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Sophia Akram

The weapons used in Yemen should spark international outrage

The widespread use of explosive weapons in Yemen raises the toll of civilian casualties [AFP]

Date of publication: 13 October, 2015

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Comment: Explosive munitions make targets out of civilians by their very nature, writes Sophia Akram.

Since March, the violence between the Houthi rebels and Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi's government has resulted in some of the worst humanitarian conditions of current war time, exacerbated by the Saudi-led airstrikes ostensibly launched to assist Hadi combat the rebels.

War has few rules but even those strain to remain unbroken in modern warfare as advantage is sought at any cost - including the cost to unarmed civilians.

Only two weeks ago, the United Nations' human rights chief declared the death toll of civilian casualties to have reached 2,355 over the span of the six-month civil war.

Civilians often referred to as "collateral damage" in conflict have become increasingly inconsequential, as the rising use of explosive weapons appears to be a large cause of their deaths, as well as leaving thousands wounded.

A report from Action on Armed Violence and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated that the increasing use of explosive weapons has meant more civilians are being killed in Yemen than would otherwise die.

From data collected between 1 January and 31 July 2015, it found that 124 incidents of explosive weaponry led to 5,239 deaths and injuries, of which 86 percent were civilians. These numbers are higher than in any other country in the world - and the statistics increased even further when used in populated areas, in which civilians make up 95 percent of the dead and wounded.

When referring to "explosive weapons", the term usually applies to weapons that have a casing containing highly explosive material. The extent of damage caused by these weapons is usually as a result of the blast wave and fragmentation after detonation.

     The law, framework or guidelines around explosive weapons specifically does not yet exist


Explosive weapons used in recent wars include mortars, artillery shells, rockets, missiles, aircraft bombs, cluster sub-munitions and improvised explosive devices. However, the law, framework or guidelines around explosive weapons specifically does not yet exist.

It is not just Yemen that has illustrated a worrying trend in the adoption of explosive weapons. Increasingly these types of weapons are being used in warfare among populated areas and urban settings.

Such weapons, as stated by the Red Cross, were designed to be used on open battlefields. There will invariably be civilian fallout from their application - as their precision can hardly be guaranteed even if the stated object is a military one.

Most present and recent conflicts including Yemen, Syria and those in Gaza, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Libya, have all seen condemnable "collateral damage" arise from the use of explosive weapons.

This rising trend, which has been exhibited in its worst example through the conflict in Yemen is abominable and must be condemned by all states. The use of explosive weapons breaches the laws on armed conflict by not confining targets to those of a military nature.

The lasting and devastating effects these types of weapons have on their surroundings cause death, destruction and injury - multiple, complex and severe wounds; those left alive then may have lasting trauma and the damage to infrastructure extends beyond the walls of buildings whether military or non-military, to water, electricity and sewage systems, exacerbating the health crises that usually emanate in such conflicts.

The spread of disease arising from an inability to distribute clean water is an inevitable source of further deaths, and is a factor not often taken into account when civilian death tolls are released.

This rupture in the lives of civilians affects basic rights even greater than without the application of such armaments, particularly through the destruction of education and health infrastructure.

It also means that civilians are often compelled to leave their dwellings, leading to displacement. In the current climate of migration crises, if humanity alone was not enough for states to individually condemn the use of explosive weapons in this way, the consequences should be, as the spill out is inevitably to affect neighbouring countries and regions.

The adoption of the use of explosive weapons is by both state and non-state actors.

With recent conflicts in mind, they tend to be defined by mismatched defence capabilities. It is a plausible, though abhorrent strategy for some to use condensed and urban settings as the platform for attacks, hiding among dense populations.

     The inevitable then is likely to occur and those that will be harmed, if explosive weapons are used, are the civilians and civilian infrastructure


The inevitable then is likely to occur and those that will be harmed, if explosive weapons are used, are the civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Explosive weapons are not likely to be removed from military capabilities, and their use is likely to stay in armed warfare despite the increased development on weapons with greater precision; meanwhile, the pattern of civilian harm is arguably being normalised by the media.

This makes action by civil society and parliamentary bodies even more crucial to raise the destruction caused by explosive weapons in densely populated areas and to challenge current user and policy practices.

All states, under the principle of the Responsibility to Protect, have an obligation to protect civilians from harm in wartime. This responsibility should be invoked now, and states urged to pressure actors in the short term against their use of explosive weapons - and to consider user practices and policy around the use of explosive weapons in the long term, including the creation of international standards.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East and Asia.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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