Manufactured explosive weaponsExplosive violence and victim rights

Explosive weapons in populated areas: AOAV’s policy explained

What is the issue, in brief?

  • More civilians than armed actors are killed and injured when explosive weapons are used in populated areas.
  • When explosive weapons are used in populated areas they can cause severe long-term damage by destroying buildings and infrastructure. They drive displacement, damage health and education facilities, affect livelihoods, and leave unexploded ordnances (UXOs).
  • Users of all explosive weapons should acknowledge the harm these weapons cause to civilians and affected communities.
  • Users of explosive weapons with wide-area effects should not use them in populated areas.
  • Stronger guidelines controlling the use of explosive weapons are needed.
  • Users need to track, record, and understand the impact that these weapons have.
  • Users of explosive weapons should acknowledge and work for the full realisation of the rights of victims.

What is AOAV’s policy?
AOAV believes that explosive weapons should not be used in populated areas.

AOAV wants to change the way that explosive weapons are used. Stronger standards are needed to prevent and restrict civilian harm in populated areas.

What is the problem?
Explosive weapons all share the same central feature of affecting an area with blast, heat and fragmentation.

They function by projecting blast and fragmentation effects from around a point of detonation, which can kill, injure or damage anyone or anything in their midst. Unlike most small arms, the effects of an explosive cannot be limited to one specific individual.

This means that when they are used in a populated area, where there are concentrations of civilians, these weapons will predictably, perhaps inevitably, affect a large amount of ‘unintended’ people. Year on year, between 80—90% of casualties from explosive weapon use in populated areas are civilians. These weapons also have a particular capacity to affect a location, by bringing down a building, making a school unsafe to access, a bridge impossible to cross, or contaminating water supplies, for example.

AOAV has worked towards landmark laws achieving the bans of specific explosive weapons (antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions). These successes prevent the harm caused by particularly-egregious explosive weapons, but these weapons are responsible for a comparatively small proportion of deaths and injuries in armed violence.

Explosive weapons like artillery shells and mortars have become mainstream, conventional weapons. They are mainstays of military arsenals, and in many countries are freely available to non-state actors. The civilian deaths and injuries from these bombs are shrugged away as ‘collateral damage,’ and as a sad inevitability.

The threshold of acceptability is far too low, and civilians suffer as a result. AOAV’s policy is to get states, international agencies, and users of explosive weapons to change this threshold.

What does the evidence say?

The impact of explosive weapons
The evidence of the daily news, for a start. Tracking back from the bombings of Dresden and Coventry in World War II, through Vietnam, Korea, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, Lebanon and Sri Lanka, right up to Syria today explosive weapons are an extremely common cause of suffering.

During the campaign to ban landmines in particular, evidence from medical staff in the field indicated that explosive weapons in general were
a) more likely to harm civilians than armed actors, and that
b) they were likely to cause particularly severe and complex injuries.

Medical analysis carried out by field-practitioners and agencies on-the-ground, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, point towards a concern about the potential tendency of explosive weapons to affect civilians. One study conducted in 1999 in Afghanistan found that while 19% of people injured by bullets were civilians, they made up 34% of those injured by fragmentation munitions.[1]

Analysis produced by Landmine Action in an initial framing report found that in just six months in 2006, 6,116 people were reportedly killed by explosive weapons, and 12,670 injured. Between 2011 and 2013 AOAV has monitored the impact of explosive weapons using English-language media sources. In 2013 37,809 people were recorded to have died or been injured by explosive weapons. Civilians made up 82% of these casualties.

The central finding of the study was that civilians are disproportionately affected by explosive weapons where these weapons are used in populated areas. Data showed that 83% of those killed in attacks in populated areas were civilians. In areas not reported as populated, by contrast, that percentage dropped to 33%.[2]

The failure of existing mechanisms
One other important finding in Landmine Action’s landmark report was that there is no coherent or categorical treatment of explosive weapons in international policy or law. Laws may exist to address forms of bombardment or generic indiscriminate attack, but the applicability of these laws are determined on a case-by-case basis, and are so riddled with qualifiers that they can rarely be applied.

What do we want to change?
To secure political and operational commitments by states in particular to change the way they use explosive weapons.

The intended change is to reduce the amount of civilians who are killed or injured by explosive weapons, by making it harder for actors to use them in conditions that so clearly put civilians at risk.

It is not expected that, as with mines and cluster bombs, there will be a prohibitive treaty banning all explosive weapons. Instead the change envisaged by this policy is to challenge and restrict the actions of users and commit them to establishing higher standards. The change will then be put in place by encouraging tighter operational restrictions that stop explosive weapons that have wide-area effects from being used in populated areas.

What can we do?
AOAV, and other partners, is seeking therefore to work towards the following goals:

  1. Strengthen and collaborate in a strong and active civil society advocacy platform (International Network on Explosive Weapons).
  2. Increase widespread support for this issue, including the identification of a specific forum for engagement on this issue.
  3. Develop robust and engaging evidence that shows the diverse harm caused by explosive weapon use in populated areas, the weapons and behaviours which are most concerning, and which analyses good and bad existing state practices.
  4. The adoption of an effective political instrument to strengthen standards on the use of these weapons.
  5. Ensure that stronger national laws and operational procedures are developed and implemented.

Contact person:

Iain Overton, Director of Policy –
Robert Perkins, Senior weapons researcher –


[1] See for example Robin M. Coupland and Hans O. Samnegaard, “Effect of type and transfer of conventional weapons on civilian injuries: retrospective analysis of prospective data from Red Cross hospitals,” British Medical Journal, 1999, The survey of 18,877 people treated at a Red Cross hospital in Kabul concluded that mortars, bombs, and shells are more likely than bullets to injure civilians. 60% of people injured by fragments were civilians, compared to only 39% of those injured by bullets.
[2] Richard Moyes, “Explosive violence: the problem of explosive weapons,” Landmine Action, (2009),