Explosive weapons in populated areas

We believe explosive weapons that have a wide impact should not be used in populated areas. They cause harm to civilians and disrupt essential services, like water and sanitation.

Cities, civilians and explosive weapons

When armed conflicts are fought in densely populated areas like cities, civilians suffer. Every destroyed house means a family left homeless. Whole neighbourhoods are reduced to rubble. Critical infrastructure can no longer function and surviving civilians often have no choice but to leave. Their displacement is often long-lasting.

Cities have never been immune from warfare. However, during the past century, armed conflicts have become increasingly urbanised. People engaged in war (belligerents), particularly non-state armed groups, often avoid facing their enemy in the open. Instead, they intermingle with the civilian population in cities.

Despite this, conflicts are often waged with weapons designed for use in open battlefields. When used in populated areas, their effects are often inaccurate, making their use indiscriminate and devastating for civilians.

Explosive weapons and international humanitarian law

International humanitarian law (IHL) - otherwise known as the law of armed conflict - does not expressly regulate against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. However, any use of weapons must always comply with IHL rules. These rules include the prohibition of direct attacks on civilians, the prohibition of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, and the obligation to take all feasible precautions in attack.

Due to their wide impact area, explosive weapons can cause significant civilian casualties when used in populated areas. They are also likely to breach IHL rules which prohibit indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks. The International Committee of the Red Cross has called for all parties in armed conflicts to avoid using explosive weapons with a wide impact area in densely populated areas.

At the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2015, the New Zealand government and New Zealand Red Cross jointly pledged to continue to cooperate closely to promote respect for IHL. This includes working for the respect for IHL regarding the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas.

Related reading:

Explosive weapons in populated areas – ICRC Fact Sheet