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Homes, Markets, Mosques, Schools: Civilian Deaths by Explosive Weapons Soar

Civilians made up nearly 80 percent of more than 41,000 reported deaths last year, caused by bombs, missiles, shelling, and other explosive violence

Worldwide civilian deaths and infrastructure destruction caused by explosive weapons soared in 2014, a new report found. (Photo: UNHCR/A.Al-Sharif)

For the third year in a row, global civilian deaths and injuries caused by explosive weapons has increased—in some areas making up 92 percent of casualties, a new report published Monday by the international advocacy group Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) revealed.

In 2014, a total of 41,847 people around the world were killed or wounded by explosive weapons. Seventy-eight percent (32,662) were civilians, almost three times as high as the previous year, AOAV found in its report, Explosive States: Monitoring Explosive Violence in 2014 (pdf).

The most deadly places to be a civilian last year were Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Nigeria, and Pakistan—but these areas were only a handful of the dangerous zones where civilians endure the majority of explosive weapon harm, AOAV reported.

AOAV, based in London, began tracking the use of explosive weapons in 2011. Since that time, almost 150,000 people have been reported killed or injured by weapons like air bombs, missiles, rockets, landmines, artillery shells, grenades, car bombs, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), among others, the report found. In the cases of ground-launched weapons like mortars and grad rockets, civilian deaths accounted for 90 percent of casualties. And deaths from IEDs increased in countries such as China, Egypt, and Yemen.

"This is the third consecutive year that we have seen an increase in civilian deaths and injuries from explosive weapons," said Iain Overton, AOAV director of investigations, in a statement on Monday. "With civilians bearing the brunt of explosive weapon harm in Gaza, Ukraine, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan the question has to be: 'How many more will have to die before states agree to end the use of explosive weapons in populated areas?'" "These explosive weapons are designed for open battlefields, not built-up urban areas [...] This is not about the weapons themselves—it’s about where and how they are used."
—Peter Maur, International Committee for the Red Cross

Rounding out the list of the top six state perpetrators of explosive violence was the U.S., which earned its spot through its bombing campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Iraq and Syria. "It should be noted that the impacts of the international coalition aerial bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq were very poorly reported in 2014," the report states, adding:

AOAV recorded only 26 casualty-causing air strikes resulting from coalition bombing in 2014. These resulted  in 541 casualties, 88% (474) of which were fatalities. Civilians made up 19% of reported casualties from these air strikes (83 deaths and 20 injuries), 87% of which were documented in Syria.

...It is extremely difficult to draw effective assessments  of the impacts of the international coalition’s use of explosive weapons on civilians in Syria and Iraq in 2014. Security conditions on the ground and a lack of access in areas outside of government control make it challenging for independent agencies to evaluate the impact of air strikes.


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Moreover while the number of individual attacks is publicly recorded by the coalition, there is a lack of transparency surrounding the impacts of these strikes in terms of casualty figures.

The most dangerous areas to be a civilian included densely populated cities, markets and bazaars, and, for children, in their own homes. "Civilian casualties...dramatically increased by 43%, from 2,468 deaths and injuries in 2013 to 3,521," the report found.

"State use of heavy explosive weapons shot up last year," wrote AOAV lead researcher Robert Perkins. "More governments are using more bombs, and all too often they are trying to take out targets within populated areas. Our data has shown year after year that this practice kills and injures civilians far too often for it to be chalked up as unavoidable, isolated mistakes."

The Guardian adds:

In Syria, government forces made dramatically increased use of barrel bombs – containers filled with fuel, explosives and chunks of jagged metal typically pushed out of helicopters by hand, killing people and destroying buildings over a wide areas. In 2013, barrel bombs accounted for 20% of aerial attacks. In 2014, that proportion had doubled. The bulk of barrel bomb attacks (85%) were on urban areas.

Israeli air attacks accounted for more than half the civilian casualties in Gaza in 2014. According to UN figures, there were 2,131 deaths from Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in July and August, 69% of which were civilian. But Israel also used high explosive ground-launched and naval shells during that campaign against built-up targets. As a result, Israel outdid even Syria as the state responsible for the most civilian casualties from explosive weapons in 2014, according to the AOAV report.

"Ultimately, civilians in Syria, Gaza, Israel, Afghanistan, Libya, eastern Ukraine and other conflict hotspots pay the price when the shells aimed at military targets end up hitting homes, hospitals and schools. This simply has to stop," Peter Maur, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in October 2014 in a quote cited in AOAV's report. "These explosive weapons are designed for open battlefields, not built-up urban areas [...] This is not about the weapons themselves—it’s about where and how they are used."

Explosive violence can be reduced through concrete measures, the report concluded. Those measures include, among others:

  • Acknowledge that use of explosive weapons in populated areas tends to cause severe harm to individuals and communities and furthers suffering by damaging vital infrastructure;
  • Strive to avoid such harm and suffering in any situation, review and strengthen national policies and practices on use of explosive weapons and gather and make available relevant data;
  • Work for full realization of rights of victims survivors;
  • Develop stronger international standards, including certain prohibitions and restrictions on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

"[B]ombing and shelling is not just a problem of the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan. It's one that hits us in our homes, our markets, our mosques and our schools," said Steven Smith, CEO of AOAV. "The use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas is unacceptable, but all too predictable."

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