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Civilian casualties increase as indiscriminate use of explosive weapons continues to rise

Updated Monday, 16th June 2014
A focus on chemical weapons has turned the world’s eyes away from the human cost of explosive weaponry, writes Dick Skellington.

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An illustration of a civilian woman and her baby surrounded by drones, artillery shells, ballistic missiles, IEDs and mortars. The illustration is labelled: As explosive weaponry is used more and more indiscriminately... increasingly it is civilians who are the victims.

We live in an increasingly violent world in which more and more civilian deaths are being caused by explosive munitions - either at the hands of the state - or by terrorist groups, as protagonists adopt a greater willingness to use explosive weapons indiscriminately.

In May 2014, a study by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) into thousands of explosive attacks in 2013 across 58 countries, found a 15 per cent increase in the number of civilians killed or maimed by large-scale weaponry such as car bombs, mortars and drone-launched missiles. Increasingly a greater proportion of munition deaths impact on civilian populations.

The majority of casualties - 82 per cent – were civilians rather than combatants. The study reported an increase of more than 4,000 non-combatant victims, and estimated a total casualty list of over 37,000 in the 58 countries studied – a rise of 4 per cent in single year. 22,829 casualties were the result of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

One of the reasons for the rise in civilian casualties, especially in countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, is their use in urban areas, where civilians count for 93 per cent of casualties compared to 36 per cent in rural areas.

Syria topped the biggest state user of such weapons in 2013, while Syrian rebels accounted for the highest usage among ‘terrorist’ groups. The ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia also partially explained the rise in civilian casualties.

The increasing use of artillery shells, air-dropped bombs and rockets, ballistic missiles, drones, and IEDs is going under the radar of international agencies such as the United Nations whose focus has been primarily upon the use of chemical weapons.

It could also be argued that it is convenient to keep the casualty rate from explosive devices under wraps. The second biggest user of explosive weapons in 2013 was the NATO force in Afghanistan, where last year the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) was responsible for a 50 per cent rise in civilian casualties.

In Syria one half of the estimated 300,000 civilian deaths have come from explosive devices. In Iraq the rise in the use of improvised explosive devices and a fourfold rise in suicide bombing has resulted in an increase of 91 per cent on the civilian casualty rate year on year.  IEDS have increasingly targeted markets, places of worship, and public meetings. 

Iain Overton, AOAV director of policy, commenting on the report Explosive Events, commented: ‘It’s more common for a civilian to be injured than killed by these weapons. Those injuries are often severe and life-long. Victims of explosive violence, which includes the families of casualties, are often forgotten, and rarely receive the assistance they need’.

A response is needed from the international community. It is not simply enough as the Foreign Office claim to hide under the cloak of the Geneva Convention. Britain should take a lead and develop international standards which restrict the use of explosive weapons, and the manufacture of components for use in IEDs. It should also do more to help the victims of such attacks.

A useful starting point for the Foreign Office is a neglected 2011 research paper from the Red Cross entitled Enhancing civilian protection from use of explosive weapons in populated areas: building a policy and research agenda.

It concludes that ‘greater evidence and more sophisticated argumentation about the effects of explosive weapons on civilians will increase pressure on users of explosive weapons to justify their policies and their actions. History shows that such critical examination is usually necessary in order to call into question general attitudes about means and methods of warfare, and to generate the political and diplomatic momentum necessary to improve humanitarian standards for civilian protection’.

It is time to act before the casualties mount in the rest of the decade.

Further reading

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


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