A Decade of Documentation: Monitoring Global Harm to Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons

Emily Griffith, Action on Armed Violence

Disarmament Dialogue is launching a series of blogs on the role of monitoring in humanitarian disarmament. The series will examine the purposes, methods, challenges, and impacts of monitor initiatives in different areas of disarmament. A current list of monitors is available here.

A little boy and little girl seen through barbed wire standing in a background of rubble.
Credit: Action on Armed Violence, 2021.

For over a decade, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has recorded the number of people killed and injured by the use of explosive weapons, analyzed the harm caused by their detonation, and advocated to reduce the impact of global armed conflict. The Explosive Violence Monitoring Project (EVMP), which began in October 2010, forms the backbone of AOAV’s advocacy and is a central driver in the civil society push to end the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities. 

AOAV’s milestone report, A Decade of Explosive Violence Harm, 2011 – 2020, released in May 2021, presents the findings from ten years’ worth of data on the global use of explosive weapons. Drawing on documented incidents, as reported by English-language media sources, AOAV’s overview provides an insight into the trends and patterns in explosive weapon use and harm over the decade and by region. It focuses on the worst affected countries and territories in terms of civilian casualties and details the particularly severe harm caused to civilians by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The political initiatives spawned by this report and its predecessors show the utility of casualty monitoring, a data-driven guide to where civilians are suffering the greatest harm, which weapons are being used, what kind of damage they cause, and, when the information is available, who is perpetrating such violence. 

AOAV’s 2021 report reveals, in numerical terms, the disproportionate harm that the use of explosive weapons inflicts upon civilians. Between 2011 and 2020, 73 percent of the 357,370 recorded casualties from explosive weapons were civilians (262,413). Over half of these deaths and injuries took place across five countries, the worst-affected countries for civilian casualties in the last decade: Syria (77,534), Iraq (56,316), Afghanistan (28,424), Pakistan (20,719), and Yemen (16,645). This loss of life and physical harm done to civilians is, in the vast majority of cases, the result of explosive weapon use in populated areas. 

The most important aspect of the data, though, is this.  Over a decade, 60 percent of all incidents of explosive violence took place in populated areas. And in those circumstances, 91 percent of those killed and injured were civilians, compared to 25 percent in other, non-populated areas. 

Civil society organizations have mobilized their disarmament efforts around this well-established pattern of harm. Earlier this year, Ireland published a draft political declaration on restricting the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, underpinned by AOAV data. In April 2021, Belgium adopted a resolution to protect civilians from bombing and shelling in populated areas. Similar resolutions are being studied in French and German parliaments and will be discussed in Geneva at a UN meeting later this year.

AOAV monitors English-language media reports to capture information on who has been killed and injured by the use of explosive weapons. The EVMP catalogs the date, time, and location of the incident; the number and circumstances of the people killed and injured; the weapon type, reported user, and target; the method of detonation, if the incident was a suicide attack, and whether displacement or damage to the location was reported. We do not attempt to comprehensively capture all incidents of explosive violence around the world. 

While there are certain challenges and limitations in collecting data based on media reports, information collected by AOAV provides ongoing statistics on the problem of explosive weapons in populated areas, and enables monitoring of broad trends on a global scale. Information and data on the harm caused by explosive weapons is fundamental as a basis for improved protection of civilians, and for preventing the human suffering caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. AOAV’s work is widely cited in international media, disseminated at international forums such as the UN, presented as evidence of explosive violence harm to the UK parliament and to numerous think tank and public debates. 

As a member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), AOAV believes that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas causes severe harm to individuals and communities. Our data consistently and unequivocally supports this position. We believe that such suffering can and should be reduced and that unnecessary deaths and injuries can be prevented. We call on states to cease the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities.