Explosive remnants of war: the lethal legacy of modern armed conflict


Overview of the devastating effects of explosive remnants of war and cluster munitions. Summary of the rules contained in the Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War (Protocol V to the 1980 Convention), 28 November 2003


What are explosive remnants of war?  

Explosive remnants of war (ERW) is the term used to describe the wide range of explosive ordnance – unexploded or abandoned – that remains in an area after an armed conflict has ended. It includes artillery shells, grenades, mortar shells, submunitions, rockets, missiles and other explosive devices.

 Why are ERW a problem that needs to be addressed?  

Thousands and sometimes millions of pieces of explosive ordnance are regularly left behind after the end of an armed conflict. These include munitions that have failed to explode as intended after being fired or delivered (unexploded ordnance) or munition stoc kpiles left near battlefield positions (abandoned ordnance). Clearing these weapons has often taken years or even decades depending on the scale of the problem. Predictably, large numbers of men, women and children are killed or injured when they come into contact with these weapons before they can be safely disposed of. Many civilians mistakenly believe that ERW are

harmless, when in fact they are often lethal and unstable, capable of detonating if touched or disturbed.

In addition to the casualties incurred, ERW hinder reconstruction, the return of refugees, the delivery of humanitarian assistance and other essential activities. ERW prolong the effects of war even after the fighting parties have agreed on a peace settlement. 


    The problem is not new. ERW have been a by-product of nearly every armed conflict in modern times. An estimated 84 countries are affected by ERW, and some have been grappling with the problem for decades. Each year, for example, Poland clears hundreds of thousands of ERW dating from the Second World War. Between 1944 and 1989, ERW claimed the lives of 4,094 people in Poland and another 8,774 were injured. In Laos, somewhere between 9 and 27 million unexploded submunitions remain, although hostilities ended in 1975. Around 11,000 people in Laos have been killed or injured by ERW, more than 30 per cent of whom were children. Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, the Russian Federation (Chechnya) and Sudan are just a few of the countries seriously affected by ERW as a result of recent conflicts.

Even short-lived conflicts can result in a major ERW problem. During the armed conflict in mid-2006, Lebanon became littered with unexploded submunitions and other ERW. According to the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre in Southern Lebanon, over 35 million square metres of land are contaminated. Since the end of the war, more than 200 civilians have been killed or injured. In addition, thousands more civilians are denied access to their land, as the contaminated area covers approximately 26 per cent of Lebanon’s arable land.

 What is the Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War?      

The Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War is a new and important treaty of international humanitarian law. It was adopted by States party to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) on 28 November 2003 and is the fifth protocol to that convention. It entered into force on 12 November 2006, and as a t 15 October 2007, 35 States were party to the instrument. The protocol provides a systematic framework to minimize the dangers posed to civilian populations by unexploded and abandoned ordnance. This is the first international agreement to require the parties to an armed conflict to clear ERW once the fighting is over. The protocol does not cover anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmines, as these weapons are regulated by other international agreements.

Under the protocol, each party to an armed conflict has the following obligations:

A. During a conflict

  • To record information on the explosive ordnance employed or abandoned by its armed forces. The information retained should include the types and approximate number of explosive ordnance used, the location of targeted areas and the method of identifying and safely disposing of the ordnance.

B. After the end of active hostilities

  • To clear ERW in territory it controls.

  • To provide technical, material or financial assistance to facilitate the removal of ERW resulting from its operations in areas it does not control. This assistance can be provided directly to the party in control of these areas or through third parties such as the United Nations or non-governmental or other organizations.

  • To take all feasible precautions in the territory it controls to protect civilians from ERW.

  • To share the information it has recorded on explosive ordnance used or abandoned by its armed forces with organizations engaged in clearance activities and carrying out programmes to alert civilians to the dangers of these devices.

  • To protect humanitarian missions and organizations from the effects of ERW and, upon request, to provide information on the location of all ERW it is aware of in areas where the requesting organization is operating.

Although the rules of Protocol V apply only to conflicts that occur after its entry into force, States already affected by ERW when they become party are accorded “the right to seek and receive assistance” from other States Parties to address their ERW problem. In parallel, States Parties that are in a position to do so are obliged to help ERW-affected States reduce the threats posed by the weapons and to provide assistance for the marking and clearance of ERW, for risk education and for the care, rehabilitation and social and economic reintegration of ERW victims.

The Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War must be ratified by all countries and its provisions implemented as a matter of urgency in order to reduce the number of new victims each year. The spread of weapons capable of delivering huge amounts of explosive ordnance across great distances means that the problem will become even more acute unless the measures set forth in the protocol are universally applied.


 Cluster munitions      

Cluster munitions have been the subject of specific concern and media attention in recent years. In many of the conflicts in which they have been used, they have contributed a significant proportion of the ERW problem.

Cluster munitions are munitions delivered by air or fired from artillery which, at a preset altitude or a specific time after being discharged, release dozens or even hundreds of explosive submunitions. Some models can contain and release more than 600 submunitions. Most submunitions are intended to explode upon impact. However, history has shown that a significant percentage of these weapons fail to explode as intended.

Liban, 2007    

    The failure rate of submunitions varies and depends on their design and the conditions in which they are used. Failure rates tend to be substantially higher in actual operations than during testing, owing to the generally more favourable conditions in which trials take place.

Although they are generally designed to explode on “hard targets,” such as armoured vehicles, tanks or runways, they often land on sand, mud, vegetation or snow, which may be too soft to activate the fusing mechanism. Although cluster munitions are not a prohibited weapon, when their submunitions fail to explode as intended they can become as indiscriminate in their timing and choice of victim as landmines.

An additional concern is that cluster munitions are “area weapons.” This means that once deployed against a target, a cluster munition will release its submunitions over an area of up to 10,000 square me tres, with devastating effects on people and property. Moreover, as most submunitions fall freely or descend on parachutes, their accuracy depends on a range of factors, including wind and weather conditions, and can often strike outside the ExplosivE REmnants of WaR target area. These characteristics raise serious questions as to whether such weapons can be used in populated areas in accordance with the general rules of international humanitarian law, particularly the principle of distinction and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks.

Cluster munitions pose both an immediate and a long-term threat to civilians owing to the problems of their accuracy and reliability. These weapons have had serious humanitarian consequences in almost all the conflicts in which they have been used. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has called on States to take immediate action at the national and international levels to address this problem. It also supports the negotiation of a new international treaty that would prohibit the use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions.

Although the Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War facilitates the rapid removal of unexploded submunitions after the end of a conflict, it is not a complete solution to the cluster munition problem. The protocol does not contain significant requirements to prevent munitions from becoming ERW in the first place, nor does it address the use of cluster munitions during armed conflicts. The absence of specific rules in these areas has increased calls for additional regulation to deal more comprehensively with the severe impact of cluster munitions on civilian populations.

The extensive use of these weapons during the war in Lebanon in mid-2006 has created a fast-growing momentum towards the development of new i nternational restrictions on the use of these weapons.

Discussions are ongoing at the international level with the purpose of concluding a treaty on cluster munitions by the end of 2008.

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