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UN Secretary-General points to devastating impact of explosive weapons on civilians in latest annual report, citing AOAV data

In the latest report from UN General Secretary on the protection of civilians in conflict, António Guterres stressed the devastating impact that explosive weapons continue to have on civilians. For the twelfth year running, the report emphasises the inordinate level of civilian harm that occurs when explosive weapons are used in populated areas.

Guterres wrote that over the last year, “armed conflict continued to be characterized by high levels of civilian death, injury and psychological trauma…as well as damaged and destroyed homes, schools, markets, hospitals and essential civilian infrastructure.” The report looks at the global state of the protection of civilians in armed conflict in 2020, focussing on the state of the protection of medical care in armed conflict. 

Citing data from AOAV and Airwars, Guterres notes that “civilian deaths and injuries from the use of explosive weapons reportedly decreased by 43% in 2020 compared with 2019, possibly resulting from parties’ shifting focus to the pandemic and related safety measures, as well as ceasefires in Libya and the syrian Arab Republic.” Despite this recent global decrease, civilians continue to suffer disproportionate harm: alongside civilian casualties, “schools, places of worship, homes, hospitals, markets, airports, water and sanitation infrastructure, and other civilian objects have been destroyed or damaged, with long-term repercussions for civilians’ access to food, water, health, education and other essentials”.

The report focusses on the impact of explosive weapons in populated areas, noting that “more than 50 million people were affected by conflict in urban areas, where the use of explosive weapons, particularly those with wide-area effects, continues to expose civilians to a high risk of indiscriminate effects”. Citing AOAV’s 2020 data, he noted that when explosive weapons were used in populated areas 88% of those killed and injured were civilians, compared to 16% in other areas.

The report draws particular attention to the devastating impact of explosive weapons on healthcare services. This includes death and injury to medical personnel, challenges of access for ambulances and medical personnel in reaching the wounded, damage and destruction to hospitals, electricity and water supply lines. He also highlighted the compounding affect that the lack of water and sanitation has on public health, as it “exposes people to preventable diseases, hampers health-care provision, and compounds the health and nutrition risks caused by waterborne diseases”.

The Secretary-General’s report serves to highlight the issue that “even in cases in which parties reaffirm that they only use explosive weapons in compliance with the law, the level of civilian harm caused is often devastating. The facts on the ground continue to underline the need for parties in conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and to reassess and adapt their choice of weapons and tactics to avoid these well-documented consequences for civilians.”

Guterres stated that it remains “critical to continue to support efforts to develop a political declaration in which States commit themselves to avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and to developing operational policies on the basis of a presumption against such use.”

Watch the opening remarks by António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts.