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Latest ICRC report on ‘International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts’

On November 22nd 2019, the ICRC issued its report on ‘IHL and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts’. The report highlights the use of explosive weapons, particularly those with wide-area effects, in populated areas as one of the key challenges to protecting civilians in armed conflict.

Concerns over the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) is also exacerbated by the increasing urbanisation of conflict another key feature of the report.

AOAV data shows that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, over 90% of those killed and injured are civilians.

Below is one of the key excerpts on EWIPA from the ICRC Challenges report:


One of the defining features of urban warfare is the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area (also referred to as “heavy” explosive weapons), i.e. of weapons that typically deliver significant explosive force from afar and over a wide area. While generally not a cause for concern when used in open battlefields, these weapons have devastating effects for the civilian population when employed against military objectives located in populated areas, such as towns and cities. Their footprints are all over recent and ongoing armed conflicts such as those in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen: death, severe injuries (often leading to lifelong disabilities), mental and psychological trauma, and large-scale destruction of houses, hospitals, schools, and infrastructure indispensable for the functioning of essential services – everything that makes a city work, and on which its inhabitants depend for their survival. 

Beyond the direct impact on the lives, health and property of civilians, there is a wide array of indirect or reverberating effects that spread across the networks of interconnected urban services and affect a much larger part of the civilian population than those present in the immediate impact area of the attack. These increasingly known and foreseeable consequences are exacerbated in protracted armed conflicts, where the long-term and at times irreversible degradation of essential services increases the suffering of civilians. The gendered impact of heavy explosive weapons’ use in populated areas is also often overlooked: the different social roles of men and women will influence the chances of who will be injured or killed – men, women, boys, or girls –, and impact the nature of the stigma faced by survivors. Moreover, heavy bombing and shelling is a major cause of displacement; displaced populations are exposed to further risks, including sexual violence, particularly against women.”

The report goes on to highlight some of the key IHL concerns surrounding the use of EWIPA, including the interpretation and application of relevant IHL rules, including the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks, the prohibition against disproportionate attacks, and the obligation to take all feasible precautions in attacks. The section highlights the inherent inaccuracy of certain explosive weapon systems which raises concerns under the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks. The ICRC also highlights this concern in regard to the use of large-calibre munitions.

The reverberating impacts from the use of explosive weapons are also highlighted as an aspect that must be considered when assessing the incidental civilian harm. AOAV’s research on the reverberating impacts from the use of explosive weapons demonstrates the long-lasting civilian harm from the use of such weapons, particularly from the use in populated areas and when civilian infrastructure is destroyed.

Self-defence as a justification for the use of EWIPA is critiqued by the ICRC, which raises that the absolute prohibitions and other IHL rules still govern such use: ‘force protection can never justify the use of indiscriminate fire as a measure to avoid the exposure of own or friendly forces.’

The ICRC advocates that the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area should be avoided in densely populated areas.

Other issues examined in the report include the protection of civilians during urban warfare and during sieges.

For the full report, please see here.