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Death, injury, damage and terror: the devastating humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in Syria


Over 250,000 people are currently besieged in Syria, a UN Human Rights Council report has found.  They have no access to humanitarian aid, food, or medical care. And they are subjected to ‘relentless’ shelling and bombardment from government forces along with other forms of violence from non-state armed groups.

In this report, the Human Rights Council has recognised the devastating impact which continuing hostilities are having on civilians in the country. It details the impact that unlawful, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks by both Government forces and non-state armed groups have upon civilians.  Government forces and pro-government militia have shelled civilian areas with artillery, mortar and tank fire, and non-state armed groups have used home-made rockets, mortars and artillery shells in government-controlled areas. Critically, no groups engaged in hostilities in Syria are making distinctions between civilian and military objectives, and civilian areas continue to be disproportionately affected by the violence.

The UN report importantly references the specific use of illegal weapons in Syria.  In addition to the use of chemical weapons, the report notes that the Syrian government has violated international humanitarian law in their use of incendiary weapons. These indiscriminate weapons cause superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering, and their use in populated areas is in clear violation of international humanitarian law. Parties to the conflict are additionally targeting medical staff and units, with hospitals being deliberately attacked and snipers regularly firing on ambulances. Besieged areas, which have very little access to food and water to begin with, are also being denied critical medical provisions.

One of the principal conclusions to be drawn from the report is the documented widespread use of so-called barrel bombs by the Syrian government throughout Syria. Barrel bombs are essentially improvised air-dropped bombs; often simply high explosives placed in a container and thrown out of a helicopter or cargo plane.  These ‘highly imprecise and lethal’ weapons are being dropped into urban areas, causing widespread death, injury and destruction. A number of urban areas have suffered bombardments by barrel bombs since their first documented use in August 2012, with Aleppo facing ‘an ongoing campaign’ of bombing, and other areas being increasingly impacted by these weapons.

The Human Rights Council has termed the use of barrel bombs in Syria an ‘area bombardment,’ which is prohibited under international humanitarian law.  The large-scale damage to lives and infrastructure caused by barrel bombs has contributed to the problem of mass displacement of civilians within Syria and across its borders.

The use of barrel bombs in Syria is only one example of the Syrian Arab Republic breaching its international obligations. The report concludes that Syria has acted in breach of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of Children, and many more human rights treaties. The Government forces have ‘disregarded’ the basic human rights of the Syrian people, and all parties to the conflict have failed to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. Such violations amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report calls on the international community to ensure arms are not transferred where they may be used in the commission of such acts. The fact that such weapons continue to be exported into conflict zones gives greater urgency to the ratification process for the Arms Trade Treaty.

The UN calls on all parties to the conflict to ensure the protection of civilians, and to refrain from all indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.  The report stresses that civilians are disproportionately affected by weapons such as the barrel bomb.  They have a devastating humanitarian impact, resulting in death, injury, and damage, and leading to mass population displacement and a feeling of terror within the civilian population.

Action on Armed Violence is a founding-member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), which calls for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Explosive weapons project blast and fragmentation effects around a point of detonation. The use of such weapons in populated areas causes a predictable and preventable pattern of harm for civilians. AOAV data shows that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, civilians are the overwhelming majority of casualties. As such, AOAV calls on all users of explosive weapons to refrain from using them in populated areas.

Read the full UN report here.