For the ninth year in a row, 90 percent of people killed by explosive weapons in urban areas were civilians. The use of these devices is proliferating in conflicts because they are becoming easier to come by — sometimes they are even homemade. The United States is the world’s largest overall exporter of arms internationally, and Saudi Arabia is its biggest customer.
Explosive weapons are especially popular in Yemen right now, where the war between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government has been waged since 2015. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia is fighting on the latter’s behalf on the ground and in the air. Both sides in the war rely on explosive weapons, which project blast waves and fragmentation miles away, often destroying civilian areas.
The weapons include large-caliber artillery, aircraft bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and though it is a violation of international law to use such artillery directly against civilians, the urban war in Yemen leaves innocent people in the vicinity extremely vulnerable.
Philippe Nassif, an advocacy director at Amnesty International, said that prohibiting the use of explosives in populated regions is implied, but that the Houthis have been reportedly occupying hospitals and other civilian buildings, so the Saudis and their coalition will often target these areas. “They’re targeting a lawful target — armed men — yet they’re hitting an unlawful target below those men,” Nassif said.
Explosive weapons have a wide-impact radius, so their effects are felt miles from wherever they hit. The accuracy of the weapons’ launch, the impact radius and the use of multiple munitions are major factors in determining civilian risk, according to the International Network on Explosive Weapons, an advocacy group.
Air-dropped explosives are inherently inaccurate as there is no way to tell exactly where they will land. Often multiple air explosives are dropped at the same time to increase the likelihood of hitting the desired target. Some weapons are designed to launch many rockets at once to target and ensure a large impact. Both methods make it much more likely that civilians will be affected.
IEDs, including barrel bombs, commonly used by the Syrian government in its civil war in residential settings, are especially lethal and easy to construct. Their environmental effect is also devastating and enduring. In Syria, for example, it is estimated that 10.2 million people are exposed to such hazards, or more than half the population.
“IEDs can be sourced easily from explosive remnants of war or other poorly controlled ammunition stockpiles,” Himayu Shiotani, head of the conventional arms program at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, wrote in an e-mail to PassBlue. “Homemade explosive compounds and mixtures can also be manufactured relatively easily from commonly available raw materials.”
When these weapons are detonated in any populated area, the immediate results and aftershocks gravely affect civilians. The initial blast wave can cause injuries to the ears, lungs and brain, in addition to burns, penetrating wounds and suffocation from debris, Shiotani said.
In urban settings of dense populations, the aftershock is even more intense. “The blast wave is partially absorbed, reflected, refracted and channeled into structures,” Shiotani noted. “This causes a variety of secondary effects including structural collapse, shattered windows and fire damage.”
More than 2,500 schools in Yemen have been damaged or destroyed, forcing two million children from their classrooms. UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently recommended that the UN’s annual report on children and armed conflict remove the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen from the name-and-shame list. The decision, which international advocates for children deplored, means the coalition is left scot-free for violating international law in attacking areas involving children.
Just weeks after the announcement that the Saudi coalition was being delisted, the British government announced it would begin selling weapons again to Saudi Arabia, a year after a British court ruled that the government had unlawfully sold weapons to Saudi forces for use in the Yemen war. The government recently rationalized Saudi incidences of breaching international humanitarian law in Yemen by saying they were “isolated incidents” and that Saudi Arabia had a “genuine intent and the capacity to comply with international humanitarian law.”
On July 12, at least seven children and two women were killed in a suspected Saudi-led coalition airstrike in northwest Yemen, just days after the British announcement. Both Britain and the US are permanent members of the UN Security Council, whose role is to ensure peace and security across the globe.
The war, now in its sixth year, has left 24 million people, or 80 percent of the population, desperate for humanitarian aid. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that 70 percent of the population does not have access to drinking water and 50 percent have no access to health care. At a pledging conference held by the UN in June to boost humanitarian-aid resources for Yemen, Guterres said: “More than five years of conflict have left Yemenis hanging on by a thread, their economy in tatters, their institutions facing near-collapse. . . . There is no time to lose.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, and a lack of tests is allowing the disease to spread virtually undetected. Millions of displaced Yemenis live in camps with little to no access to personal protective equipment. A collapsed health care system means hospitals are reportedly turning Covid-19 patients away; and for those who are treated, as many as 20 percent are dying, compared with 7 percent globally.
Guterres’s March 23 call for a global cease-fire amid the pandemic was finally endorsed by the UN Security Council on July 1, so it could result in a fighting lull in Yemen to address the Covid-19 situation, but so far nothing has changed. Although there was an official pause during the holy month of Ramadan this spring, the coalition and the Houthis still fought, relying on high-explosive artillery shells, which can damage areas up to 100 meters away, or the length of a football field.
Oxfam reported that since 2015 the Saudi-led coalition, which has included the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan and Egypt and others, has been using air-launched weapons. One particularly lethal weapon, the Mark 84 bomb, can kill civilians and destroy areas within 360 meters and cause damage up to half a mile away.
The Yemen Data Project, which is supported by the Open Society Foundations, estimates that at least 21,147 air raids have been conducted by the coalition since the start of the war, and the true number is much higher when combined with rebel attacks.
Saudi Arabia, currently the largest importer of global arms, buys precision-guided bombs, aircraft, maintenance and missiles from the US. “Pretty much every part of the Saudi military gets some sort of weapon from the United States,” said William Hartung, director of the arms and security program at the Center for International Policy.
According to Hartung, just last year Saudi Arabia bought roughly 64,000 Paveway guided bombs from the US in a $1.5 billion dollar deal. That same year, the United Arab Emirates also received a $2.73 billion Patriot missile defense system from the US.
The US has been the largest exporter of arms globally for at least the last five years, and the Saudis are one of its largest customers. A new report from the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor found that the Trump administration made at least $85.1 billion in arms sales offers in 2019, the highest level since it took office in 2017. Because of a lack of transparency on the value of direct commercial sales by the State Department, the $85.1 billion figure is considered a conservative estimate. During the first three years of the Trump administration, the US made arms sales worth more than $240 billion.
Recent efforts by the US Congress have aimed to decrease sales to Saudi Arabia, but these ambitions have been vetoed by President Trump. Humanitarian and rights organizations like Oxfam, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are still pushing for Congress to ban sales to Saudi Arabia until there is a change in its behavior.
“It’s an easy point of leverage over Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Nassif of Amnesty International said. “We know that they want to buy these US made weapons, they don’t necessarily want to be going to other countries, and those other countries often don’t sell the level of sophisticated weaponry they buy from the United States.”
Hartung said that such a Congressional act could have a major effect on Saudi Arabia’s military. “Their air force would have a hard time operating without US support, so it would probably scale back the bombs,” he said. “And it might also make some leverage for the Saudis to finally negotiate for an end to the war.”
But Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon, the largest manufacturers of arms in the US, all have deals in the Persian Gulf to localize the production and maintenance of weapons. According to Hartung, the agreements include the production of Paveway guided bombs with Raytheon and an aircraft maintenance deal with Boeing. The Saudis aim to spend 50 percent of the value of their imports in their own country by 2030, rather than continuously import major weapons from abroad.
Not only will the new arrangements enable weapons, including explosives, to be more accessible to Saudi Arabia, but they could make labor costs cheaper, potentially decreasing the prices of these weapons.
Despite a recently extended arms embargo placed on the Houthis by the UN Security Council, many of their weapons are believed to be supplied by Iran. The UN panel of experts on Yemen reported that the Houthis are receiving commercial parts, such as aerial vehicle engines, servo actuators and electronics that are reportedly used to make aerial machines and IEDs and therefore make them cheaper. Iran repeatedly denies it is supplying weapons to the Houthis.
Despite numerous reports about the effects of explosive weapons on civilians, the production and their use has been increasing, raising questions about the scope of international humanitarian law.
Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee for the Red Cross, said the proliferation of these weapons “signal the urgent need for a change of behavior.”
Advocacy organizations have called on world leaders to update international humanitarian law to address the problem of wide-impact explosives. Human Rights Watch urged countries to ban explosive weapons in populated areas and commit to helping victims of such attacks through medical care and reconstruction programs.
The UN Institute for Disarmament Research also said that countries should refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects and allow disarmament organizations to “carry out clearance [and] disposal, as well as related explosive risk education and awareness-raising activities.”
In 2018, 50 countries, led by Ireland, signed a joint statement to the UN General Assembly about the need for a political declaration limiting the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. A year later, UN Secretary-General Guterres and the International Committee for the Red Cross also appealed to all parties in conflicts to “avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas.”
Ireland’s work on a political declaration has stalled during the pandemic this year, but the country is joining the UN Security Council as an elected member for a two-year term in January, so it could raise the issue there.
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