020 in Geneva should endorse a political declaration that would better protect civilians in populated areas from these weapons. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic submitted an analysis of the draft elements of the declaration to the meeting.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Video

Explosive Weapons Devastating for Civilians

International Action Needed to Curtail Deaths, Long-Term Harm in Populated Areas

(Geneva) – Governments should make a commitment to avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in cities and towns, Human Rights Watch said today.

A diplomatic meeting on February 10, 2020 in Geneva should endorse a political declaration that would better protect civilians in populated areas from these weapons. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic submitted an analysis of the draft elements of the declaration to the meeting.

“Governments should recognize the devastating effect that explosive weapons have on civilians in cities, towns, and villages,” said Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “A common pledge is urgently needed to avoid using these indiscriminate weapons in populated areas.”

Human Rights Watch’s research over the last decade on the effects of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas shows the toll they have on civilians, underscoring the need for a strong political declaration to avoid their use and develop better practices.

Explosive weapons with wide-area effects include weapons that produce a large blast area or spread fragments widely. They also include certain air-dropped bombs, weapons that deliver multiple munitions that saturate a large area, such as Grad rockets, and weapons so inaccurate that they cannot be effectively targeted, such as “barrel bombs.” All should fall within the proposed international declaration.

Because of the foreseeable indiscriminate harm these weapons cause to civilians, a declaration should establish that their use should be avoided in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said.

Explosive weapons with wide-area effects have caused devastating harm to civilians and civilian objects. The increasing urbanization of conflict has placed millions of civilians at risk from these weapons, causing deaths and injuries to tens of thousands in places such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Human Rights Watch has long documented the unlawful use of explosive weapons by both government armed forces and non-state armed groups in numerous armed conflicts. The nongovernmental group Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) found that in nearly every year of the past decade, civilians suffered over 90 percent of the casualties when explosive weapons were used in populated areas.

Explosive weapons with wide-area effects have frequently damaged or destroyed civilian infrastructure such as bridges, water pipes, power stations, hospitals, and schools, which in turn have reverberating effects on essential services. Their use in populated areas forces people to flee their homes, exacerbating humanitarian needs.

Countries attending the Geneva meeting should develop and endorse a strong political declaration recognizing the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects and pledge to avoid their use in populated areas. The declaration should help clarify international humanitarian law by establishing a presumption against the use of these weapons in populated areas, as Human Rights Watch and other organizations have urged.

The declaration should commit countries to develop, and, where appropriate, revise relevant laws, policies, and military doctrine. Countries should also make a commitment to assist victims of explosive weapons by, for example, providing medical care and psychosocial support, and ensuring socio-economic inclusion. They should support reconstruction efforts, promptly compensate people for laws-of-war violations and, where possible, provide ex gratia payments for deaths, injuries, and property damage. Assistance should target people with disabilities. Countries should also make a commitment to gather and share positive practices and disaggregated data, particularly for tracking civilian casualties and other harm from explosive weapons, and to share their practices through regular meetings.

While the recently released draft elements of the political declaration presents a strong starting point for discussion, an analysis by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic identified several areas to be amended to improve the protection of civilians. The declaration should articulate a commitment to “avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas,” and establish a clear presumption that use is unacceptable given the foreseeability of indiscriminate harm. The declaration should also strengthen and elaborate on the commitment to assist victims. It should focus more attention on the reverberating effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, strengthen the commitments on data collection and sharing, and establish a framework for regular follow-up meetings.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, prohibits the use of weapons and attacks that cause indiscriminate or disproportionate loss to civilians and civilian objects and requires parties to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. While there is no specific prohibition against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, certain weapons, particularly those whose effects cannot be adequately limited, may be unlawful. Two types of explosive weapons – antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions – have been prohibited outright due to their inherently indiscriminate effects on civilians.

Political declarations commit countries to achieve agreed-upon goals. While not legally binding, such commitments carry significant weight because they outline standards for conduct and can help clarify existing international law. For example, the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration, currently endorsed by 101 countries, seeks to restrict the military use of schools and keep children in school during conflicts.

Human Rights Watch, along with the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a network co-founded by Human Rights Watch, has sought limitations on the use of these weapons since 2011, calling for “immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.”

“This past decade has laid bare not only the destruction wrought by explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas but the horrors their use inevitably causes,” Weir said. “Countries should mutually agree on ways to enhance the protection of civilians from the devastating effects of these weapons.”

Explosive Weapons and a Decade of Destruction

Human Rights Watch has long documented the extensive use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas in numerous armed conflicts. In many cases, this has amounted to violations of the laws of war in which war crimes were committed. Both government armed forces and non-state armed groups have used explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas with devasting impacts on civilians. The examples below from the past decade provide a snapshot of this practice and its consequences for civilians. It does not represent the totality of entities that use them or the full scope of their use.

Momentum toward a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas has been building over the past 10 years. In 2015, Austria convened a meeting on the topic with numerous countries and nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch. Two subsequent regional meetings were held, one with African countries and another with Latin American and the Caribbean countries. In November 2018, 50 countries signed a strong, unprecedented joint statement to the United Nations General Assembly on the need for a political declaration limiting the use of these weapons in populated areas.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, issued a joint appeal in September 2019 in support of a political declaration and called for the development of standards and policies to address the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

At a conference in Vienna in October 2019, Austria initiated a process to work toward a new political declaration. A total of 133 countries participated, and the vast majority that spoke expressed support. Ireland opened diplomatic consultations on a political declaration the following month in Geneva. At the February 10 meeting, countries will comment on a recently released draft of elements of a declaration. After additional consultations, Ireland’s goal is to finalize the text and open it for endorsement by May or June.

Explosive Weapons and Civilian Casualties

Explosive weapons with wide-area effects may have a large destructive radius, be inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time, causing high civilian loss. Often a single weapon will fall into two of these categories. For example, unguided rockets and large caliber artillery may both be inaccurate and produce blast and fragments over wide areas.

Weapons with a Large Destructive Radius

Numerous explosive weapons have wide-area effects as a consequence of their design or use, often producing a large blast radius or dispersing fragments over wide areas. They include various types of weapons, such as air-delivered weapons, some rockets, and large-caliber artillery. Air-delivered weapons that produce a large lethal blast or fragmentation areas are frequently linked to high levels of civilian harm. Human Rights Watch has documented the extensive use of these weapons in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, and Sudan, among other countries. Regardless of whether these weapons are guided, their size can create blast and fragmentation effects that severely affect civilians and civilian structures, even when not directly targeted.

The Syrian and Russian governments and members of the United States-led coalition have used guided and unguided air-delivered weapons throughout the Syrian conflict, causing numerous civilian casualties and property damage. AOAV, which compiles data on incidents through English-language media reports, found that air-delivered weapons caused 45 percent of all civilian casualties in Syria from 2011 to 2018.

In December 2019, the group found that Syria was the country most affected by explosive weapons, with 74 percent of the 617 reported civilian casualties caused by government forces and 55 percent caused by airstrikes. Since April 2019, airstrikes in Idlib governorate by the Syrian-Russian military alliance have killed over 1,500 civilians, according to the UN. One set of apparently unlawful strikes that Human Rights Watch documented in May 2019 hit 2 homes and killed 10 civilians, including 4 children, and illustrated the destructive power of large air-delivered weapons. A witness said:

We were sitting inside. Suddenly something, pressure, it moved us. Windows fell. Doors opened up. Glass flew everywhere. It was horrible. The second strike, around 1 minute, 1 minute and 15 seconds later, was similar – you’re sitting and you suddenly hear the explosion, you don’t hear the warplane, you don’t hear the [munitions], you don’t hear anything, except the explosion. The third strike was a minute later. Fourth also, between each strike and another, a minute or less. Horrible day. You don’t hear it. You cannot feel [whether] it is going to hit you or not. Suddenly, flames erupt, and there are stones from every direction.

The use of large air-dropped munitions by the US-led coalition in northeast Syria also wounded and killed civilians who remained during the campaign to oust the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) from the territory while causing severe damage to civilian infrastructure. The fighting in Raqqa governorate was one of the most intense operations carried out by the coalition, and Human Rights Watch documented numerous airstrikes that caused significant civilian harm.

Israeli forces also have repeatedly used air-dropped munitions in numerous operations in Gaza. During its 51-day air and ground campaign in 2014, Israel launched over 6,000 airstrikes and fired tens of thousands of tank and artillery projectiles, according to the UN. In total, more than 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed. Human Rights Watch documented a number of apparently unlawful airstrikes during the operation that struck evidently civilian structures, many of them in populated areas. One strike killed a woman, Amal Abed Ghafour, who was 7 months pregnant, and her 1-year-old daughter, and wounded her husband and 3-year-old son. The family lived across the street from an apartment building that was struck with several missiles, witnesses said.

In Afghanistan, nearly two decades of conflict involving US and Afghan government forces and Taliban and other armed groups have resulted in considerable civilian harm, including casualties, property destruction, and damage to people’s mental health. Rising civilian casualties from air and artillery strikes by US and international forces began to decline with the imposition of “tactical directives” issued to address civilian casualties beginning in 2007 that ultimately restricted the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. However, these restrictions have apparently loosened in the last few years, and with that a precipitous rise in civilian casualties from both US and Afghan government-led airstrikes. In one such airstrike in 2017, Human Rights Watch documented the killing of nine people by a US drone strike after Afghan government forces attacked fighters affiliated with ISIS in Khorasan Province. A witness whose mother, sister, and sister-in-law were killed in the airstrike, said:

There was a mourning ceremony and [people] were there to sympathize with the family.… My sister and mother were entering the guesthouse gate, and my sister-in-law was close by when the bomb hit. Their car is half buried in a ditch. The house was in between where there was fighting, about 200 meters in each direction. The airstrikes hit the guesthouse and the car.

Thousands of civilians have also been killed and injured in insurgent attacks using large explosive weapons such as improvised explosive devices, many by the Taliban in Kabul. Deaths from US and Afghan government operations exceeded those caused by the Taliban for the first time in the first half of 2019, largely due to a sharp increase in US airstrikes.

Inaccurate Weapons and Weapon Systems

Several types of weapons and weapon delivery systems, both manufactured and improvised, are inherently difficult to use in populated areas without a substantial risk of indiscriminate attack. Weapons such as mortars, artillery, and rockets, when firing unguided munitions, are fundamentally inaccurate systems. In some cases, armed forces can compensate by observing impacts and making adjustments, but the initial impacts and the relatively large area over which they could land regardless of adjustments make them unsuitable for use in populated areas. Improvised munitions, such as barrel bombs and unguided rockets fired from the ground and air, are also fundamentally inaccurate. This lack of accuracy can make discriminating between civilians and combatants during an attack on a populated area virtually impossible.

In Yemen, artillery and mortar shelling by both government forces and the Houthi armed group has caused numerous casualties in the country’s largest cities. In one spate of attacks in May 2017, Human Rights Watch documented 7 attacks by both Houthi and government-affiliated forces that killed at least 12 civilians, including 4 children, and wounded 29, including 10 children. The strikes occurred hundreds of meters from the front lines and other military objectives, hitting residential neighborhoods, a market, and a fruit cart.

In South Sudan, the use of mortars and artillery in densely populated areas by government and opposition forces in 2016 led to numerous casualties during fighting around Juba. Both government and opposition forces fired artillery and mortars at or over protection-of-civilians sites set up by the UN, with some of the shells landing inside a camp where about 30,000 internally displaced people were taking shelter. Another shell hit and damaged a medical clinic run by the international nongovernmental medical organization International Medical Corps.

Human Rights Watch and others have documented extensive civilian casualties and harm from the pervasive use of barrel bombs by the Syrian, Iraqi, and Sudanese governments. These improvised bombs are unguided high explosive weapons that are cheaply made, locally produced, and typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders, and water tanks, filled with high explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, and then dropped from helicopters usually flying at high altitude.

The devastating effects of these weapons were observed by Marwan, 15, in Anadan, in Aleppo governorate in Syria, on June 14, 2014, when a barrel bomb fell on a market. He said:

I don’t remember anything other than waking up and seeing people killed. A two-story building fell on me and people were pulling me out from under the rubble.… I saw several people on the ground. I was told later in [the hospital in Turkey in] Kilis that 20 people died and 16 others were injured.

Between February 22, 2014 and January 25, 2015, Human Rights Watch identified over 1,000 large impact sites with damage signatures strongly consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions, including improvised barrel and conventional bombs dropped by helicopters. Rockets, missiles, and fuel-air bombs may also have been used in a number of instances.

Human Rights Watch also documented the use of so-called improvised rocket assisted munitions (IRAM) by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division and Federal Police during the fighting to retake Mosul from ISIS. The munitions had no visible sighting or system for adjusting the weapon’s direction on the vehicles or launching pods, which would have allowed the position of the weapon to be shifted to hit a specific target, making attempts to aim the rockets with any accuracy impossible.

Armed opposition groups in Syria have also used improvised artillery locally referred to as “hell’s cannon” – a rocket motor fitted with an explosives-filled gas canister – and other locally produced rockets to shell the villages of al-Zahraa and Nubul in the Aleppo countryside in what appeared to be indiscriminate attacks.

Over the past decade, Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza have fired thousands of unguided rockets toward civilian population centers in Israel, including the second-largest city, Tel Aviv, wounding and killing civilians and causing damage to civilian structures. These inherently inaccurate rockets have also killed and injured civilians inside Gaza, apparently as recently as November.

Multiple Munitions Weapons

Explosive weapons designed to deliver multiple munitions to create effects over a wide area, such as multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) intended to saturate a large area, are of particular concern. Russian-designed Grad rockets offer one example, and their characteristics illustrate the concerns. From its aim point, the rocket could land anywhere within a rectangle of approximately 54,000 square meters. Human Rights Watch has documented these weapons’ use in numerous conflicts over the last decade in populated areas that have killed and injured civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure.

In eastern Ukraine, government forces and Russia-backed separatists have used Grad rockets since 2014, killing and injuring numerous civilians. The indiscriminate impact of these weapons was documented in one attack most likely carried out by Ukrainian government forces on a neighborhood in Petrovsky district. Ukrainian government forces appeared to have launched multiple rockets that created 19 impact craters over a 600-meter-wide area, including in gardens and homes. A 62-year-old woman said:

I was in my room when I first heard a whistling sound. The walls and windows started to shake and then there were many loud bangs. My son was in the kitchen. He came running when the attack started, probably trying to save me, but shrapnel hit him in the leg. What’s here that they wanted to attack? There is no factory here, no fighters, just poor houses.

An attack on government-held areas of Mariupol in January 2015 killed at least 29 civilians and 1 service member and injured another 90 civilians. Human Rights Watch’s field research indicated that the rockets were fired from the territory to the east, controlled by Russia-backed armed groups. Human Rights Watch found 31 impact craters from Grad rockets on the ground and buildings, including 1 school. A witness said:

There were dead bodies lying by the market. I saw one dead body, then another. A third dead body belonged to a girl who used to work in the used clothes store. Her head had been crushed. A rocket fell right on the market, destroying it. Luckily, there were no students in the school when the rocket fell here. Otherwise, we would have had dozens of dead children here.

Long-Term and “Reverberating” Consequences for Civilians

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has effects that extend beyond the immediate casualties. Part of the inherent risk associated with explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas is the disproportionate impact on civilian buildings and infrastructure. The weapons often damage and destroy homes, businesses, and infrastructure, such as power stations, hospitals, sanitation systems, and schools. When healthcare and sanitation facilities are damaged or destroyed, the risk of infectious disease can vastly increase. Destroyed power stations can affect the water supply. Damaged educational facilities have long-lasting consequences for children who are forced to suspend or terminate their education, which is more likely to negatively affect girls.

The reverberating consequences of damage to vital services can disproportionately affect women and vulnerable populations, such as children, older people, and people with disabilities.

These factors force many civilians to flee their homes, towns, or cities. People with disabilities are at higher risk of harm because they may be unable to flee. Displacement, both internally and across borders, increases the risk of exposure to myriad other concerns, including, but not limited to, loss of access to water, health care, and sanitation. This can affect women and girls disproportionately, for reasons including their responsibility for gathering water, medical needs of pregnant women, and barriers to menstrual hygiene management. Flight also increases the risk of violence, including sexual violence, human trafficking, child marriage, and exploitation that disproportionately affects women and girls. People with disabilities who reach sites for internally displaced people or refugees often face difficulties accessing food, sanitation, and medical assistance.

The use of these weapons often results in contamination of the areas targeted with munitions that did not explode as intended, so-called explosive remnants of war, increasing the danger to civilians who remain or attempt to return. Children are especially vulnerable to explosive remnants of war.

The physical injuries and risks associated with these weapons is magnified by the psychological harm associated with the violence and loss that explosive weapons visit upon civilians, which also particularly affect children.

These consequences have been observed in numerous countries over the past decade, such as Syria, where Human Rights Watch and others have documented the extensive destruction of civilian infrastructure. Much of the destroyed infrastructure was for civilian – not military – benefit and should not have been targeted under the laws of war. The Syrian government, supported by its allies – Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah – conducted hundreds of targeted and indiscriminate attacks on schools and hospitals, often without any military objectives in the vicinity of the sites or causing disproportionate harm to civilians. Following the thousands of munitions used by the US-led coalition in its attacks against ISIS in Raqqa, nearly 70 percent of Raqqa city was destroyed or damaged. Additionally, preliminary analysis of satellite imagery by Human Rights Watch revealed extensive levels of building damage in Deir al-Zor governorate from US-led coalition strikes.

These attacks, carried out by many parties to Syria’s conflict, mostly with large air-dropped munitions, artillery, mortars, and inaccurate barrel bombs, have left large parts of Syria in ruins. According to the UN, by 2017, 50 percent of the social infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, in Syria had been damaged or destroyed. A July 2017 World Bank study of 8 governorates found that since 2011 the war had partially damaged 20 percent and destroyed 7 percent of the country’s housing, as well as about two-thirds of its medical and educational facilities.

Countrywide UN estimates from a 2019 report indicate that the hostilities affected 50 percent of the sewage systems. In the same report, the UN stated that the country faced multiple infectious disease outbreaks. As of March 2019, 2.1 million children were out of school. The estimated cost of rebuilding Syria is between US$250 billion and $500 billion.

Libya has also been devastated by nearly a decade of intermittent armed conflict and localized fighting, with explosive weapons used repeatedly in populated areas. Air-dropped bombs, mortars, artillery, and rockets deployed by numerous warring parties have killed and injured thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands while damaging civilian infrastructure across several cities. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous such attacks that damaged medical facilities and civilian homes. The impact of this damage has led to increased vulnerability of civilians and endangered their access to water, health care, sanitation, and education.

During 2019, repeated explosive weapons attacks by the eastern-based armed group known as the Libyan National Army (LNA) killed hundreds of civilians and displaced tens of thousands in the capital, Tripoli, which is controlled by armed groups supporting the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). According to the UN, airstrikes were the leading cause of civilian casualties as a result of the fighting in western Libya, accounting for 182 out of 284 documented civilian deaths in 2019. Human Rights Watch documented 1 apparent LNA airstrike on Tripoli on December 1, 2019 that killed 6 civilians, including 4 children. The strike damaged 6 homes, destroying 2, and harmed other civilian property.

The fighting has dramatically affected access to education. A UN report covering 2018 found that over 250 schools had been damaged or destroyed in Libya. Additional fighting has caused hundreds more schools to close and interrupted education for over 100,000 students. The situation also severely affected health care, with nearly 20 percent of public, primary, and specialist hospitals closed as a result of damage or destruction, according to a 2019 UN report.

The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas of Libya has contaminated homes and neighborhoods with explosive remnants of war that are maiming and killing civilians, inhibiting access to services, and prolonging displacement.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

M. Edouard Philippe
Premier Ministre
Hôtel de Matignon
57 rue de Varenne 75007 Paris

Paris, Wednesday, February 5, 2020.

Mr. Prime Minister,

The Saudi cargo ship Bahri Yanbu is due to arrive in Cherbourg on Thursday 6 February, as part of a European tour that will see it calling at Sheerness (UK) and Genoa (Italy) before leaving for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, according to the shipowner. As the Bahri Yanbu is known to be transporting arms exclusively for the Saudi Ministry of Defence, which is engaged in a military intervention tainted by allegations of war crimes in Yemen, we, representatives of 17 humanitarian and human rights NGOs, express our deepest concerns about the fact that this cargo ship is stopping in France.

We urge you to inform us of the nature of the material to be loaded onto the Bahri Yanbu in Cherbourg and, in the event that it is armament, to inform us of the guarantees given to France that they will not be used unlawfully against Yemeni civilians.

 French patrol boat sails next to the Bahri-Yanbu, a Saudi Arabian cargo ship, that waits to enter in the port of Le Havre, as human rights groups try to block the loading of weapons onto the vessel, France, May 10, 2019. 

© 2019 REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

In accordance with the Arms Trade Treaty that it has ratified, France is obligated to prohibit arms exports when there is a risk that they will be used to commit war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. However, despite the systematic violations by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen and the risk that French arms could contribute to them, France continues to transfer arms to these two countries. Whether it be air attacks against civilian targets (hospitals, schools, school buses, weddings, funerals, etc.) or the air and sea blockade that suffocates civilian populations, these violations - and those committed by all parties to the conflict - have been widely documented by the United Nations and by our organizations.

France continues to proclaim its commitment to international humanitarian law and multilateralism, reaffirmed again last month by the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian. But by continuing to transfer arms to systematically abusive forces, the French government is contradicting its own commitment and violating its international obligations, as pointed out by the UN experts on Yemen.

Last year, the Bahri Yanbu had already come to load arms all over Europe. Faced with the mobilization of civil society and trade unions, it had had to give up calling at the port of Le Havre.

The secrecy surrounding its arrival in Cherbourg, scheduled for tomorrow, illustrates once again the opacity surrounding arms exports by France.

Since 2016, 12 European countries, including Belgium, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, have announced measures to suspend or limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because of serious violations by the Saudi Arabia-UAE-led coalition in Yemen. This is not the case of France, which merely assures that the government mechanism for authorizing arms transfers has been strengthened, without indicating what the strengthened controls consist of or how they ensure that French arms will not be used to commit violations against civilians in Yemen.

7 out of 10 French people want France to suspend its arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their role in the war in Yemen, according to a YouGov poll conducted in March 2019. And more than 250,000 people have signed petitions calling for an end to French arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which some of our organizations handed over to government officials last November.

In this context :

  • We urge you to provide information on the stop the Saudi cargo ship Bahri Yanbu plans to make in France and the nature of its cargo, and if necessary, to suspend the shipment.
  • We reiterate our call for France to cease its arms transfers to Saudi Arabia so as not to be complicit in serious violations. 
  • We also urge you to ensure greater transparency in the arms trade, in particular by allowing effective parliamentary control, at a time when the National Assembly's fact-finding mission on arms export control is about to present its recommendations.

We are at your disposal to organize a meeting in the coming days.

Best regards,

Signatory organisations:

  1. Action contre la Faim (ACF)
  2. Action des chrétiens pour l'abolition de la torture (ACAT)
  3. Alliance internationale pour la défense des droits et des libertés (AIDL)
  4. Avaaz
  5. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
  6. Fédération internationale pour les droits humains (FIDH)
  7. Handicap International
  8. Human Rights Watch
  9. Ligue des droits de l’homme
  10. L'Observatoire des armements
  11. Médecins du Monde
  12. Oxfam France
  13. Première Urgence Internationale
  14. Salam For Yemen
  15. Solidarités International
  16. SumofUs
  17. Yemen Solidarity Network
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

“Selma,” pictured here, and her daughter, were injured in a border minefield. “Selma”’s leg was amputated as a result of the injury.

© 2014 Sarkis Balkhian/Human Rights Watch

The Trump administration announced Friday that the United States will re-start using and producing antipersonnel landmines.

The decision rolls back a 2014 policy by the Obama administration to ban U.S. production of antipersonnel mines and their use outside of the Korean Peninsula. It reverses years of incremental U.S. steps to align with the “Ottawa” treaty banning antipersonnel landmines, which entered into force on March 1, 1999.

The widespread outcry over the move reflects how deeply these indiscriminate weapons have been stigmatized since 1997, when the Mine Ban Treaty was adopted. The number of people around the world who are killed or maimed by landmines has steadily decreased, from tens of thousands each year to approximately 6,800 in 2018, according to the Landmine Monitor report by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Where the age of victims was recorded, more than half of the casualties were children, most born years, often decades, after the mines were laid.

The United States has not used antipersonnel landmines since 1991, has not exported them since 1992, has not produced them since 1997, and has destroyed millions of mines from its stockpiles.

The new policy relies on antipersonnel mines equipped with self-destruction mechanisms and self-deactivation features, yet the Mine Ban Treaty makes no such distinction. It comprehensively prohibits all types of victim-activated devices regardless of their method of manufacture or predicted longevity. Even mines that are designed to self-destruct or deactivate are no better able to distinguish civilian from combatant.

The new policy follows the U.S. retreat from multilateralism and its dismissal of several arms agreements. In December 2017, the Trump administration ended a 2008 policy that committed the U.S. not to use unreliable cluster munitions and to destroy its stocks. Cluster munitions typically disperse multiple bomblets or submunitions over a wide area. Many fail to explode on initial impact, leaving lethal remnants that, like landmines, posed a danger until they are cleared and destroyed.

A senior Pentagon official, Victorino Mercado, claimed a current malfunction rate of “six in one million” for U.S. mines, but the Defense Department has not responded to questions from The Washington Post and others asking how this number was calculated. The estimate most likely reflects the testing of electronic components as opposed to the actual deployment of completed weapon systems.

The last time the U.S. used antipersonnel mines anywhere in the world was during the first Gulf War, when U.S. aircraft dropped more than 100,000 self-destructing mines in Kuwait. A report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that U.S. commanders were reluctant to use the mines because of their impact on mobility, their potential for causing casualties to U.S. or friendly forces, and other safety concerns. The Defense Department has provided no data to indicate, either directly or indirectly, that the U.S. landmine use caused any enemy casualties, equipment loss, or maneuver limitations. Many of the mines failed to self-destruct and required costly clearance and destruction measures.

A total of 164 nations have signed or ratified the Mine Ban Treaty, including every member of NATO except the U.S., and key U.S. allies such as Australia and Japan. The treaty’s prohibition on assistance with use and other activities banned by the treaty has most likely contributed to the lack of U.S. use of antipersonnel mines over the past 30 years. Over the coming months and years, U.S. allies will most likely continue to raise such considerations.

The U.S. has limited stocks to draw on. In 2014, the Pentagon disclosed that the U.S. has an “active stockpile of just over 3 million anti-personnel mines in the inventory.” In 2010, it estimated that the shelf-life of batteries in the existing stockpile of antipersonnel mines would expire between 2014 and 2033.

The U.S. last produced antipersonnel mines in 1997, when it manufactured 450,000 ADAM artillery-delivered and 13,200 air-dropped CBU-89/B Gator mines. It has spent years on a costly, but as yet unresolved, search for “alternatives” to antipersonnel mines. Any such devices must be command-detonated or have a “human-in-the-loop” to be permitted under the treaty.

Upon announcing the new policy, defense officials said the U.S. retains enough of an inventory of so-called “smart landmines” that there is no need to restart production immediately. And while there have been discussions about where the landmines could be used, officials said as of yet there had been no requests to actually deploy them.

The new policy is the latest in a series of twists and turns of U.S. policy since President Bill Clinton called for the “eventual elimination” of antipersonnel mines at the United Nations in 1994. It also comes just a few months after Norway hosted the Mine Ban Treaty’s Fourth Review Conference in Oslo.

The U.S. attended the meeting as an observer, but did not speak. In a message to the conference, Prince Harry pledged his continued support to the treaty, which was negotiated in Oslo in the days immediately following the death of his mother, Princess Diana, who drew so much attention to the devastating scourge of landmines during the last year of her life.

During the Ottawa Process to negotiate the treaty, the U.S. tried but failed to secure a loophole to allow for self-destructing and self-deactivating mines. The participating States also rejected U.S. attempts to carve out a geographic exception allowing it to use antipersonnel landmines in the Korean Peninsula. They opposed a U.S. proposal to delay the treaty’s entry into force until all five permanent members of the UN Security Council had joined.

The Mine Ban Treaty survived these killer amendments during the treaty negotiations and continues to thrive 22 years later. Some 55 million antipersonnel mines have been destroyed from stocks under the Mine Ban Treaty, while the number of countries producing the weapons has decreased from more than 50 to less than a dozen.

Under Trump, the Department of Defense is attempting to redefine landmines as “non-persistent area denial systems.” Like “smart mines” and other weasel words, such terminology won’t convince anyone.

Despite not joining the Mine Ban Treaty, the U.S. has never wavered from its first-place ranking as the world’s largest donor of global demining efforts. Such support has helped more than two dozen countries declare themselves free from these weapons, after completing clearance of known mined areas. It has saved countless lives, thereby preventing human suffering from landmines.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called the change in landmine policy “an abhorrent decision that won’t make America any safer, and could cause untold damage.” She committed to “reverse this decision and work with our allies to eliminate landmines.” In statements to news outlet Vox, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) also said they would scrap Trump’s policy and revert to the Obama administration policy.

The other presidential candidates should also pledge to reverse the Trump administration’s retrograde U.S. policy on landmines and all of them should pledge to ensure that the United States finally accedes to the Mine Ban Treaty. Demands for the U.S. to ban landmines will never go away until it actually does.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Children in Gaza sit on November 16, 2019 in a classroom near a picture of their classmate Mo’ath al-Sawarka, aged 7, one of five children killed in an Israeli airstrike two days earlier.

© 2019 Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency

(Jerusalem) – Two Israeli airstrikes in Gaza during a flare-up in fighting with Palestinian armed groups in November 2019 killed at least 11 civilians, in apparent violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today.

Between November 12 and 14, Palestinian armed groups also fired hundreds of rockets and mortars into Israel, causing shock or light injuries to 78 civilians, according to the United Nations. These attacks also violated the laws of war. Human Rights Watch found that at least two rockets apparently fired by Palestinian armed groups landed in Gaza, one killing a Palestinian man and injuring 16 others, and the other hitting the offices of a local human rights organization, causing damage but no casualties.

“Once again, Israeli and Palestinian strikes and rockets have killed and injured civilians while putting countless other civilians at risk,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli and Palestinian authorities’ longstanding failure to hold to account those responsible for possible war crimes highlights the need for International Criminal Court scrutiny.”

The UN reported that 35 Palestinians in Gaza died during the latest fighting. The Gaza Health Ministry said Israeli forces injured 111 Palestinians, including 46 children.

The two Israeli airstrikes that Human Rights Watch investigated appear to have violated the laws of war because they struck civilian objects with little or no evidence that the attackers took all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize loss of civilian life. The first killed three people at a location where there appeared to be no combatants, weapons, or other military target. The second killed nine people in two homes, at least eight of them civilians. Human Rights Watch interviewed 17 Palestinians in Gaza about the two incidents, including survivors as well as witnesses, relatives and neighbors of those killed, and first responders. Human Rights Watch visited the sites of both strikes and reviewed statements by Israeli officials, the Health Ministry in Gaza, and Palestinian armed groups.

The first of the two attacks occurred at about 9 a.m. on November 13. A guided missile killed Rafat Ayyad, 54, and two of his sons, aged 7 and 23, as they rode a motorcycle in the al-Zeitoun neighborhood, two kilometers east of Gaza City. Three relatives and neighbors who visited the scene just after the attack told Human Rights Watch that they heard the buzz of drones overhead immediately before the strike.

Interviewed separately, they all said that neither Rafat nor his eldest son has ties to any armed group. None of Gaza’s armed groups referred to them as militants on their websites or claimed them as a “martyrs,” a standard practice when militants are killed. Human Rights Watch found no other evidence that Rafat or his eldest son were combatants. Israeli military authorities have not commented publicly on the attack.

The second strike occurred at about 12:15 a.m. on November 14. Paramedics, neighbors, relatives, and survivors said that three airdropped munitions fell within about two minutes on adjacent homes of the families of two brothers, Rasmi Abu Malhouse al-Sawarka and Mohammad al-Sawarka, on the edge of Deir al-Balah town in the central Gaza Strip. The strikes killed the two brothers, two women, and five boys aged 1, 2, 7, 12, and 13, and injured a woman and nine other children.

Relatives and neighbors said that eight of those killed appear to be civilians. Human Rights Watch could not make a conclusive determination about the ninth casuality, Mohammad al-Sawarka. One relative said he was as member of Islamic Jihad, though six others said he was not a member of any armed group, and Islamic Jihad neither referred to him on their website nor claimed him as a “martyr” as it typically does when one of his militants is killed in an Israeli strike.

The day of the attack, the Israeli military released a photo of two men, saying that an attack earlier in the day had killed a man called Rasmi Abu Malhous, and that he was a senior Islamic Jihad commander. Just after the attack, Islamic Jihad said that one of the men in the photo was one of their commanders, but that he was alive. Survivors of the attack said they did not know the men in the photo.

Later that month, the Israeli military admitted that it had made a targeting error, saying “it was not expected that noncombatant civilians would be hurt in the strike.” In December, the military said it had mistakenly categorized the two homes as a “military compound” instead of a civilian complex “with some military activity.” The military did not say what activity it considered to be of a military nature; nor did it claim at the time that the strike killed any combatants. It also did not specify if anyone had been held accountable for the error.

One relative and two neighbors said that both of the families had lived in their homes for at least 10 years. All seven adults interviewed said they were not aware of any activity in the houses that might have made the structures a target. The closest other structures were a small makeshift house 50 meters west and another house 150 meters northwest.

Human Rights Watch also investigated two incidents in which rockets apparently fired by Palestinian armed groups landed inside Gaza. One struck a residential building under construction in Jabalya around 9 a.m. on November 12, killing a 20-year-old man, Mohammed Hammouda, and injuring 6 children and 10 men. The other hit the Gaza City offices of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights on November 12, at about 10:30 a.m., causing damage but no injuries.

Due to their inherently indiscriminate nature, firing unguided rockets into areas with civilians is a serious violation of the laws of war.

Under the laws of war, warring parties may target only combatants and military objectives. If a civilian object or structure is being used for military purposes, it can be targeted only while it makes an effective contribution to military action. Parties to a conflict must take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. Individuals who deliberately order or take part in attacks targeting civilians or civilian objects are responsible for war crimes. The laws of war prohibit launching attacks where the expected civilian harm and loss of property would be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.

The laws of war apply to all parties to the conflict, including Israel, Hamas, and other Palestinian armed groups like Islamic Jihad. They obligate Israel and Hamas, as the de facto authority in Gaza, to investigate credible allegations of serious laws-of-war violations. However, Israeli and Palestinian authorities have for years systematically failed to credibly investigate alleged war crimes and to hold those responsible to account.

These consistent failings underscore the important role for the International Criminal Court (ICC). In December, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda concluded a preliminary inquiry into the Palestine situation, determining that “all the statutory criteria” to proceed with a formal investigation have been met. However, she then sought a ruling from the court’s judges on whether Palestine should be considered a “state” for the purpose of giving the ICC jurisdiction over the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

“The November flare-up, like the ones before it, killed and injured civilians in violation of the laws of war,” Simpson said. “Such deaths will most likely continue as long as no one is punished for unlawful attacks.”

Hostilities in 2018 and 2019

The November 2019 hostilities in Gaza followed fighting in May 2019, during which civilians were also killed. For the May fighting, Human Rights Watch documented 13 civilian deaths from Israeli airstrikes and six – four Israelis and two Palestinians – from rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups. There were several smaller flareups in July, August, October, and November 2018, and March 2019, some of which resulted in civilian casualties.

The most recent hostilities began on November 12, 2019 when an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander and his wife in Gaza City. A ceasefire agreement entered into force on November 14, with some exchanges of fire on November 15 and 16. The Israeli army did not say publicly how many airstrikes it launched in Gaza during the fighting, but said that Palestinian armed groups had fired 450 rockets into Israel. Islamic Jihad acknowledged launching rockets into Israel, but did not say how many.

Citing “the security situation in the sector,” the Israeli authorities on November 12 halted the movement of virtually all people and goods out of or into Gaza, exempting some people in need of medical treatment, some Palestinian citizens of Israel, cooking gas, and fuel for Gaza’s power plant. Israel also limited access to the fishing zone that it patrols off Gaza’s coast, blocking all access to the northern part of the zone and limiting access in the southern part to six kilometers from the coast. Israel lifted the restrictions on the movement of people on November 14 and on goods three days later. These restrictions come on top of Israel’s near-total closure of Gaza since 2007.

Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, November 13-14

Al-Zeitoun

At about 9 a.m. on November 13, a guided missile probably launched by a drone struck a motorcycle in al-Zeitoun neighborhood, two kilometers east of Gaza City.

Human Rights Watch visited the site on November 21, took and analyzed photos and videos of munition remnants and related damage, and spoke with seven people about the attack, including five relatives of the victims and two neighbors who were lightly injured.

The limited amount of blast and fragmentation damage at the scene suggests the use of a small munition that was designed to minimize casualties. Fragments of the munition and a distinctive remnant found at the scene indicate that the attack involved the use of a drone-fired guided missile.

The people interviewed said the attack took place after a morning of drone activity in the area and killed Rafat Ayyad, 54, and two of his sons, Islam, 23, and Amir, 7. Those interviewed all said that Rafat Ayyad was a former Palestinian Authority employee and that Islam was an imam in a local mosque. Neither Rafat nor Islam was a member of any militant group, according to those interviewed. No militant group claimed either of the men as members. Israeli authorities have released no information to explain or justify the attack.

Three people said the attack took place just outside the house of Manal Alwan, Rafat’s former wife and Islam’s mother. Alwan said that she heard the sound of a motorbike at about 9 a.m. and looked out of the window to see Rafat, Islam, and Amir arriving. She turned away from the window, she said, and then heard an explosion:

I immediately ran outside and saw all three of them lying on the ground. Amir was lying underneath Rafat and was alive so I pulled him out. Islam was lying on the ground next to them and had a head injury.

One of Islam’s and Amir’s cousins, Hisham Ayyad, was cleaning his car outside his home 200 meters from the site when he saw Rafat and his sons drive past at about 9 a.m., and then he heard an explosion:

I ran toward them. When I reached them, I saw Rafat’s former wife, who was crying and screaming. Then I saw Rafat, Islam, and Amir on the ground next to Rafat’s motorbike. Rafat’s head was injured and he was not moving. Islam was injured in the back of his head but still alive. Amir was also alive but his torso was injured and blood was coming out of his eyes. It took 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.

Another of Rafat’s sons, Ihab Ayyad, 25, went to the two hospitals in Gaza City that received the three victims. He said his father died before reaching al-Shifa hospital. When Ihab Ayyad arrived at al-Quds hospital, he said that staff told him that Islam had already died and that Amir was in critical condition. Amir died shortly thereafter.

In its visit to the site, Human Rights Watch found no indications of military activity or equipment in the immediate vicinity. All of those interviewed said the victims had no ties to armed groups.

The Israeli authorities have not publicly explained who or what they were targeting or what precautions they took to minimize civilian casualties.

The homes of Rasmi and Mohammad al-Sawarka in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, in January 2019, destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on November 14, 2019, killing nine members of the family, including five children.

© 2019 B’Tselem

Deir al-Balah

On November 14 at about 12:15 a.m., three air-dropped munitions launched by Israeli forces struck the homes of two families in an agricultural zone of the al-Berkah area on the edge of Deir al-Balah town in central Gaza Strip.

Relatives of the families said the attack killed four adults and five children. Rasmi Salem Abu Malhous (also known as Rasmi Salem al-Sawarka), 45; his wife, Mariam Salem Nasser, 33; two of their children, Salem, 3, and Fairas, 1; and Rasmi’s child from a prior marriage, Mohammed, 12, were killed, as were Mohammed al-Sawarka, 40, who died a week later of his injuries; his wife, Yousra al-Sawarka, 39; and two of their children, Wasim, 13 and Mo’ath, 7.

Relatives said the attack also injured one adult and nine children: Wisam al-Sawarka, 35, Rasmi’s third wife, and five of their children: Diaa, 10, Yousef, 7, Fahed, 6, Fawzi, 4, and Rasmiyeh, 2; and four of Mohammed and Yousra’s children: Nirmeen, 10, Reem, 8, Lama, 5, and Salem, 3.

A relative of Rasmi al-Sawarka’s family said that the two families shared two caravan homes, which had metal walls and roofing, as well as a small concrete room with a metal roof and two summer and winter pergolas with palm leaf and plastic roofing. One of their neighbors and a relative said Mohammed al-Sawarka had recently constructed a concrete room with asbestos roofing for more living space. Another said they had lived there since 2006 and that Rasmi was a former employee of the Palestinian Authority.

Human Rights Watch visited the site on November 20 and observed three large craters apparently created by air-dropped guided bombs of at least 500 kilograms that detonated on impact.

Human Rights Watch spoke with 10 people about the attack, including one of the surviving adults and two of the surviving children, a third child of the family who had been sleeping at her grandmother’s house nearby, three adult relatives who lived nearby, two neighbors, and first responders from the Palestinian Red Crescent who said they removed eight bodies from the site. The ninth person, Mohammed al-Sawarka, died eight days later.

Nour al-Sawarka, 12, was lying awake in a pergola next to their home with her sleeping parents, Mohammed and Yousra, who were killed, and her six siblings when the attack happened:

A first bomb hit the house and I ran out of the house. There were two more bombs and one of them landed right on top of where we had been sleeping. I ran back. Our house had become a crater. I saw my mother carrying my young brother [Salem]. I thought my mother wasn’t injured but then she fell to the ground and I realized she was. I also saw my father lying on the ground at the edge of the crater and my aunt Wissam, looking for her children. Then I saw my injured sister Reem and I dug her out of the sand. I sat next to my mother until the ambulance came.

Wissam al-Sawarka, who was sleeping inside her home at the time of the attack, said:

I woke up about 10 meters from our house, lying in the sand next to the metal roof and our furniture. I looked for my children and found them behind me. Then I saw Mohammed stumbling as he tried to stay standing, his face covered in blood. His wife, Yousra, had her hand on her chest, struggling to breathe, and then fell down. She died before the paramedics arrived.

On the morning of November 14, the Israeli military’s Arabic spokesperson published a photo of two men with one in the center foreground, saying that an airstrike “tonight” had killed an Islamic Jihad commander named Rasmi Abu Malhous. Relatives and neighbors of those killed said that one of the two men killed in the attack – called Rasmi Abu Malhous, but who used the surname al-Sawarka after the Bedouin tribe to which he belonged – had no ties to any military group and that he was not in the photo that the military released. Islamic Jihad said that one of the two men in the photo was an Islamic Jihad commander, but that he was from Rafah, not Deir el-Balah, and was still alive, media reported.

Six interviewees who knew Mohammed al-Sawarka, the other man killed in the strike, said he was not a member of an armed group, but one relative said he was a member of Islamic Jihad. Neither Islamic Jihad nor the Israeli authorities have publicly identified him as a member of Islamic Jihad or its armed wing. All of the other people in the home appear to have been civilians.

The day after the attack, the Israeli military acknowledged that it had conducted the strike with precision-guided bombs. It also said the attack had targeted “terror infrastructure, a training installation, and a training compound,” and that the target had “served Islamic Jihad for several rounds of clearly military activity.”

On November 28, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported an Israeli military spokesperson as saying that the military had selected the “buildings as a military target after being incriminated several months ago…[that] professionals validated this incrimination again a few days before the attack [and that] in keeping with the information the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] had at its disposal when the attack was carried out, it was not expected that noncombatant civilians would be hurt in the strike.”

In December, the Israeli military authorities said they had investigated the strike and found that the military had mistakenly categorized the two homes as an Islamic Jihad “military compound” instead of a civilian complex “with some military activity” based on their assessment that the homes were “a compound of…Islamic Jihad…and that military activity was carried out there in the past as well as during [the] operation” in mid-November.

Aerial surveillance of the site and any verification attempts through people with local knowledge of the site should have shown significant civilian activity and that two families lived there.

The Israeli army targeted two structures housing 21 civilians despite saying it had assessed the target a few days before the attack and concluding that civilians would not be harmed. The Israeli military authorities therefore appear to have failed in their legal obligation to carefully assess the nature of their target to ensure that they attack only combatants and military objectives. By failing to identify the many civilians at this site, the army appears to have failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian harm, and to ensure that any such harm was not disproportionate to the military advantage gained in the same attack.

Al-Shaaf

In addition to the above cases that involved apparent violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch investigated another Israeli strike involving significant fatalities but were unable to determine that a violation occurred. The strike, which took place on November 13, hit a carpentry workshop in al-Shaaf neighborhood, 1.5 kilometers east of Gaza City, killing two Islamic Jihad fighters, a member of Hamas’s armed wing, and two civilians. The two civilians, 17-year-old Ibrahim Abdel ‘Aal and 16-year-old Ismail Abdel ‘Aal, worked in the carpentry workshop, which belonged to their father. Munition fragments and blast and fragmentation damage reviewed by Human Rights Watch was consistent with an attack using at least two small, air-launched guided standard Spike or Hellfire anti-tank guided missiles, which can be fired from jets, drones, and helicopters. Israeli authorities have not publicly presented any information about the attack, including who or what they targeted or what precautions they took to minimize civilian harm.

Palestinian Rockets Landing in Gaza

According to the Israeli army, Palestinian armed groups fired about 450 rockets into Israel between November 12 and14, injuring at least 78 Israelis.

In May 2019, a Palestinian rocket launched from Gaza landed inside the Gaza Strip and was probably responsible for the deaths of a pregnant Palestinian mother of nine and a 14-month-old toddler.

Lacking a guidance system, the rockets are inherently indiscriminate when directed toward areas with civilians and their use in such circumstances is a serious violation of the laws of war, which require attackers to distinguish at all times between combatants and military targets on the one hand and civilians and civilian structures on the other.

Human Rights Watch found that at least two of the rockets Palestinian armed groups fired at Israel between November 12 and 14 apparently errantly landed inside of Gaza, one killing a Palestinian and injuring 16. Human Rights Watch could not conclusively determine the source of the strikes, due to Israel’s repeated denial of permits to Gaza for foreign human rights researchers, including Human Rights Watch staff members, who were needed to supplement local staff in investigating this case given security concerns. However, the Palestinian authorities’ reaction and Palestinian civil society’s and media’s muted response to the incidents strongly suggest that a Palestinian armed group was responsible.

Jabalya

At about 9 a.m. on November 12, a projectile, apparently a rocket fired by Palestinian armed groups, struck a four-story residential building under construction next to the Halawa roundabout on Yafa Street in the town of Jabalya.

Human Rights Watch visited the site on November 23 and spoke with four people about the attack. They all said the incident killed Mohammed Hamodeh, 20, and injured 16 people, including 6 children who were sitting in a pergola at the back of the house and were injured by shrapnel. None of those interviewed was aware of any combatants or military objectives at or in the vicinity of the building.

A resident of the building said the attack appeared to hit the third floor, damaging two apartments:

At about 9 a.m., I was near my house when I heard an explosion. I ran toward the house where I saw neighbors running and carrying my son… who had a head injury. We took him to the intensive care unit in the Indonesian hospital [in Jabalya]. While I was there, others injured in the attack arrived. Mohammed [Hamodeh] died in the intensive care unit. I stayed in the hospital until later that afternoon and then went home. There was blood on the ground and everywhere. A part of Mohammed’s head remained under a tree in the backyard of the house. Civil defense workers came and took it.

Another resident of the building said:

At about 9:40 a.m., we were in the backyard of the house, with Mohammed Hamodeh and 16 others. Hamodeh was sitting on a chair. I climbed the wall of our store next to the yard to get a tool and I threw it on the ground, next to his feet. As I was climbing down, I heard a heavy explosion and saw Mohammed [Hamodeh] fall down.

I ran out of the courtyard and saw Mohammed’s father. I told him his son had died. I walked to the street, fell down and then found myself at the hospital. People told me later that I was crying in the middle of the street, but I don’t remember that. I can still hear the incredibly loud sound of the rocket. It continued buzzing in my ears for three days and nights and I couldn’t sleep.

One of the people interviewed said that the next afternoon he saw officials from the local police explosives engineering unit remove remnants from the site, and that a few days later another group of police and then people he believed to be members of an armed group came to remove the remaining fragments. Human Rights Watch was unable to find any remnants at the site, in contrast to the sites of the al-Zeitoun and al-Shaaf attacks, where 1-2 weeks later remnants were still lying about in plan site. These actions suggest the authorities took steps to remove evidence of a likely Islamic Jihad rocket attack.

Human Rights Watch also could not find any coverage since November 12 by Palestinian media outlets of the incident, in contrast to their coverage of Israeli strikes, including the ones Human Rights Watch documented.

Gaza City

At about 10:30 a.m. on November 12, a projectile, apparently a rocket fired by a Palestinian armed group hit the office of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (PICHR), located on the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors of the Harara building in Gaza City. There were no fatalities or injuries. Staff told Human Rights Watch that there were no deaths as the rocket damaged only the fifth floor and all employees were on sixth and seventh floors during the incident.

An employee said:

At about 10:30 a.m., some of my colleagues and I were in our offices, watching the funeral procession of Abu Atta [an Islamic Jihad militant killed on November 12] from the window. A few minutes later, everyone returned to work. Most of us were on the sixth and seventh floors of the building...Suddenly I heard an explosion and fell down. Everything went dark and there was dust and broken glass. The fifth floor was completely destroyed and part of the sixth floor collapsed.

Human Rights Watch visited the site on December 8 and was unable to find any munition remnants. Human Rights Watch also found no coverage by Palestinian media outlets of the incident. As in the case of the Jabalya incident, this would appear to indicate that a Palestinian armed group rocket that may have misfired caused the strike.

International Humanitarian Law

Military authorities are legally obliged to carefully assess the nature of their target to ensure that they attack only combatants and military objectives, to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian harm, and to ensure that any such harm is not disproportionate to the military advantage gained in the same attack.

International law prohibits indiscriminate attacks, which are not directed against a military objective, or which employ a method that cannot be directed at a specific military objective, or a method whose effects cannot be limited as required by international humanitarian law.

International law also requires combatants, when targeting military objectives, to take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event to minimize, civilian casualties.

When parties to a conflict kill civilians whose presence they fail to detect before striking, it raises serious concerns about how they ascertained whether civilians are in the vicinity of a target and whether they took all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm.

If a party to a conflict knows that civilians are present or near the site of a military objective, they must determine that the harm caused to civilians is proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated in the attack.

As part of their obligation to ensure that the objects of an attack are military objectives and not civilians or civilian objects and to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian casualties, military authorities should carefully assess the nature of the targeted structures and the pattern of life there as close to the time of the attack as feasible.

International law also requires compensation for civilian victims in the event of violations of international law. When losses occur, even in the absence of violations of international humanitarian law, civilians should receive assistance or redress. This can take the form of payments for loss of civilian life and property – often known as ex gratia payments – made without legal obligation and non-monetary acknowledgement of the harm done.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
 

A pile of shoes during the annual demonstration by NGO Humanity and Inclusion denouncing antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions in Lyon on September 20, 2014.

© 2014 Getty Images

(Washington, DC) – The Trump Administration’s decision to cancel a policy to eliminate all antipersonnel landmines reverses years of steady steps toward alignment with the 1997 treaty banning the weapons, Human Rights Watch said today. The new United States policy rolls back the US prohibitions on landmine production and use.

“Most of the world’s countries have embraced the ban on antipersonnel landmines for more than two decades, while the Trump administration has done a complete about-face in deciding to cling to these weapons in perpetuity,” said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch. “Using landmines, which have claimed so many lives and limbs, is not justified by any country or group under any circumstances.”

The new policy repeals a 2014 policy directive issued by the Obama administration, which banned US production and acquisition of antipersonnel landmines, as well as their use outside of a future conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The directive included a commitment not to assist, encourage, or induce other nations to use, stockpile, produce, or transfer antipersonnel mines.

The US participated in the Ottawa Process, which led to the creation of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. The Clinton administration set the goal of joining in 2006. However, in 2004, the Bush administration announced a new policy rejecting the treaty. The 2014 policy by the Obama administration once again set the goal of joining the Mine Ban Treaty, but President Barack Obama never sent the treaty to the Senate recommending US accession.

A total of 164 countries are party to the Mine Ban Treaty, which entered into force on March 1, 1999. Human Rights Watch chairs the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate, together with Jody Williams.

“With this policy, the US is marching out of step with its allies,” said Goose. In recent years, landmines have only been used by regimes known for their human rights abuses in Burma and Syria, and by non-state armed groups like ISIS.

While the administration claims landmines are necessary for US forces, the US has not used antipersonnel mines since 1991, has not exported them since 1992, has not produced them since 1997, and has destroyed millions of stockpiled mines.

Similarly, in December 2017, the Trump administration announced a new policy ending a longstanding US policy not to use unreliable cluster munitions and to destroy its stocks, a move that completely disregarded the widely accepted international ban on these weapons. Cluster munitions typically open in the air, dispersing multiple bomblets or submunitions over a wide area. Many submunitions fail to explode on initial impact, leaving unexploded duds that can act like landmines for years to come unless cleared and destroyed.

“Trump’s new policy to use antipersonnel mines any time anywhere in the world is a retrograde action that should be condemned,” Goose said. “All presidential candidates should endorse the goal of banning landmines.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protester picks up a tear gas grenade during a police charge on December 8, 2019 on the Champs Elysees, Paris.

© 2018 Kartik Raj/Human Rights Watch

This week, France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced that French police would stop using the controversial GLI-F4 tear gas grenade. This move is long overdue, but doesn’t address serious concerns about other weapons French police still use to control crowds.

In December 2018, Human Rights Watch documented injuries caused by police weapons during France’s “yellow vest” mobilizations and unrelated student protests, including people whose limbs were burned and maimed by presumed use of GLI-F4 instant tear gas grenades, which carry 25g of high explosive. The report also documented cases in which people were shot and injured by rubber ball-shaped projectiles (known as “flashballs,” based on one manufacturer’s trademark), and disproportionate use of chemical spray and “stingball” riot-control grenades. Amnesty International documented similar violations and the French human rights ombudsman has repeatedly called for an end to use of or revised guidelines for the use of some of these weapons.

Protests and demonstrations over France’s labor laws, social security cuts, and a governmental pension reform have been ongoing and look set to continue into 2020.

The majority of demonstrations have been peaceful, but some protesters have committed violence, including against police officers, and destroyed property. French police, however, have resorted too readily to excessive force and deploying these weapons. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency’s guidance, and the French Police Code of Ethics all stipulate that the use of force, including the use of nonlethal weapons, is legitimate only when necessary and proportionate.

The withdrawal of the GLI-F4 grenade is the result of sustained public pressure from NGOs, journalists, and litigation pressure by lawyers acting on behalf of clients injured by these weapons during the protests. And the move should reduce the risk of people’s hands and feet, in particular, being burned and maimed. Only time will tell how its replacement, the non-explosive carrying GM2L tear-gas grenade, will factor into French riot police response to protests.

Every 25g of explosive removed from the heated equation of police facing off with protestors is a good thing. But implementing a genuine human rights-centred policing approach to crowd control requires review of tactics, training, and ending the use of more of these weapons altogether.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am