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122% rise in global civilian fatalities from explosive weapons in 2023: a year of harm reviewed

The latest global explosive violence monitor report from Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a London-based charity, reveals a disturbing surge in civilian fatalities and incidents of explosive weapon use globally in 2023, with a 122% rise in global civilian fatalities compared to the previous year.

The data – taken by recording reputable English language media sources on explosive violence incidents – highlight a concerning escalation in modern warfare tactics, with a significant impact on civilian populations, especially in populated areas.

Key Findings:

  • A 122% increase in global civilian fatalities from reported explosive violence compared to 2022.
  • A 69% rise in incidents of explosive weapon use.
  • Air strikes were reportedly responsible for 67% of civilian fatalities.
  • In towns and cities, 90% of those harmed by explosive weapons were civilians.
  • Operation Swords of Iron in Gaza contributed substantially to the increase, with 37% of all civilian casualties globally attributed to it.
  • 2023 saw the highest numbers of civilians harmed since AOAV’s records started in 2010, with 33,846 civilians killed or injured.
  • It was also a year that saw the most weapon use, with 7,307 reported injurious incidents (the 2nd highest since 2010 being in 2022 with 4,322 incidents.

Notable Increases in Weapon Use:

  • Air-launched attacks increased by 226%.
  • Ground-launched attacks rose by 56%.
  • Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) incidents increased by 30%.

State vs. Non-State Actors:

  • State actors were responsible for 77% of civilian casualties from explosive weapons.
  • Israel and Russia were the most injurious state actors.

Impact on Populated Areas:

  • 76% of explosive violence incidents were recorded in populated areas.
  • 90% of people harmed in these areas were civilians.

Global Reach:

  • Explosive violence affected 64 countries, with the most affected regions being Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar, and Syria.

Executive Summary
2023 saw a 122% increase in global civilian fatalities from reported explosive violence compared to 2022 and a 69% increase in incidents of explosive weapon use, according to data collected by the London based charity Action on Armed Violence. The data, which was from recording English-language media reports, also showed that air strikes were reportedly responsible for 67% of civilian fatalities.

Of note, globally, when explosive weapons were used in towns and cities in 2023, 90% of people reported harmed were civilians. 

Israel’s military operation in Gaza is a major cause for such a drastic increase. Up to 31 December, AOAV recorded 873 incidents of state-perpetrated explosive weapons use and 12,551 civilian casualties (9,034 killed) as a result of Operation Swords of Iron – some 37% of all civilian casualties recorded globally in 2023.  This is likely an underestimation of the total harm, as AOAV’s methodology only captures discrete injurious incidents as reported in English language media. Ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar, and Syria, however suggest that even without Operation Swords of Iron, 2023 would have surpassed levels of harm from explosive weapons use seen in 2022, already one of the more injurious years in AOAV’s recent records.  

Overall, AOAV – which records global incidents of explosive violence from reputable English language media sources – listed 7,307 incidents of explosive weapon use around the globe in 2023. These attacks caused 46,500 total casualties, of which 73% (33,846) were civilians. Of these civilians harmed, 45% (15,305) were reported killed. In comparison, in 2022, civilians accounted for 67% of total recorded casualties, and reported civilian fatalities accounted for 33% of civilian harm.

Incidents of explosive weapons use rose by 69% in 2023, from 4,322 incidents recorded in 2022. Civilian casualties rose by 63%, from 20,793, and civilian fatalities reached 15,305 – an increase of 122% compared to 2022 which saw 6,886 civilians killed from such weapons. Over the past decade, from 2013 to 2022, civilians accounted for 72% of total recorded casualties across 122 countries and territories. 

2023 is the most injurious year since AOAV began recording in 2010, with 2015 a close second at 33,307 civilian casualties. 2023 also saw by far the most incidents recorded in one year. 2022, which saw a 73% increase in total incidents of explosive weapons use compared to 2021 (2,500 incidents), was the previous record holder. Of note, recording in 2010 began in October, so that data for that year does not reflect reported explosive violence over the whole year.

AOAV’s Executive Director, Dr Iain Overton, spoke to BBC News about the findings

The full report for 2023 will be released later this year.

Weapon Types

Air-strikes: 2023 saw a remarkable increase in air-launched attacks. The use of air-launched explosive weapons increased by 226% in 2023, rising from 519 incidents in 2022 to 1,694 last year. Accordingly, civilian harm from air strikes spiked: civilian casualties of air-launched weapons increased by 322%, from 3,865 in 2022 to 16,318 in 2023, while civilian fatalities rose by 416%, from 1,980 to 10,214. For context, from 2013 to 2022, air-launched weapons accounted for just 25% (7,606) of all global recorded incidents and caused 25% (62,235) of all global civilian casualties. Last year, air strikes accounted for 23% (1,694) of all global recorded incidents and caused 48% (16,318) of all global civilian casualties.

Ground-launched attacks: Ground-launched attacks rose by 56% in 2023, from 2,273 incidents recorded in 2022 to 3,544 last year. These weapons caused 11,659 civilian casualties, up from 10,857 in 2022, and 3,043 civilian fatalities, down from 3,139 in 2022 – a 7% increase in civilian casualties, and a 3% decrease in civilian fatalities. From 2013-2022, ground-launched weapons accounted for 32% (9,698) of global incidents of explosive weapons use, and 23% (56,447) of civilian casualties. Last year, ground-launched attacks represented 49% (3,544) of all global recorded incidents and caused 34% (11,659) of all global civilian casualties.

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs): In 2023, Improvised Explosive Devices caused the lowest levels of reported harm to civilians since AOAV started recording in 2010, despite an increase in recorded incidents compared to 2022. 1,167 reported incidents represent a 30% increase from 900 incidents in 2022, while 2,953 civilian casualties represent a 31% decrease, from 4,277. On the other hand, armed actor casualties of Improvised Explosive Devices increased by 91% in 2023, from 2,363 in 2022 to 4,520 last year. Over the past decade, IEDs have consistently had a disproportionate impact on civilians, causing 47% (114, 478) of all civilian casualties from explosive weapons use recorded by AOAV around the world, while representing just 36% (11,099) of recorded incidents. Last year, Improvised Explosive Devices accounted for 16% (1,167) of all global recorded incidents and caused 9% (2,953) of all global civilian casualties.

Users of explosive weapons
In a continuation of trends from 2022, 2023 was defined by state-perpetrated explosive violence. State actors caused 77% (26,027) of civilian casualties from explosive weapons in 2023, and 83% (12,669) of all civilian fatalities from the same.

The use of explosive weapons by state actors increased by 89% last year, with 5,001 recorded incidents compared to 2,646 in 2022. Similarly, civilian casualties of state-perpetrated explosive violence increased by 84%, from 14,171 civilians harmed in 2022 to 26,027 in 2023. Civilian fatalities from state actors’ use of explosive weapons grew by 157%, from 4,939 in 2022 to 12,669 last year.

Non-state use of explosive weapons also increased by some 46%, from 1,333 incidents in 2022 to 1,946 last year. Civilian casualties of such actors remained relatively consistent, increasing by 2% from 5,289 in 2022 to 5,387 in 2023. Of note, civilian fatalities from non-state actors’ use of explosive weapons decreased by 8%, from 1,686 to 1,547.

Israel was by far the most injurious state actor in 2023. AOAV recorded 1,026 incidents of explosive weapons use by Israel last year, and 12,966 civilian casualties (9,156 killed, 3,810 injured) – up from 51 incidents and 198 civilians harmed by that state in 2022. 

Israel consequently caused 50% of all civilian casualties from state-perpetrated explosive violence, and 72% of state-perpetrated civilian fatalities. Israel was reportedly responsible for 60% of all reported civilian fatalities (from both state and non-state actors) globally in 2023.

Russia was a distant second to Israel, with 2,580 incidents resulting in 7,774 civilian casualties, of whom 1,616 were killed. This represents a 53% increase in incidents, up from 1,686 in 2022, compared to a 17% decrease in reported civilian casualties, down from 9,372.

Reported explosive violence by Myanmar’s military government spiked by 112% last year, with 436 recorded incidents compared to 206 in 2022. Reflecting the junta’s “Four Cuts” strategy targeting civilian networks supporting the opposition, civilian harm also increased, growing by 142% from 766 civilians harmed in 2022 to 1,855 last year, with civilian fatalities growing by 163% from 249 to 655.

Explosive Violence in Populated Areas
In 2023, war continued to shift towards towns and cities. 76% (5,550) of explosive violence incidents in 2023 were recorded in populated areas, an 85% increase from 3,002 incidents in 2022. 

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) killed and injured 32,442 civilians. As AOAV has seen repeatedly over the years, when explosive weapons were used in towns and cities in 2023, 90% of people harmed were civilians.  The use of EWIPA was exceptionally deadly for civilians in 2023, killing 14,804 civilians compared to 6,493 in 2022, a 128% increase.

State actors account for 78% (4,346) of explosive violence in populated areas in 2023, with reported use of EWIPA by states increasing by 104% from 2,132 incidents in 2022 to 4,346 last year. Non-state actors’ use of explosive weapons in populated areas rose from 681 incidents in 2022 to 963 in 2023.

Global Harm
AOAV recorded one death or injury from explosive weapons use in 64 countries in 2023, up from 60 in 2022. The 10 worst affected countries and territories for civilian casualties of explosive violence were Gaza (12,950 civilian casualties), Ukraine (8,351), Sudan (2,546), Myanmar (2,165), Syria (1,801), Somalia (1,327), Pakistan (869), Yemen (464), Israel (420), and Russia (379).

Over the past decade, the 10 worst affected countries and territories for civilian casualties of explosive violence were Syria (71,359 civilian casualties), Iraq (45,398), Afghanistan (27,649), Yemen (17,125), Pakistan (15,321), Ukraine (13,055), Nigeria (8,472), Somalia (7,576), Gaza (5,796), and Libya (3,722).

Gaza
AOAV recorded 920 incidents of explosive weapons use in Gaza, and 12,950 resulting civilian casualties (9,334 killed and 3,616 injured). This represents a 3,072% increase from 29 incidents recorded in 2022, and an 8,201% increase from 156 civilian casualties. Reported civilian fatalities from explosive weapons in Gaza rose by 25,127% in 2023, up from 37 recorded civilian deaths in 2022. 

AOAV is clear we do not capture all harm. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, AOAV showed that English-language media underreports the numbers of casualties caused by discrete incidents of explosive weapons use, cataloguing perhaps only a third of the actual civilian deaths from specific explosive incidents in Gaza. Furthermore, the use of explosive weapons in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is so frequent that it is difficult in many cases to attribute civilian casualties to specific incidents of use, as required by AOAV’s methodology. It is equally difficult to track rising injury or death tolls from specific incidents. For these reasons, AOAV’s data underrepresents the extent of harm caused by explosive weapons in the OPT. 

What we can capture are patterns and trends.  From this, it is clear that air-launched weapons account for the vast majority of explosive violence in Gaza, representing 91% (837) of incidents and causing 93% (11,985) of civilian casualties. 

Ukraine
2023 saw a 49% increase in recorded incidents of explosive weapons use in Ukraine, with 2,755 incidents compared to 1,854 in 2022, alongside a 19% decrease in reported civilian casualties. 2022 saw 10,351 civilians reported harmed in Ukraine (3,672 killed), while AOAV recorded 8,351 civilian casualties last year (1,774 killed).

Ground-launched weapons accounted for 74% (2,036) of incidents and 66% (5,521) of civilian casualties in Ukraine last year, and air-launched weapons represented 9% (254) of incidents and 14% (1,179) of civilian casualties.

Sudan
2023 was the most violent year in Sudan on AOAV’s records, by a significant margin. Last year, AOAV recorded 140 incidents of explosive weapons use in Sudan, and 2,546 civilian casualties (1,145 killed, 1,401 injured). By comparison, 2022 saw three recorded incidents, and 30 reported civilian casualties, of whom five were killed. In 2013, the second most injurious year recorded in Sudan since 2010, 16 incidents resulted in 77 reported civilian casualties, of whom 54 were killed. 

The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are the two main parties to the conflict, and the major perpetrators of civilian harm. While 61% (86) of incidents are attributed to unknown or unclear actors, the SAF are reportedly responsible for 24% (34) of incidents, and 32% (803) of civilian casualties, while 14% (20) of incidents and 15% (386) of civilian casualties have been attributed to the RSF. 

Ground-launched weapons account for 63% (88) of incidents and 65% (1,655) of civilian casualties in Sudan, while air-launched weapons represent 29% (41) of incidents and caused 32% (817) of civilian casualties.

Myanmar
2023 was also the most harmful year in Myanmar in AOAV’s records. Incidents of explosive weapons use rose by 73%, from 550 recorded in 2022 to 949 last year, and civilian casualties grew by 121%, from 980 to 2,165. Civilian fatalities rose by 155%, from 292 to 745. State actors, specifically the military junta, are the reported perpetrators of 46% (435) of incidents and 85% (1,850) of civilian casualties, including 88% (653) of civilian fatalities. 

Reflecting this, air-launched explosive weapons account for 15% (145) of incidents in the country, and 46% (1,003) of civilian casualties, including 53% (397) of civilian fatalities. Ground-launched weapons in Myanmar accounted for 33% (310) of incidents and 39% (844) of civilian casualties, while Improvised Explosive Devices represent 27% (255) of incidents and 8% (172) of civilian casualties.

Conclusion
In conclusion, the data captured by AOAV for 2023 shows a major escalation in the use of explosive weapons globally, particularly in populated areas. The significant increases in both the frequency of these incidents and the resulting civilian casualties highlight a concerning trend in modern warfare. Israel’s military operations, alongside ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar, and Syria, contributed to an unprecedented recent rise in civilian harm. The predominant use of air-launched explosive weapons, responsible for a major portion of the civilian casualties, particularly in Gaza and other conflict zones, is especially troubling. 

Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence, said of the data: “The pervasive and indiscriminate impact of explosive violence, as we’ve seen in 2023, is not just a matter of statistics – it’s a devastating reality that shatters communities and leaves lasting scars on societies. Our data highlights a harrowing trend towards increased civilian harm, emphasising the need for international action to address the root causes and consequences of such violence. We cannot remain passive observers; we must actively work towards a future where the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is not the norm but an unacceptable aberration.” 

Katherine Young of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), of which AOAV is a founding member, said of the findings: “Despite the well-documented risk to civilians, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas continues to be a major cause of civilian harm in contemporary armed conflict, where fighting in urban areas puts civilians at heightened risk of harm. States must refuse to normalise this devastating toll on civilians.”

On 23 April 2024, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs will hold the first international follow-up conference to review implementation of the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas. This will be the first follow-up since the high-level international conference in Dublin on 18 November 2022, which saw the Declaration formally adopted by 83 states.

AOAV’s data vividly underpins the need for such a global meeting. This report serves as a stark reminder of the devastating consequences of explosive violence and the imperative for concerted global efforts to address this challenge.