Confronting explosive violence

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a humanitarian catastrophe. It is preventable, by ending this practice and by stopping arms transfers to those that bomb towns and cities. The devastation of towns and cities during war is dangerously becoming a “new normal”—the ongoing or recent bombardment of cities in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen illustrate the problem but are by no means the only examples. Urgent action is needed to protect civilians and end human suffering. UN discussions on explosive violence and on the arms trade provide these opportunities, but states must seize them now.


In Raqqa, Syria a US coalition has waged an attack against ISIS since June, but more than 16,000 civilians are trapped between armed factions on the ground and bombardment from US airstrikes and artillery barrages. In addition, as Amnesty International has found, survivors of the bombardment recounted how Russian-backed Syrian government forces also bombarded civilians in villages and camps south of the river, including with internationally banned cluster bombs. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein said that his office has documented hundreds of civilian deaths in August alone, due to air strikes and ground-based attacks. “Given the extremely high number of reports of civilian casualties this month and the intensity of the air strikes on Raqqa, coupled with ISIL’s use of civilians as human shields, I am deeply concerned that civilians—who should be protected at all times—are paying an unacceptable price and that forces involved in battling ISIL are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle,” Zeid said in a statement, adding concern that “the attacking forces may be failing to abide by the international humanitarian law principles of precautions, distinction, and proportionality.” Yet the US coalition rejected a call from the UN for a humanitarian pause in the fighting, arguing they would lose momentum in the battle.


MosulThe destruction of Raqqa comes shortly after a similar bombardment campaign led by the United States in Mosul, Iraq, which cost thousands of civilians lives, forced mass displacement, and has devastated civilian infrastructure particularly in the western part of the city. A new report by Amnesty International uncovers the horrifying scale of death, injury and suffering of civilians trapped in the battle for west Mosul. The report documents how ISIS moved civilians from neighboring villages into the zones of the battle in west Mosul, trapped them in their homes and prevented them from escaping, using them as human shields. Meanwhile Iraqi and coalition forces failed to take adequate measures to protect civilians, instead subjecting them to a barrage of fire and bombardment from weapons that should never be used in populated areas.


Meanwhile, Yemen is suffering from the worst cholera outbreak in the world as result of the bombing by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition. As of mid-August 2017, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of suspected cholera cases reached 500,000 in Yemen. In July, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) reported, “Yemen’s cholera outbreak is a direct consequence of a conflict that's brought the health system to its knees.” The UN’s humanitarian relief coordinator, Stephen O'Brien, warned that “millions of Yemeni civilians—women, children and men—continue to be exposed to unfathomable pain and suffering” due to both famine and the cholera epidemic. It is estimated that more than half of the country’s medical facilities have been destroyed. In a letter addressed to the UN Human Rights Council, a coalition of 62 NGOs warned that serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law are being committed with impunity. “The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has conducted scores of unlawful airstrikes … that have killed thousands of civilians and hit schools, hospitals, markets, and homes. The Houthi armed group and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh have fired weapons indiscriminately into populated areas in Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia and used explosive weapons with wide-scale effects,” wrote the signatories to the letter. Parties to the conflict are also recruiting child soldiers, preventing the delivery of aid and harassing activists and journalists.

Where the weapons come from

Amnesty International has previously found that many of the weapons used by ISIS have been designed or manufactured by more than 25 countries. The bulk of these arms and ammunition were seized from Iraqi military stocks. ISIS has also gained access to weapons from other sources, in particular from the capture or sale of Syrian military stocks and arms supplied to armed opposition groups in Syria by countries including Turkey, the Gulf states, and the United States.

Meanwhile, US coalition forces bombing in Iraq and Syria use weapons largely supplied by the United States. The US coalition in both Iraq and Syria also appears to have used white phosphorus-loaded munitions on at least two occasions in Mosul and Raqqa, according to videos posted online and human rights groups.

With weapons provided by the United States, United Kingdom, and others, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has been bombing Yemen, including civilians and civilian infrastructure, since March 2015. On 20 May, US President Trump announced the sale of $110 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia. On 13 June, the US Senate narrowly averted a bid by a bipartisan group of senators to block President Trump's $500 million sale of guided, air-to-ground bombs for use in Yemen by Saudi Arabia. The vote was 53-47 to defeat a resolution of disapproval. Meanwhile, more than £3 billion of arms have been sold to Saudi Arabia from the UK since 2015. Campaign Against Arms Trade has sued the UK government in High Court over its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but on 10 July the Court handed down a disappointing verdict, sidestepping ruling on the legality of the decision to allow the arms transfers by claiming instead that, ultimately, the Secretary of State was legally entitled to decide whether or not to suspend or cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia. A lack of transparency dogged the case throughout; with half of the evidence heard during the trial having been provided before a closed court. The court does acknowledge that there is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that the Saudi-led coalition has committed serious breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen—much of which was presented by civil society groups as part of their testimonies—but argues that such open source material is ‘only part of the picture’.

International action: ending the use of explosive weapons in populated areas

Urgent action is needed at the international level to stop the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which invariably results in civilian casualties and destroys cities and towns. Unfortunately, such action has been slow to manifest. At the end of August, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Mission of Germany to the UN in Geneva hosted a workshop on this issue. Speakers from the ICRC, other international and civil society groups, as well as government representatives, provided information on the humanitarian effects of this horrific practice and on political and diplomatic processes aimed at stopping it. The last meeting on this topic was hosted by the Austrian government in October 2016 in New York, at which participants considered the development of a political commitment to end the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in order to mitigate humanitarian harm and protect civilians. In November last year, states discussed the possibility of considering this issue at future meetings of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. Unfortunately, in the meantime devastation has continued in several countries including Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, where the use of these weapons in towns and cities has resulted in civilian casualties, mass displacement, destruction of health, water, and sanitation infrastructure, and more.

The leading civil society coalition working on this issue, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), gathered in Geneva the day after the ICRC/Germany meeting to discuss how to best take forward relevant initiatives. Partner organisations from around the world discussed local and regional contexts and opportunities to make real change at the international level. While recent campaigns such as the World Humanitarian Day’s focus on civilians not being a target in conflict have helped bring attention to this issue, states must decide to stop violating international humanitarian law and human rights and cease their bombardments of towns and cities—as well as their supply of weapons to those that engage in such behaviour. Campaigning against explosive violence will continue next week at the Third Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty. Governments must stop selling weapons to those that use them in populated areas, and must stop participating in military operations that bomb cities and towns.

International action: stopping arms transfers that lead to explosive violence

Stop the Arms FairFrom 9–11 September, arms producers and war profiteers from around the globe have gathered for the world’s largest arms fair. In response, activists from around the UK and other countries have gathered to impede the fair in every way possible. They have blockaded the roads, preventing the weapons from being able to access the exhibition spaces. They have hung off bridges, danced, sung, and prayed, created art, and raised awareness around the world about the arms fair and its contributions to global violence.

The arms fair precedes the Third Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which will take place 11–15 September in Geneva. This is an opportunity to review the implementation of the Treaty, which was developed to prevent human suffering and human rights violations. Unfortunately, more than two years after the Treaty entered into force, these aspirations remain unfulfilled and several states parties—including some of key champions such as the United Kingdom—are violating its provisions. At the last ATT Conference of States Parties in 2016, governments refused to talk about this situation or any other arms transfers that may be in violation of the Treaty. States parties must do better at next week’s meeting. The only way for the Treaty to be effectively implemented is for its states parties to condemn violations and end arms transfers that result in human suffering.

ATT states parties and signatories must condemn arms transfers that are facilitating human suffering or the violation of human rights or international humanitarian law. The Treaty stipulates that the risk of such consequences should prevent arms transfers from being approved, yet many exports go ahead despite ample evidence of the harms they create. Thus in addition to calling out these transfers, states parties and signatories need to discuss how to challenge actions that arguably violate the Treaty. There is already a working group on treaty implementation, but this body has not taken on an investigatory or action-oriented role in regards to circumstances where arms transfers are facilitating humanitarian catastrophe as described above. The CSP should discuss and take decisions on these serious issues.

WILPF’s work against explosive violence

WILPF is a member of INEW, and engages in advocacy for political and legal measures to end the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. WILPF is also active against the arms trade, campaigning for the Arms Trade Treaty and for its effective implementation. At CSP3, we will be participating in several side events and producing our daily ATT Monitor with news and analysis. (Subscribe now to stay up to date.)

We also work with partners in the Middle East and North Africa region to develop tools and resources about the intersections between explosive weapons use, the international arms trade, and human rights and gender equality, and also work within the context of the Human Rights Council and other human rights mechanisms to make these same connections. WILPF has also been leading in work to ensure the effective implementation of the ATT for the prevention of gender-based violence and in examining the differential impacts on women of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.