On 14 November 2012, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) hosted a lunch-time briefing to present research carried out by UNIDIR’s Norms on Explosive Weapons project and to offer different perspectives on how to address the humanitarian concerns raised by the use of explosive weapons.
Considering that sandwich lunches at the United Nations Office at Geneva are not known for their culinary appeal, the large number of people attending the event seems to signal growing interest among an increasingly diverse group in addressing the humanitarian concerns raised by explosive violence.
Presented at the briefing was the main output of the Norms on Explosive Weapons project, the study Protecting Civilians from the Effects of Explosive Weapons: An Analysis of International Legal and Policy Standards. The study concludes that existing legal and policy standards fail to articulate the serious risk of harm associated with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in a manner that adequately protects civilians from the effects of explosive weapons, and suggests ways in which standards, particularly rules of international humanitarian law (IHL), could be enhanced to reduce civilian harm.
In this study and in policy discussions over the last years, harm from the use of explosive weapons has been mainly formulated as a challenge to the protection of civilians, and of children in particular, in situations of armed conflict. Such an IHL-indebted framing has its limitations. As Professor Brian Rappert explained at the briefing, concern about the humanitarian consequences of explosive violence can also be framed as a public health issue, which would, among other things, be more conducive to recognizing the debilitating effects of explosive violence across all affected communities (not only “civilians”) and enable coalitions to be built with different stakeholders (See Rappert et al. in Social Science & Medicine 75 (2012) for a detailed discussion).
The particular impact of explosive weapons on the provision of health care has already been highlighted in the framework of the Red Cross’ Health Care in Danger campaign, but there is certainly scope for more focused engagement with medical and public health communities on explosive violence, for example, through WHO’s armed violence prevention stream of work.
As developments over the last three years have shown, addressing explosive violence also offers opportunities to engage in new ways with existing conventions and agendas. There are, for example, obvious linkages between the work of AOAV and others aimed at gaining a better understanding of the patterns of harm associated with explosive violence through improved collection and analysis of data, and the efforts of actors associated with the Every Casualty Campaign, working toward the recording of all casualties of armed violence, as well as with the goals of The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development and of The Oslo Commitments on Armed Violence. The specific impacts of explosive weapons on the built environment and on the provision of public services could further be explored from a development, peacebuilding, habitat, forced displacement, or environmental perspective. A gender perspective would also produce critical insights into the patterns of harm associated with the use of explosive weapons.
Particularly in relation to harm from drone strikes, the human rights dimension has received a lot of attention. A systematic articulation of the human rights implications of explosive violence more generally, including of how economic, social and cultural rights may be affected, could be one way of building full recognition of the rights of victims and of the responsibilities of users to victims. Data on direct casualties and other impacts of explosive violence is significant for ensuring redress to victims. This ties into the work of organisations associated with the Making Amends Campaign. Focusing on explosive violence also allows conceiving of victim assistance responsibilities in a broader sense than how they are articulated under existing disarmament treaties regulating particular explosive weapon types (such as in relation to the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions or CCW discussions on mines, IEDs and explosive remnants of war).
Finally, focusing on explosive violence also invites debate about the acceptability of the use of force and the relations of accountability between the users of force and populations amongst whom force is used. The use of explosive weapons, particularly by a state among its own population, has been proposed as an indicator of crisis developing and of a shift to a military orientation in the use of force. Growing recognition of the extreme risk of harm associated with the use of explosive weapons, particularly in populated areas, raises expectations that users of explosive weapons publicly explain the conditions under which such use might be justified, what practical steps they take to measure its impacts, how harmful consequences will be addressed, and how accountability to local populations will be ensured.
Hopefully, states committed to addressing this humanitarian concern will soon cease an opportunity to make available information on harm from the use of explosive weapons and to issue policy statements outlining the conditions under which certain explosive weapons may and may not be used in populated areas, as called for repeatedly by the UN Secretary-General. States and other actors should also be expected to reflect on the humanitarian assistance and protection, crisis management, and mine action responses that use of explosive weapons in populated areas calls for.
UNIDIR’s Norms on Explosive Weapons project formally concludes at the end of November 2012. Since its creation in 2010, this website has attracted quite a number of visitors from all over the world and I am grateful for the feedback I have received from some of you.
This website will no longer be updated after 30 November 2012, but its content will remain accessible online. To stay informed on explosive weapons related work, follow @explosiviolence on twitter (the feed will be maintained by AOAV), join the mailing list of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) and subscribe to AOAV’s explosive violence updates. To receive news about UNIDIR’s work, sign up here.