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Talks Restart to Curb Explosive Weapons Use in Populated Areas

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Strong Political Declaration Needed to Reduce Civilian Harm

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the brakes on many things, including the negotiations to conclude a new political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas. But states have continued such use, particularly with weapons with wide-area effects, with devastating consequences for civilians.

Over the last year, Human Rights Watch has documented the extensive harm caused by explosive weapons with wide-area effects from Idlib in Syria to Armenia and Azerbaijan, and most recently in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

In November 2020, apparently indiscriminate artillery attacks by Ethiopian federal forces struck homes, schools, markets, and near places of worship and hospitals in the city of Mekelle, and the towns of Humera and Shire, killing at least 83 civilians, including children, and wounding over 300.

In addition to causing civilian casualties directly, explosive weapons with wide-area effects have frequently damaged or destroyed civilian infrastructure such as bridges, water pipes, power stations, hospitals, and schools, causing long-term harm to civilians. These weapons have a large destructive radius, are inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time. Sometimes it’s all three. Their use in populated areas forces people to flee their homes, exacerbating humanitarian needs.

Dozens of states have already signaled their commitment to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas because of the harm they invariably cause civilians.

One such state is Ethiopia, which in 2017 joined 18 other African countries in Maputo in signing a communique calling for further action to avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and to support a political declaration curbing their use.

The next meeting of states to discuss the latest draft of the political declaration will occur on March 3-5. While the draft is a good basis for a declaration, Human Rights Watch has outlined how it can be strengthened to better address concerns about civilian harm.

All states, especially those that have recently used explosive weapons in populated areas and caused civilian harm, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Ukraine, and Yemen, should support a strong declaration that addresses the harm these weapons cause to civilians and commits states to avoid using those with wide-area effects in populated areas.

Human Rights Watch
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