The use of explosive weapons in populated areas
The Advanced IHL Learning Series are addressed to lecturers and trainers who wish to be abreast of the latest developments in international humanitarian law (IHL) and other related areas. The series help lecturers strengthen their grasp of topical issues and gives them access to teaching resources, thereby enabling them to introduce these topics or issues in the courses or training sessions that they run.
The Advanced IHL Learning Series combines theory and practice; it makes use of videos, reading materials and various other teaching tools. Many of the resources are taken from the 2015 edition of the Advanced Seminar in IHL for University Lecturers and Researchers. The videos feature lectures by speakers at the seminar, and discussions between them and participants. The opinions expressed by the lecturers in the series are theirs alone, and not necessarily shared by the ICRC.
Introduction to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas
Cities have never been immune from warfare. Over the last century, armed conflicts have increasingly been fought in populated areas and the trend seems likely to continue as urbanization intensifies. Urban conflicts are often characterized by the phenomenon of some belligerents intermingling with the civilian population.
At the same time, armed conflicts are increasingly fought with weapon systems that were originally designed for use in open battlefields. When used in populated areas, explosive weapons that have wide-area effects are very likely to have indiscriminate effects, often with devastating consequences for civilians. They are a major cause of harm to civilians and of disruption of services essential for their survival.
The direct effects of explosive weapons on civilians in densely populated areas are obvious: deaths, injuries and damage. The indirect effects are less obvious. Damage to water, electricity or sewerage systems can disrupt the provision of essential services to the civilian population, such as health and water distribution, leading to the spread of disease and further deaths. In the face of such devastation, surviving civilians often have no choice but to leave their city or country for a long journey with no guarantee of security and no promise of a better life.
Since most armed forces and many non-State armed groups have access to explosive weapons and since the latter are increasingly resorted to in populated areas, it is crucial for any lecturer addressing the topic to have a comprehensive picture of the humanitarian consequences of the use of such weapons and to understand what international humanitarian law says about it.
Explosive weapons are activated by the detonation of a high-explosive substance creating blast and fragmentation effects. The explosive weapons raising concerns when used in populated areas are those having wide-area effects. There is generally no cause for concern when such weapons are used in open battlefields, but when they are used against military objectives located in Explosive weapons might affect a wide area because of the large destruction radius of the individual munition used, the inaccuracy of the delivery system, and/or the delivery of multiple munitions over a wide area. These categories of explosive weapons include large bombs and missiles, indirect fire weapon systems such as mortars, rockets and artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers and certain types of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The terms 'densely populated areas' and 'populated areas' should be understood as synonymous with 'concentration of civilians', defined in international humanitarian law as "a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects."
At the end of the series, lecturers and trainers will:
- be able to identify various types of explosive weapons and say how they can be used
- be able to explain what a populated area is
- have a more comprehensive picture of the humanitarian consequences of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas
- grasp the various considerations that should be taken into account in the targeting process
- better understand what international humanitarian law says about the use of explosive weapons in populated areas
- understand developments, challenges and initiatives, as well as ICRC's work on the topic
Structure of the course
1. Required and suggested readings: before watching the videos, lecturers and trainers are invited to familiarize themselves with the topic by working their way through the required and suggested reading.
2. Videos: the entire session can then be watched at once, or by chapter, depending on the need and specific interest of each user. Videos can also be watched and discussed in class, as an introduction to the topic triggering questions and debate.
3. Teaching tools: ICRC tools on how to teach IHL as well as specific, ready-to-use teaching materials on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas are available. Lecturers and trainers are encouraged to use them to integrate the topic in their course or training.
4. Further reading and resources: lecturers and trainers are encouraged to further explore the topic via additional resources (e.g. ICRC statements, publications, event reports) about the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and related topics. Researchers may wish to use them as informative sources for their research projects on this topic.
Thomas de Saint Maurice, ICRC
Since joining the ICRC in 2001, Thomas de Saint Maurice has held several different positions relating to international humanitarian law and policy in both the field and at headquarters. He was a legal adviser for operations in the Near East and Africa for five years and an adviser in the Policy Unit for three years. His work focused on humanitarian policy issues, including humanitarian access, new technologies for humanitarian action, and humanitarian needs in situations of violence other than armed conflicts. In 2015 Mr de Saint Maurice joined the Arms Unit as a legal adviser in order to focus on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and their humanitarian impact. He has a degree in political science from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Lille, an LLM in public international law from the Université Libre de Bruxelles and an MA in international relations from the University of Kent.
Eric Steinmyller, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights
Since 2013, Eric Steinmyller has worked as security manager in a shipping company based in Geneva. During his 30-year career as a captain in the French Navy, he focused on managing large teams at sea and on land, handling crises such as sea rescues, environmental protection, drug trafficking, counterpiracy and counterproliferation, advising on international humanitarian law and overseeing international relations ships. Mr Steinmyller was head of the law of armed conflict section at the French ministry of defence and served as a defence attaché when he was the military advisor to the ambassador of France to the Conference on Disarmament. He has long taught in both military academies and universities. In 2012, he was the project team leader in charge of founding a new military academy, the Ecole des Commissaires des Armées, in Salon-de-Provence. Mr Steinmyller holds a master's degree in business law, business administration and environmental protection. He is married and the father of seven children. He has been awarded the Legion of Honour, the Medal of Merit and the Medal of Maritime Merit.
- ICRC, Explosive weapons in populated areas: Humanitarian, legal, technical and military aspects, Expert Meeting Report, June 2015.
- Maya Brehm, International humanitarian law and the protection of civilians from the effects of explosive weapons, in Caroline Harvey, James Summers, Nigel D. White (eds), Contemporary Challenges to the Laws of War: Essays in Honour of Professor Peter Rowe, pp. 235-266.
- U.S. Army, Joint Targeting, Joint Publication 3-60, 31 January 2013.
- Laurent Gisel, The use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks, in San Remo Round Table on Conduct of Hostilities: the Practice, the Law and the Future, pp. 100-112.
- Geoffrey S. Corn, Chapter IV. Allowing children to play with big toys – The use of indirect fires and high explosive projectiles in NIACs, in Regulating Hostilities in Non-International Armed Conflicts: Thoughts on Bridging the Divide between the Tadić Aspiration and Conflict Realities, 91 INT'L L. STUD. 281 (2015), pp. 303 ss.
Watch the videos
The course is divided into several sessions. Click on a title to watch the video.
- Outline of the course (3’)
- Use of explosive weapons in populated areas: The issue (3')
- Use of explosive weapons in populated areas: Scope and definition (5')
- Use of explosive weapons in populated areas: Legal questions (12')
- Use of explosive weapons in populated areas: Initiatives and challenges (2')
- Targeting process: Introduction (14')
- Targeting process: Methodology (2')
- Targeting process: Developments, challenges and initiatives (6')
- Use of explosive weapons in populated areas: Questions and discussion (11')
- Use of explosive weapons in populated areas: Future challenges and perspectives (2')
- ICRC video, "Explosive weapons in populated areas: The consequences for civilians".
- ICRC factsheet, "Explosive weapons in populated areas".
- How Does Law Protect in War, 'XI. Non-legal factors contributing to respect for International Humanitarian Law'.
- How Does Law Protect in War, Book Chapter on Conduct of hostilities, 'II. The protection of the civilian population against the effects of hostilities'.
- How Does Law Protect in War, Book Chapter on Conduct of hostilities, 'III. Means and Methods of Warfare'.
- How Does Law Protect in War, Case study, ECHR Grand Chamber: Case of Al-Jedda v. the United Kingdom.
- How Does Law Protect in War, Case study, ECHR Grand Chamber: Case of Al-Skeini and others v. the United Kingdom.
- How Does Law Protect in War, Case study, The armed conflict in Syria.
Military training tools
Further reading and resources
- ICRC, "Explosive weapons in populated areas", video interview with the head of the ICRC's Arms Unit, Kathleen Lawand.
- ICRC statement at the 2015 meeting of States parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.
- ICRC, Urban Services during Protracted Armed Conflict: A Call for a Better Approach to Assisting Affected People, October 2015.
- ICRC, "ICRC alarmed over unacceptable use of explosive weapons in urban areas", news release, 13 October 2014.
- Cross, Kenneth, Ove Dullum, Marc Garlasco & N.R. Jenzen-Jones, Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: Technical Considerations Relevant to their Use and Effects, Special Report, Perth: Armament Research Services (ARES), commissioned by the ICRC, May 2016.
- ICRC, International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts in 2015, 'VII. 2) The use of explosive weapons in populated areas', October 2015.
- Proceedings of the Bruges Colloquium on urban warfare.
- Brehm, Maya, "The human cost of bombing cities: How the international debate on explosive weapons overlooks human rights", International Journal on Human Rights, Vol. 22, December 2015.
- Brehm, Maya, Protecting Civilians from the Effects of Explosive Weapons: An Analysis of International Legal and Policy Standards, UNIDIR, 2012.
- Brehm, Maya, "The use of explosive weapons in populated areas in 2012", in Casey-Maslen, Stuart (ed.), The War Report 2012, Oxford University Press, December 2013.