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

Image of a US Army AH-64E Apache attack helicopter.

© 2020 US Army/Specialist Cody Rich
(Washington, DC) – The US Congress should block or delay sales of almost $2 billion in attack helicopters and munitions to the Philippines until the government adopts major reforms to end military abuses and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today. The Trump administration notified Congress in late April 2020 of two possible Foreign Military Sales by the US military to the Philippines, one for $1.5 billion including six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, a second for $450 million including six AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, both with accompanying guided missiles, rockets, and light cannon ammunition, as well as ongoing service contracts for training, parts, and maintenance.

The Philippines military has a long track record of violations of human rights and the laws of war during counter-insurgency operations against the communist New People’s Army and Moro armed groups, including disregard of civilian life, hundreds of extrajudicial executions, mistreatment of displaced people, and indiscriminate attacks. The military also has a poor record of holding those responsible for human rights abuses accountable.

“Approving contracts for attack helicopters would be sending a terrible message to the Philippine government that long-running military abuses without accountability have no consequences on the US-Philippines relationship,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Congress should be impressing upon the Philippine government that real reforms are needed to end military abuses before deals like this can be approved.” 

The Philippine military has a deeply rooted culture of impunity, Human Rights Watch said. Data from the Philippines Department of National Defense indicate that only one soldier has been convicted of an extrajudicial killing since 2001.

For much of the past decade, the US Congress has imposed conditions or restrictions on military assistance to the Philippines, communicating that cuts could only be restored if the Philippine government systematically improved its record, which the government never did. The arrest in August 2014 of Jovito Palparan, a retired Army major general implicated in numerous cases of abductions, torture, and killing, and his conviction in 2018, was a rare challenge to the impunity for military personnel, which multiple Philippine presidential administrations have failed to adequately address. There have been no other such convictions.

Unlawful attacks against leftists that the military accuse of being members of or sympathizers with the New People’s Army have continued, particularly in the central Philippine island of Negros. The government has also ramped up its dangerous anti-communist rhetoric against these individuals and groups.

The US State Department has not received any assurances about where these weapons systems would be deployed or for what purpose, Human Rights Watch said.

Congress has various means to stop or delay the sales. Members of Congress can introduce a “resolution of disapproval” and seek to vote it into law, and individual members on certain committees can place a “hold” on the sales pending further review.

If the sales goes forward, the US government should put the Philippines on notice that ongoing and future servicing and supply of parts for the weapons systems will cease in the event the systems are used illegally. Under US law illegal use of weapons constitute a violation of their End Use Certificates, which impose various restrictions on their use after a sale.

The proposed sales come at a time of a deeply deteriorating human rights situation in the Philippines and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. After President Rodrigo Duterte began his “war on drugs” in mid-2016, the police have killed more than 5,600 people in anti-drug operations, according to official statistics. Thousands more have died in killings attributed to unidentified gunmen. The killings have orphaned thousands of children who suffer from the emotional, psychological, and economic impacts of the campaign. More than 100 children have been killed between 2016 and 2018.

“The US should not be selling advanced military systems to an abusive, unaccountable Philippine military under cover of a global pandemic,” Sifton said. “Congress needs to act now.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Three men in full combat gear wearing protective face masks against Covid-19, in Tripoli, Libya on March 25, 2020

© 2020 Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In early April, a photograph of three fighters on one of Tripoli’s front lines grabbed social media’s attention both for its poignancy and the absurdity of the situation. The photo was of three heavily armed men in full combat gear wearing protective face masks against Covid-19.

In Libya, the war to conquer Tripoli has intensified, with devastating consequences for the civilian population, since the country confirmed its first case of Covid-19 at the end of March. Forces affiliated with the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) under the command of Khalifa Haftar have increased their shelling of residential neighborhoods close to the front lines in the southern suburbs of Tripoli. The UN says that Haftar’s forces, who get most of their military support from the United Arab Emirates, inflicted the vast majority of civilian casualties in the first three months of the year.

Meanwhile, the Government of National Accord (GNA) and affiliated forces, supported mostly by Turkey, have made major advances since mid-April, but show little sign of changing their methods. In the past, they have failed to ensure that there were no civilians adjacent to the military facilities they targeted, heightening the risk of civilian harm.

These attacks contributed to the World Health Organization decision to include Libya among the countries at high risk from Covid-19. The organization also said that Libya had weak capacities to detect and respond to Covid-19. The risk of a total system being quickly overwhelmed should the disease spread in Libya is acute. The authorities, particularly in the conflict-ridden west and south, won’t be able to cope with large numbers of patients.

In its first quarter civilian casualty report for 2020, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya noted an increase of 45 percent in civilian casualties from the fourth quarter of 2019.

Over the past year, we have documented serious violations of the laws of war by groups affiliated with the GNA and LAAF as well as their foreign backers. Both sides are guilty of indiscriminate and other unlawful attacks against civilians that have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths since the conflict began in April 2019.

The attacks that often killed civilians included airstrikes and drone strikes as well as shelling of homes, businesses, schools, and health facilities. According to the UN, which attributed most of the casualties to the LAAF, airstrikes were the leading cause of civilian casualties in 2019.

After years of political divisions, neglect, and armed conflict, Libya’s health structures were already decimated, long before the coronavirus outbreak.

But the pandemic does not seem to have led either side to take more steps to protect civilians in the war, in which hospitals and medical staff have been repeatedly attacked.

During a December visit to Tripoli, I saw first-hand the devastating effect of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas that damaged vital civilian infrastructure, including healthcare facilities. I visited hospitals that had been damaged or shuttered, and field clinics that had been attacked, and documented cases in which ambulance drivers and emergency first responders were killed or injured in the line of duty.

The pandemic does not seem to have led either side to take more steps to protect civilians in the war, in which hospitals and medical staff have been repeatedly attacked.

In the Salaheddin southern suburbs of Tripoli, I visited two private clinics close to the front lines that had been affected by the fighting. The al-Umuma Clinic was shuttered after a rocket attack killed an ambulance driver and damaged the hospital. The driver Salem Infeis, a father of three, was killed by an LAAF airstrike that struck the ambulance he was driving in October. A lone mortar in November killed a 9-year-old boy who was accompanying his mother, a patient at the nearby Al-Nukhba Clinic, another private hospital that was still treating a small number of patients. Tripoli authorities accuse the LAAF in both incidents.

The World Health Organization reported 13 attacks on healthcare in Libya in 2020 through early May, damaging eight healthcare facilities and three transport vehicles. The attacks also resulted in 5 deaths of healthcare personnel, with 17 injured.

International humanitarian law – the legal framework governing the Libyan conflict –  covers the conduct of the fighting, including the protection of civilians, not whether there should be a cessation of hostilities during a pandemic. But it stipulates several key provisions relevant to a pandemic according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The parties are forbidden to attack, destroy, remove, or leave useless objects that are indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as drinking water installations, and are obligated to take constant care to spare civilian objects. Given the current crisis, water supply facilities are of critical importance as any disruptions mean that civilians would no longer be able to do basic prevention by washing their hands frequently, which could lead to further spread of the virus.

The conflict parties in Libya tore up the rule book many years ago and have been operating with impunity, virtually unchallenged

Well-functioning and well-equipped medical facilities are necessary to provide medical care on a large scale, as necessitated by the Coronavirus outbreak. The parties are obligated to respect and protect medical personnel and their facilities and transports, as well as to respect and protect wounded and sick peoples and to make every effort to evacuate them without delay.

I can report that the parties to this conflict have violated these provisions many times over.

In fact, the conflict parties in Libya tore up the rule book many years ago and have been operating with impunity, virtually unchallenged, despite the International Criminal Court’s mandate over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide there since 15 February, 2011.

I have some hope that the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva will establish an International Commission of Inquiry during its upcoming session in June. As a first step toward accountability, such a commission should document violations, identify those responsible, including external actors, preserve evidence for future criminal proceedings, and publicly report on human rights conditions in Libya.

Emboldened after years of getting away with their crimes, armed groups in Libya are continuing to destroy the country’s fragile health infrastructure during a deadly pandemic.

What’s clear, though, is that masks will be of little use to anyone if those fighting in the war continue to destroy the little that is left of the Libyan medical and public health establishment whose job is to fight the spread of a virus so deadly that it has practically immobilized the whole world.

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

Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic welcome Ireland’s March 2020 draft of a political declaration to strengthen the protection of civilians from the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. We appreciate the improvements made since the January paper that outlined draft elements of the declaration. We also commend the efforts to make progress during complicated times and amidst new realities of remote collaboration.

In this new draft, we particularly welcome the:

  • Increased attention to the harm associated with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, including several references to reverberating effects;
  • Clarification of the distinction between the legal framework and political commitments; and
  • Sharpening of language of individual paragraphs.

Despite these positive changes, to maximize the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, the draft declaration should be strengthened in several ways. 

First, the political declaration should do more to accurately present the harm caused by explosive weapons. The draft repeatedly describes this harm as something that “can” occur, thus downplaying a well-documented humanitarian problem. The qualifier “can” should be deleted. In addition, while the draft includes multiple references to reverberating effects, the preamble should explain more clearly what those are.

Second, the declaration should do more to maximize the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Most importantly, it should strengthen paragraph 3.3, the key preventive commitment, and promote a presumption against the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, including by revising paragraph 1.5. It should also keep the focus on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which is the subject of the declaration, and consistently use that terminology, rather than urban warfare, urban areas, and other constructs.

Third, the declaration should do more to address the harm that has occurred from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. There are two main ways to achieve this end: (1) paragraph 4.3 on victim assistance, which was minimally modified in the March draft, should articulate a clear and detailed commitment to help those affected by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas; and (2) the paragraphs on data collection and sharing should encompass a broader range of civilian impacts as well as information on what and how explosive weapons were used. Such data can inform measures to prevent and remediate harm. In addition, efforts to “amplify the voices of those affected” could be given more attention.

Our commentary below elaborates on these concerns and analyzes the draft declaration paragraph-by-paragraph. Wherever we offer suggestions for amending the text, the changes are indicated in italics. Our recommendations all seek to advance the humanitarian goal of the political declaration.

Part A, Section 1

Paragraph 1.1

Like many political declarations, the draft declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas seeks to place its subject in a larger context. Its opening sentence, however, presents multiple problems. First, it ties the political declaration to a specific moment in time by referring to “contemporary” conflicts and by assessing the situation as it stands today. It also makes a judgment without clear supporting evidence that at this point in time the situation for civilians is growing worse. We recommend replacing the first sentence with less time-bound and more neutral language that still provides context for the focus of the political declaration—i.e., the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

While the wording of the second sentence could be improved, it is important to retain the explicit reference to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Paragraph 1.2

Unlike the January draft elements, the draft political declaration inserts the word “can” before descriptions of the harm associated with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The addition of this qualifier significantly weakens those descriptions by implying that they refer only to potential impacts. The foreseeability of the impacts, however, has been well documented, and, therefore, “can” should be removed from this paragraph and other comparable parts of the political declaration.

We recommend that the first sentence of paragraph 1.2 begin with the phrase, “The use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas has a devastating impact…,” in order to make the language consistent with other parts of the political declaration.

We welcome the addition in the draft political declaration of an explicit reference to the reverberating effects associated with the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. Paragraph 1.2 should clarify, however, what those reverberating effects are. It should highlight, for example, the impacts on basic services and people’s abilities to support themselves and their families. The paragraph could insert a new sentence after the third one that reads, “The destruction of such infrastructure interferes with public services, such as health care and education, and with civilians’ livelihoods.”

In addition to elaborating on the description of reverberating effects, the paragraph should add communications systems to its list of critical civilian infrastructure. Similarly, we recommend that the fourth sentence include the environment—in addition to housing, schools, and cultural heritage sites—in its list of objects whose destruction causes civilian suffering.

While we welcome the inclusion of the reference to psychological and psychosocial harms in the last sentence, the term “urban warfare” should be replaced with “the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.” This change would preserve the focus of the paragraph.

Paragraph 1.3

States should remove the qualifier “can” in paragraph 1.3, as in paragraph 1.2. The use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas foreseeably leads to displacement, explosive remnants of war, and impediments to the Sustainable Development Goals.

The sentence on explosive remnants of war should be sharpened in three ways. First, in order to keep the focus on the source of the problems discussed in paragraph 1.2, we recommend replacing “urban armed conflict” with “the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.” Second, the sentence should specify that explosive remnants of war cause casualties during, as well as “long after,” a conflict. Third, we recommend moving the phrase on causing casualties before the language about displaced persons, in order to clarify that explosive remnants of war do not cause casualties only among displaced persons. To address all of these points, states could reword the sentence to read: “Explosive remnants of war resulting from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas cause casualties during and after hostilities, and impede the return of displaced persons.”

Paragraph 1.4

“Violations of international humanitarian law” should be changed to “other  violations of international humanitarian law” if the sentence’s structure remains as is. Exploiting the proximity of civilians and using improvised explosive devices against civilians are also violations of international humanitarian law.

The opening phrase of this sentence should be changed from “Tactics designed to exploit the proximity …” to “Exploitation of the proximity …” because it is the exploitation rather than the tactics that violate international humanitarian law.

The sentence could be clarified in the following way: “Violations of international humanitarian law—such as exploitation of the proximity of civilians and civilian objects to military objectives in populated areas, and use of improvised explosive devices directed against civilians and civilian objects—including by non-State armed groups, exacerbate the challenges raised by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and are of grave concern.”

Paragraph 1.5

We welcome this paragraph’s acknowledgement that the “inherent difficulty” in directing and limiting the effects of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas has humanitarian consequences. The first sentence, however, should remove the word “can” for the reasons discussed under paragraph 1.2. The sentence is even more problematic because it implies a presumption that it is acceptable to use explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. A presumption of non-use, which could be rebutted if civilians were not put at risk, would have a greater humanitarian impact.
 
The rest of the paragraph is problematic on two counts. First, it shifts the focus away from addressing the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons and discusses measures to protect civilians more generally. At the same time, its placement with the previous sentence suggests that “good operational policies and practices” are sufficient to address the difficulties associated with the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. There is ample evidence, however, that good practices, shared or otherwise, are inadequate to prevent the impact of explosive weapons on civilians.
 
While the paragraph appropriately notes the importance of protecting civilians and better implementing international humanitarian law, the paragraph should be revisited due to the troublesome implications noted above.

Paragraph 1.6

We welcome the draft political declaration’s recognition of the importance of collecting disaggregated data, but the declaration should also acknowledge the need to collect data beyond civilian casualties. Specifically, the paragraph should reference data on other types of civilian impacts, including the reverberating effects of explosive weapons in populated areas, as well as specifics of the operational use of explosive weapons in populated areas, including the type of weapons used, the intended targets, and the circumstances of use.

The data could also be disaggregated along more expansive lines than sex and age. Adding factors such as race, disability status, economic status, and ethnicity would increase understanding of how individuals are affected by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and improve the ability to reduce disparate impacts.

Finally, the paragraph would be stronger and more consistent with paragraph 3.3 if it used the phrase “avoid” civilian harm, rather than “mitigate” civilian harm.

Paragraph 1.7

Paragraph 1.7 includes several important but unrelated elements. To increase clarity and ensure the elements are not undervalued, they should be divided into stand-alone paragraphs or merged with other paragraphs that are more on point.

The opening sentence regarding the work of the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and civil society can stand on its own.

The clause in the second sentence about empowering and amplifying the voices of victims of explosive weapons used in populated areas is fundamental to the declaration’s aim of helping civilians. Therefore, it should be separated and moved higher in the preamble, perhaps as its own paragraph. In addition to women and girls, the text could also refer to other vulnerable or disadvantaged groups, such as children and the elderly; persons with disabilities; migrants; racial, ethnic, religious, national, or other minorities; etc.

The second sentence’s clause encouraging further research should be a separate paragraph or part of paragraph 1.6 on data collection. The word “potential” should be deleted because the gendered impacts are well-documented.

The final sentence of the paragraph should also be amended and separated. First, it should refer to “direct, indirect, and reverberating humanitarian consequences” to cover all of the effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and be consistent with other parts of the political declaration. Second, it should refer to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, rather than “the conduct of hostilities in urban areas” to maintain the focus of the declaration. Third, it should delete “can” for the same reasons discussed under paragraph 1.2 The last sentence could be revised to read: “We stress the imperative of addressing the direct, indirect, and reverberating humanitarian consequences that result from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.” Given its overarching importance, the sentence could be moved higher in the preamble.

Part A, Section 2

Paragraph 2.2

This paragraph notes that international humanitarian law regulates armed conflict and is applicable to “the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in all operating environments.” Because international humanitarian law is applicable to the use of all explosive weapons—not only those with wide area effects—the phrase “with wide area effects” should be removed from this paragraph. The paragraph could read: “International humanitarian law … is applicable to the use of explosive weapons in all operating environments …”

In addition, as discussed under paragraph 1.6, using the phrase “avoid civilian harm” instead of “mitigate civilian harm” would be stronger and more consistent with paragraph 3.3.

Paragraph 2.3

While this paragraph accurately characterizes international humanitarian law as creating obligations on all parties to armed conflict, it shifts the focus of the political declaration from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas to the conduct of hostilities in populated areas. We recommend that states tailor this paragraph to address specifically the former in order to preserve the focus of the political declaration.

Paragraph 2.3 (bis)

The January draft elements “welcome[d] initiatives designed to foster clarity and enhance the implementation of existing obligations under IHL” in its paragraph 2.2. We recommend re-inserting language that recognizes, in some way, the importance of clarifying as well as better implementing the law. This language could be inserted as a separate paragraph before or after paragraph 2.4.

Paragraph 2.4

As we noted in our comments on the January draft elements, many organizations and UN bodies have worked to strengthen the protection of civilians during armed conflict, and the paragraph should recognize a broader range of parallel efforts, rather than single out the work of the UN Security Council.

Part B, Section 3

General Comments

As it stands, the text of Section 3 refers to “armed conflict in urban areas,” “conduct of hostilities in populated areas,” “execution of attacks in populated areas,” and “military operations in urban warfare.” These multifarious references are not only inconsistent with each other but also shift away from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. To sharpen the focus of the section and to harmonize the terminology, we recommend replacing these different phrases with “the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.” This amendment would increase consistency with the overarching aim of the political declaration.

Chapeau

We welcome the explicit reference to “the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas” in the chapeau. States, however, should delete the word “can” from the last line of the sentence. As discussed under paragraph 1.2, the word “can” implies that the occurrence of harm is but a possibility, when in fact the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas has a foreseeable devastating impact.

Paragraph 3.1

To clarify the goal of national policy and practice, we recommend replacing the phrase “with regard to” the protection of civilians with “to maximize,” “to enhance,” or “to promote” the protection of civilians. Moreover, for the reasons discussed above, we recommend replacing the phrase “the protection of civilians during armed conflict in urban areas” with “the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.”

Paragraph 3.2

International humanitarian law already obliges states to ensure the training of armed forces. In order to better tailor this commitment to the declaration’s overarching aim and to add substance to the existing obligation, the paragraph should place that obligation in the specific context of civilian protection from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Paragraph 3.3

While we recognize and welcome the relative improvement of this commitment from the January draft elements, it should be further refined. States should delete the phrase “whose effects extend beyond the immediate area of a military objective” because it creates confusion and potentially weakens the commitment. If the phrase is understood as a descriptor of wide area effects, it is unnecessary and diverges from the common view of wide area effects as being caused by a wide blast and fragmentation radius, inaccuracy, or the delivery of multiple munitions at once. The phrase is even more problematic if it is understood as adding a condition that would narrow the restrictions on the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

In addition, to increase civilian protection, the commitment should strengthen the phrase “restricting the use.” This goal could be achieved by using the phrase “avoiding the use.”

We also recommend directing this commitment to states generally, rather than only to their armed forces. Deleting the reference to armed forces would make this commitment more consistent with other commitments.

Paragraph 3.4

The first clause of this paragraph should be strengthened by deleting the phrase “making every effort” and changing “consider” to “take into account.” In addition, for the reasons discussed under paragraph 3.3, this operative commitment should delete the reference to “armed forces” and be generalized to apply to states.

The paragraph’s second clause requires mitigation measures to limit civilian harm. To increase civilian protection and be consistent with the goal of paragraph 3.3, that clause could refer instead to measures to “avoid harm.”

Finally, to maintain the focus of the political declaration, the paragraph should reference the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas and specify that its effects are foreseeable. That paragraph could read, for example, “Take into account, in the planning of military operations in populated areas, the foreseeable direct, indirect, and reverberating effects on civilians of the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, and take appropriate measures to avoid harm to civilians.”

Paragraph 3.5

This paragraph should be explicitly tied to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas by revising it to read: “Ensure the marking, clearance, and removal or destruction of explosive remnants of war, including from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas,…”

Paragraph 3.6

Consistent with the recommendations made for the preceding paragraphs, this paragraph should place the commitment in the specific context of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas instead of the broader “military operations in urban warfare.”

Paragraph 3.7

This paragraph reiterates an existing obligation of international humanitarian law and thus would be more appropriately placed in Section 2.

Part B, Section 4

Paragraph 4.1

Though armed forces are central to the goals laid out in paragraph 4.1, states should acknowledge in the declaration that the community of practice to enhance the protection of civilians extends beyond armed forces to a variety of other actors, including international organizations, civil society organizations, survivors and their organizations, and government entities other than the armed forces.

Paragraph 4.2

The collection and sharing of disaggregated data on the impacts on civilians is critical, but as noted under paragraph 1.6, states should capture a broader range of data. The data should encompass “reverberating effects,” which have been recognized in the political declaration’s preamble, in addition to the direct and indirect effects. States should also track the types of weapons used, their intended targets, and the circumstances of their use. The phrase “our military operations involving” should be deleted because collecting and sharing data about use of explosive weapons in populated areas is important, regardless of the user.

We further recommend deletion of the phrase “where appropriate” because it waters down the commitment to share data that is crucial to reducing the humanitarian effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Finally, states should change “urban areas” to “populated areas” to maintain the declaration’s focus on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Paragraph 4.3

We welcome the recognition of the important work of not only the United Nations and the ICRC, but also “other organizations.” Elsewhere, however, the declaration explicitly recognizes “civil society organizations.” We recommend using parallel language here.

Here, as in other paragraphs, states should change the term “urban areas” to “populated areas.”

In addition, we recommend ending the paragraph after the new reference to “populated areas” (formerly “urban areas”). Data gathering by these organizations is not always done to “complement and support” states’ efforts.

Paragraph 4.4

We are disappointed that there were no significant improvements to this paragraph on victim assistance. We welcome the addition of the words “holistic” and “integrated,” but as we noted in our analysis of the January draft elements, the language of paragraph 4.4 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 explosive weapons in populated areas. Second, the term “victim” is commonly understood to encompass individuals, families, and affected communities. Therefore, the paragraph should be revised to refer to “injured individuals, survivors, family members of people killed and/or injured, and affected communities.” Third, the paragraph should specify key forms of assistance, which include ensuring that basic needs are met (safety, shelter, food, water, medical care, hygiene, and sanitation), and providing longer-term medical care, rehabilitation, psychosocial support, and socio-economic inclusion. 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 4.4 with language proposed by Humanity and Inclusion, our partner in the International Network on Explosive Weapons:

Provide, facilitate, and support assistance to victims—people critically injured, survivors, family members of people killed and/or injured, and affected communities—to ensure they 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 their societies.

Paragraph 4.6

In this paragraph, states should include language on the direct, indirect, and reverberating humanitarian impacts; the political declaration should reference reverberating effects, which are discussed in paragraph 1.2, whenever it addresses the harms caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

In addition, the paragraph should ensure states support measures to address the use of all explosive weapons in populated areas, rather than only those with wide area effects.

Paragraph 4.7

Rather than simply encouraging cooperation, we recommend that states commit themselves to “cooperate with,” “partner with,” or “consult with” the various stakeholders noted in this paragraph. We also urge states to add specificity to this paragraph regarding how, when, and on what issues such cooperation should take place.

Paragraph 4.8

We welcome the inclusion of a commitment to hold follow-up meetings to further the implementation of this declaration. “Periodically,” however, should be replaced with “annually” to ensure meetings take place on a set schedule. In addition, we encourage states to commit to “improve compliance with international humanitarian law,” rather than with “existing international humanitarian law,” recognizing that international humanitarian law will continue to develop.

States should also delete the phrase “with wide area effects” from this paragraph, as the annual review of the implementation of the declaration and the protection of civilians from harm relates to the use of all explosive weapons in populated areas, not just those with wide area effects.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Artists and activists participate in a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots event outside Germany’s parliament, February 2020.

© 2020 Human Rights Watch

This week, Germany convened the first-ever major digital disarmament meeting for governments and civil society. Representatives from more than 70 countries logged on to participate in the two-day meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as fully autonomous weapons or killer robots.

The meeting’s goal was to explore the international framework and commitments needed to address mounting concerns over the dangers of removing meaningful human control from the use of force.

Scientists, roboticists, and artificial intelligence experts have long warned of the dangers posed by permitting machines to select and engage targets without further human intervention. That sentiment is now widely shared. In opening the Berlin Forum, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “letting machines decide over life and death of human beings goes against ethical standards and undermines human dignity.”

Human Rights Watch concurs with the minister’s comment that permitting fully autonomous weapons is “a red line we should never cross.” A new international treaty to ban such weapons is the only logical way to prevent such a disastrous development.

In her remarks to the Berlin Forum, Human Rights Watch senior researcher Bonnie Docherty made the case for a treaty prohibiting weapons systems that select and engage targets autonomously and present fundamental moral and legal challenges. Such a legally-binding instrument must establish a general obligation that states maintain meaningful human control over the use of force.

Initiatives such as the Berlin Forum are helping the international community to lay collective groundwork for such a treaty. This online meeting shows how governments are innovating and adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital diplomatic efforts such as this one are essential to keep up multilateral dialogue and advance efforts to protect humanity from serious threats such as killer robots.

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

Three people walk along a road are seen during a government-organized visit for journalists in  Buthidaung townships close to the surge of fighting between ethnic armed rebel group of the Arakan Army and government troops in the restive Rakhine state on January 25, 2019. 

© 2019 RICHARD SARGENT/AFP via Getty Images
(New York) – A surge in fighting in Myanmar’s Rakhine State during February 2020 has killed and injured numerous civilians, adding to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the conflict-riven region, Human Rights Watch said today. The Myanmar military and the insurgent Arakan Army should safeguard civilians from the fighting, abide by the laws of war, and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.

On February 29, five civilians were killed and at least eight others were injured in clashes between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army near Mrauk-U town, according to media reports. An ethnic Rakhine nongovernmental organization estimated that at least 18 civilians were killed and 71 were injured during fighting in February, though the actual casualties could be higher because the government’s mobile internet blackout has slowed information-gathering.

“The Myanmar military and the Arakan Army need to take immediate steps to minimize harm to civilians during the fighting and allow aid to reach all villages and communities in need,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should immediately restore full internet access so that abuses can be reported, and aid agencies can do their jobs.”

Since January 2019, fighting between the Myanmar military, called the Tatmadaw, and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group, has resulted in numerous civilian casualties and destruction of civilian property. At least 21 children were injured on February 13, when artillery fire reportedly hit a school in Khamwe Chaung village, Buthidaung township.

The Rakhine State government estimates that approximately 50,000 people have been displaced since fighting escalated in 2019. However, local civil society networks told Human Rights Watch that at least 100,000 people have been displaced in Rakhine and adjoining Chin States, many of whom are taking shelter in informal camps in villages and monasteries. Many people have not been able to get needed help because of government restrictions on access to the areas, and the informality of these settlements.

More than a year of fighting has forced families to flee multiple times as villages have been repeatedly shelled. “We didn’t arrive in Sittwe [the Rakhine State capital] immediately,” Marlar, a 55-year-old teacher from Kyauktan village in Rathedaung township, told Human Rights Watch. She said that her family had initially fled to the town of Rathedaung but had not felt safe after hearing the sounds of fighting every day.

Htun Yaing Oo, 63, from Hing Kay Yaw village in Myebon township, said he had been fleeing the fighting since December, after army soldiers arrived in his village. He said the soldiers rounded up everyone in the village to identify Arakan Army fighters. “We all fled the village after that,” he said. “First, we went from Kandawzaygyi, but there was fighting near there too, so we finally came here to Sittwe.”

On February 3, the Myanmar government again suspended mobile internet services in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Myebon townships in Rakhine State and Paletwa township in Chin State. Added to four other Rakhine State townships – Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, and Minbya – where mobile internet service has been blocked since June 21, 2019, this leaves people in nine townships unable to get online using their cell phones. The effective information blackout affects about a million people.

Under international human rights law, Myanmar needs to ensure that any internet-based restrictions are provided for by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information, or to harm civilians’ ability to peacefully assemble and express political views.

Three United Nations special rapporteurs said in a joint statement on February 18 that “[t]he blanket suspension of mobile internet cannot be justified and must end immediately. The government must also lift its restrictions and grant immediate access to the media, humanitarian organisations and human rights monitors.”

Sources on the ground have alleged that both the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army have prevented humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in need. The media reported that Tatmadaw forces tried to prevent civilians wounded in the fighting from reaching urgent medical treatment. The Arakan Army stated on February 21 that it may seize food aid to Paletwa township in Chin State if the aid groups fail to obtain permission from local authorities. The insurgent group has reportedly cut off routes into Paletwa, worsening food shortages there.

Local aid groups told Human Rights Watch it had become increasingly difficult to monitor the situation on the ground. Since January 14, the Rakhine State government has imposed travel restrictions on both national and international aid agencies. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that 8 out of 17 townships in the state are closed to humanitarian groups.

The fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army is governed by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which applies to both national armed forces and non-state armed groups. The laws of war obligate the parties to a conflict to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to take all feasible precautions to minimize incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects.

All warring parties are prohibited from deliberately attacking civilians or civilian objects, as well as carrying out indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. Indiscriminate attacks are attacks that strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. An attack is disproportionate if it could be expected to cause civilian loss greater than the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack. Parties should avoid using explosive weapons with wide area effects, such as artillery and mortar shells, in populated areas due to the foreseeable harm to civilians.

Under the laws of war, parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid passage of humanitarian aid for civilians in need and not interfere with it arbitrarily. Parties must also ensure the freedom of movement of humanitarian workers, which can only be restricted temporarily for imperative military reasons.

“The harm to civilians from the fighting is made much worse by the lack of access to humanitarian aid,” Robertson said. “Both the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army need to abide by international law and ensure that life-saving aid reaches civilians at risk.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

An Afghan orthopedic technician makes artificial limbs in a workshop at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) hospital in Kabul. 

© 2019 Wakil Kohsar/AFP

(Washington, DC) – The United States should reverse its decision to allow the US to use landmines anywhere in the world in perpetuity, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch issued a question-and-answer document reviewing the landmine policy changes.

A January 31, 2020 memo by Defense Secretary Mark Esper reverses a 2014 ban on US production and acquisition of antipersonnel landmines, as well as their use outside of a future conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The policy decision nullifies years of steps by the US to align its policy and practice with the 1997 treaty banning antipersonnel landmines. 

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The US last used antipersonnel mines in 1991, has not exported them since 1992, has not produced them since 1997, and has destroyed millions of stockpiled mines.

“Nations that have banned landmines are understandably dismayed by the US decision to produce and use these indiscriminate weapons,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “Continued vigilance is needed to defend the emerging norm against antipersonnel mines.”

The Mine Ban Treaty president, Ambassador Osman Abufatima Adam Mohammad of Sudan, criticized the new policy for going against the US government’s “long-standing commitment to work towards the eradication of the suffering” caused by antipersonnel landmines.

Mine Ban Treaty States Parties such as Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom have expressed concern and disappointment over the new US policy, as has the European Union.

The Mine Ban Treaty, which entered into force on March 1, 1999, comprehensively prohibits antipersonnel mines and requires their clearance, destruction of stockpiles, and assistance to mine victims.

A total of 164 countries have joined the Mine Ban Treaty, including all other NATO members and the US allies Australia and Japan. The US participated in the 1996-1997 Ottawa Process to negotiate the treaty, but never adopted or signed it.

More than 50 US nongovernmental organizations that are part of or support the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines issued a joint statement on February 20 that condemns the US landmine policy changes and calls on Congress to block any US acquisition or production of antipersonnel mines.

Human Rights Watch co-founded and chairs the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate.

“The US has used other means and methods to fight over the past 30 years without having to resort to using banned landmines,” Goose said. “Embracing such widely discredited weapons now will ultimately increase the risks faced by US service members.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

On January 31, 2020, the administration of President Donald Trump announced the reversal of US prohibitions on landmine production and use. The decision nullifies years of steps by the US to align its policy and practice with the 1997 treaty banning antipersonnel landmines.

The decision was outlined in a three-page policy contained in a January 31, 2020 letter signed by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. 

Human Rights Watch chairs the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate. Human Rights Watch has previously reviewed landmine policy decisions taken by President Barack Obama in 2014, President George W. Bush in 2004, and President Bill Clinton in 1998.

1. What is new in this landmine policy?

The new policy is a retrograde step. It reverses a 2014 policy decision by the Obama administration that unequivocally banned US production and acquisition of antipersonnel landmines, as well as their use outside of a future conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

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The previous policy set the US goal of joining the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, while the 2020 policy takes the US off its path toward joining the widely-respected treaty, which entered into force on March 1, 1999 and has been ratified by 164 nations.

The White House has made clear that antipersonnel landmines are the focus of the new policy, while the policy itself makes no distinction between antipersonnel and antivehicle mines. The Mine Ban Treaty prohibits antipersonnel mines, but not antivehicle mines or command-detonated (remote-controlled) mines.

The 2020 policy allows the US to develop, produce and use landmines as long as they are “non-persistent,” that is, equipped with self-destruct and self-deactivation features. The policy abandons the previous constraint on using antipersonnel mines only on the Korean peninsula and instead permits the US to use them anywhere in the world.

The policy lowers the authorization for use of landmines to the level of a four-star general acting as a regional commander. Previous policy—since 1996—required authorization at the Presidential level.

2. Why shouldn’t the US use antipersonnel landmines if it does so responsibly?

In a fact sheet entitled “Strategic Advantages of Landmines” issued with the 2020 policy announcement, the Department of Defense asserts that landmines are “a vital tool in conventional warfare” that provide “a necessary warfighting capability … while reducing the risk of unintended harm to non-combatants.”

However, just because the US can now use antipersonnel mines anywhere in the world does not mean it should do so. The political, humanitarian and other costs of doing so are too high.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) prepared by the Department of Defense for the 2020 policy announcement assert that the US needs landmines now, because “the strategic environment has changed” since 2014 with “the return of Great Power Competition and a focus on near-peer competitors” or adversaries. Defense officials announcing the policy told media they could envision the US using landmines in a variety of theaters against a range of adversaries, such as Russia and China.

According to the FAQs, “Commanders will only approve the use of landmines when necessary for mission success in major contingencies or other exceptional circumstances.” They state that “the exceptional circumstances caveat … indicates the tool [landmines] will not be a default option.” The FAQs assert that “anti-personnel landmines will be used in situations where they are most appropriate, can be used within the confines of DoD’s policy and when alternatives are not viable.”

At a February 13, 2020 policy briefing for civil society representatives, Department of Defense officials said the US does not intend to use landmines around US bases in Iraq or Afghanistan. The officials acknowledged that landmines are indiscriminate yet argued that all weapons systems are indiscriminate to a certain extent.

3. When did the US last use antipersonnel landmines?

While the administration claims landmines are necessary for US forces, the US has not used antipersonnel mines since 1991. It has fought a wide range of conflicts, both high- and low-intensity in a variety of environments, and has demonstrated that it can employ strategies, tactics, and weaponry that avoid the use of antipersonnel mines.

During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the US scattered 117,634 self-destructing/self-deactivating landmines, mostly from airplanes, in Kuwait and Iraq. A General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation found that U.S. commanders were reluctant to use the mines because of their impact on mobility, their potential for causing casualties to US or friendly forces, and other safety concerns.

In 2014, US officials acknowledged for the first time that US forces used one antipersonnel mine in Afghanistan in 2002.

The US military has refrained from using antipersonnel mines in part because of the stigma the Mine Ban Treaty has established against these weapons. All other NATO members are party to the treaty, as well as US allies Australia and Japan.

Department of Defense officials have said the US does not intend to pressure partners and allies to change their landmine policies, nor will the new US policy prevent it from conducting future operations in coalition with NATO and other partners.

The US does not maintain any minefields globally after removing its mines from around Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba from 1996-1999. The landmines already emplaced in and near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea are the responsibility of South Korean forces, not the US.

4. Why shouldn’t the US use landmines equipped with “safety” features?

The 2020 policy continues a previous 2004 policy prohibition on US use of “persistent” or “dumb” antipersonnel landmines, which lack self-destruct and self-deactivation features. It requires that “all activated landmines, regardless of whether they are remotely delivered or not,” are “designed and constructed to self-destruct in 30 days or less after emplacement and will possess a back-up self-deactivation feature.”

Such features are neither advanced nor sophisticated technology, and indeed are many decades old. Over the years, the US has used various terms to refer to “self-destruct” landmines, such as “smart” and “safe” mines,” though the weapons are neither. The 2020 policy now embraces the new term “non-persistent area denial systems.”

During the Ottawa Process to negotiate the treaty, the US tried but failed to secure a loophole in the draft treaty text to allow for self-destructing and self-deactivating mines. The Mine Ban Treaty makes no such distinction and comprehensively prohibits all types of victim-activated explosive devices, regardless of their predicted longevity, delivery method, or type of manufacture (improvised or factory-made).

Mines that are designed to self-destruct or deactivate are no better able to distinguish civilian from combatant. They still pose unacceptable risks for civilians. Civilians in “smart” minefields not only face the danger of triggering mines that have failed to self-destruct, but the danger of those mines randomly self-destructing at unknown times.

US mines can be scattered or remotely delivered by aircraft, artillery, or ground dispensers at a rate of thousands in a matter of minutes, over a wide area with little precision. Given the failure rate for self-destruction, many unexploded mines will remain on the ground with no outward indication of their “safety.” Because of the large quantities of these mines that are typically employed at one time, the danger to civilians could be greater than hand-laid non-self-destructing mines.

Self-destruction mechanisms are not 100 percent reliable and the clearance task for deminers is just as dangerous, time-consuming, and costly. Mines that have failed to self-destruct, but which may have self-deactivated, will have to be treated by deminers as live mines that may potentially explode.

Additionally, these mines, even after their “self-deactivation,” can provide material for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that could be turned against US forces.

5. How many landmines does the United States stockpile?

Current US landmine stocks consist mostly of scatterable or remotely delivered mines (as opposed to hand-emplaced) that are deployed over wide areas by aircraft, artillery, or rockets, and are equipped with a self-destruct feature designed to detonate the mine after a pre-set period of time, as well as self-deactivating features. The active stockpile consists of the following types: Artillery Delivered Antipersonnel Mine (ADAM), Ground Emplaced Mine Scattering System (GEMSS), GATOR, Volcano (in M87 dispenser only), Pursuit Deterrent Munition (PDM), and Modular Pack Mine System (MOPMS).

The US did not provide any updated figures on the number of antipersonnel landmines held in stocks during the 2020 policy announcement, but previously, in 2014, the Pentagon disclosed that the US had an “active stockpile of just over 3 million anti-personnel mines in the inventory.” This was a significant reduction from the previous stockpile of approximately 10.4 million antipersonnel mines reported in 2002.

The existing US stockpile of antipersonnel mines is expected to expire—become unusable—by the early 2030s. The shelf-life of existing antipersonnel mines stockpiled by the US decreases over time through the chemical deterioration of battery components embedded inside mines. The 2014 policy precluded the US from extending or modifying the life of the batteries inside the existing stockpile. In 2014, a US official said the US would not extend the shelf-life of existing systems, for example, by replacing their batteries, which have a shelf-life of 36 years. A Department of Defense official said, “We anticipate that they will start to decline in their ability to be used … starting in about 10 years. And in 10 years after that, they'll be completely unusable.”  

A Department of Defense fact sheet on “Landmine Safety and Technology” issued with the 2020 policy claims that “reliability of safety features of the landmines in the operational inventory is very high.” 

6. Will the US re-start production of antipersonnel mines?

While it is not explicitly stated, the 2020 policy rolls back the 2014 policy pledge to “not produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel munitions that are not compliant with the Ottawa Convention in the future, including to replace such munitions as they expire in the coming years.” According to the DoD FAQs, the 2020 policy “encourages the Military Departments to explore acquiring landmines…that could further reduce the risk of unintended harm to non-combatants.”

Yet, US defense officials commenting on the new policy told media the U.S. has sufficient inventory of so-called smart landmines that there is no need to restart production immediately.

No antipersonnel mines or other victim-activated munitions are being funded in the FY2021 ammunition procurement budgets of the US Armed Services or Defense Department.

The last time the US produced antipersonnel mines was in 1997, when it manufactured 450,000 ADAM and 13,200 CBU-89/B Gator self-destructing/self-deactivating antipersonnel mines for $120 million. The last non-self-destruct antipersonnel mines were procured in 1990, when the US Army bought nearly 80,000 M16A1 antipersonnel mines for $1.9 million.

The new US policy returns the US to the list of a dozen countries worldwide that either actively produce antipersonnel landmines or reserve the right to do so: China, Cuba, India, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam.

7. How does the new US policy affect the situation on the Korean Peninsula?

The 2014 policy allowed the US to use antipersonnel landmines on the Korean peninsula and the Trump administration policy does not change this.

Numerous retired military officers have questioned the perceived need to use antipersonnel landmines in South Korea, citing the overwhelming technological superiority of other weapons in the US-South Korean arsenal in comparison with North Korea’s. The Korea Peace Now! campaign condemned the US landmine policy change and called landmines “a threat to the peace and security of Koreans, Americans, and people all over the world.”

8. Has the US abandoned its search for alternatives to landmines?

For more than 20 years, the US has spent approximately 2 billion dollars on the development and production of weapons systems that could be considered alternatives to antipersonnel mines. The 2020 policy does not appear to abandon that search as it states that “the Military Departments should explore acquiring landmines and landmine alternatives that could further reduce the risk of unintended harm to noncombatants.” (Emphasis added)

The FY2020 procurement budgets allocates more funds to research and development of the “remote-detonated” Gator mine system, which the Department of Defense appears to have renamed as a “Deep Terrain Shaping Obstacle.”

Two previous alternatives programs included the XM-7 Spider Networked Munition and the IMS Scorpion. Both once had the potential for victim-activated features (thereby making them antipersonnel mines as defined by the Mine Ban Treaty), but they are now both strictly command-detonated by a human and therefore permissible under the treaty.  FY2021 budget justification materials do not specify if the victim-activated feature of Spider, called the “battlefield over-ride” feature, will be reinserted as the system is modernized in coming years.

The 2020 policy states that the US may “acquire ‘on/off’ area denial systems that can be remotely activated to address an imminent or probable threat and de-activated when the threat subsides.” It’s unclear if victim-activated features will be required as part of the research and development program objectives.

9. Can the United States export antipersonnel mines again?

US law has prohibited all antipersonnel mine exports since October 23, 1992, through a comprehensive moratorium enacted at the initiative of Senator Patrick Leahy. According to the new policy, the Department of Defense “will not seek to transfer landmines except as provided for under U.S. law.”

The US is one of at least 34 countries that exported antipersonnel landmines in the past. It exported over 5.6 million antipersonnel mines to 38 countries between 1969 and 1992. Deminers in at least 28 mine-affected countries have reported the presence of US-manufactured antipersonnel mines, including non-self-destructing and self-destructing/self-deactivating types.

Due in part to the US export moratorium, there has been a de facto global ban on the transfer of antipersonnel mines in effect since the mid-1990s. Only a low level of illicit trade and of unacknowledged or denied trade has continued.

10. Does the new US policy affect its mine clearance contributions?

The leading role that the US has played in funding mine clearance programs around the world does not appear to be impacted by the 2020 policy decision. Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plan and Capabilities Vic Mercado pledged: “The United States will continue to lead in international humanitarian demining efforts that locate and remove landmines and explosive remnants of war that pose persistent threats to civilians living in current and former conflict areas around the world. The recession of the previous policy does not reduce this national commitment.”

11. How has the new landmine policy been received?

The Trump administration’s decision to reverse previous US limits on landmines has been widely condemned and criticized, which shows how the Mine Ban Treaty has helped to create a strong stigma against antipersonnel landmines.

In a statement, Mine Ban Treaty president Ambassador Osman Abufatima Adam Mohammad of Sudan said the new US policy “goes against its long-standing commitment to work towards the eradication of the suffering” caused by weapons.

Mine Ban Treaty States Parties such as Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland have expressed concern and disappointment over the new US policy, as has the European Union.

Several US senators have raised objections to the new US policy change, including Senator Leahy who said, “The example we set has global ramifications. This decision … reverses the gains we have made and weakens our global leadership.”

Members of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines are holding demonstrations and seeking meetings with US representatives in their countries to express their concerns over the new US landmine policy.

12. Why didn’t previous US presidents ban antipersonnel landmines?

The US participated in the Ottawa Process, which led to the creation of the Mine Ban Treaty, but did not sign when the treaty was opened for signature in December 1997. The Clinton administration set the goal of joining in 2006. However, in 2004 the Bush administration announced a new policy that rejected both the treaty and the goal of the US ever joining. In 2014, the Obama administration announced it was “diligently pursuing other solutions that would be compliant” with the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and “that would ultimately allow us to accede” to it.

Two-thirds of the US Senate must approve US accession to the Mine Ban Treaty. Previously, in May 2010, 68 senators expressed their support for the Mine Ban Treaty in a 2010 sign-on letter to President Obama.

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

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

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
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