The legacy of explosive
remnants of war
by Louis Maresca and Camilla Waszink
84 countries and territories are confronted with the problems
caused by explosive remnants of war. In some places, civilians
are killed and injured daily. In many more, the presence of
explosive remnants of war hinders farming, reconstruction, the
return of refugees and the internally displaced and exacerbates
the poverty of war-affected communities.
"Explosive remnants of war" (ERW) are the unexploded
or abandoned munitions that remain once an armed conflict
has ended. These include artillery and mortar shells, grenades,
landmines, cluster bombs and other submunitions, rockets,
missiles and similar explosives. Most of these weapons have
already been fired, deployed or otherwise used in the course
of a battle but have failed to detonate as intended. Others
have never been used but have simply been abandoned as part
of stockpiles near battlefield positions. Unfortunately and
all too often, civilian men, women and children find these
weapons before the proper agencies and organizations can remove
them. Predictably, the results are tragic. Similar to the
suffering caused by anti-personnel landmines, other explosive
remnants of war kill and injure large numbers of civilians
in war-affected countries and have severe socio-economic consequences.
The Movement confronts the impact of these weapons in its
While it is difficult to accurately determine the scale of
the problem, examples from different settings illustrate its
global nature. Poland, for instance, has been clearing explosive
remnants of war from its territory for over 50 years. Since
1944, more than 96 million pieces of explosive ordnance —
80 million excluding landmines — have been removed at
an estimated cost of $866 million (1).
Between 1944 and 1989, unexploded ordnance claimed the lives
of 4,094 people in Poland, injuring another 8,774. The country
still clears hundreds of thousands of ERW annually.
Another example is Laos, where the wars in Indochina during
the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s have left this country heavily
affected by explosive remnants of war. It is estimated that
between 9 and 27 million unexploded submunitions remain, although
hostilities ended in 1975. Some 11,000 people have been killed
or injured, a large percentage being children (2).
Almost three decades after the conflict ended, Laos remains
one of the world’s most severely affected countries
Huge amounts of lethal explosives can kill and
maim civilians for years or decades after an armed conflict
© John Rodsted
A commitment by parties to a conflict to clear
or to facilitate clearance of explosive remnants of war must
be a central element of an effective agreement.
© John Rodsted
Wars do not have to last for years or decades to create
a serious ERW problem. Even short-lived conflicts can cause
a large number of civilian casualties. One recent example
is the ERW resulting from the conflict in Kosovo. Following
the end of the conflict in June 1999, clearance agencies removed
or destroyed more than 54,000 pieces of ordnance. Unfortunately,
clearance came too late for many. In the year following the
end of the conflict, explosive remnants of war killed or injured
nearly 500 people. Today, accidents and violent incidents
involving ERW in Iraq and Afghanistan are regularly reported
in the media. The recent hostilities, as well as earlier wars,
have left those countries littered with explosive remnants
of war and have produced large numbers of deaths and injuries.
The international community has taken significant measures
to reduce the problems caused by anti-personnel mines. Yet
until now there have been few international rules that deal
with the problems caused by other forms of explosive remnants
In 2003, partly in response to efforts by the ICRC, many
National Societies and non-governmental organizations, states
parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons
(CCW) initiated negotiations aimed at reducing the threat
that explosive remnants of war pose to civilian populations.
It is hoped that this work will produce a set of legally binding
rules in the form of a new protocol to the Convention. The
adoption of such a protocol would be an important development
of international humanitarian law and strengthen an area where
the law is currently weak.
The current negotiations focus on measures to reduce the
threat of explosive remnants of war after a conflict is over.
In the view of the ICRC, the consequences can be significantly
reduced by requiring parties to the conflict: to clear or
facilitate the clearance of explosive munitions they have
used; to provide organizations engaged in the clearance of
explosive remnants of war and ERW awareness with the technical
information and material assistance to permit them to conduct
their activities as effectively and safely as possible; and
to warn civilians of the presence and danger of explosive
remnants of war. Assistance must also be provided to help
the victims of explosive remnants of war live healthy and
productive lives, in the context of strengthening the overall
health system in the affected country.
In addition, the ICRC has called for a prohibition on the
use of submunitions against any military objective located
in areas where there is a concentration of civilians. This
proposal is based on the particular risks that submunitions
pose to civilians, due to their high failure rates and the
difficulties of delivering these weapons with precision. So
far, only a few governments are in favour of such restrictions.
Requirements to prevent submunitions and other ordnance from
becoming explosive remnants of war in the first place, such
as self-destruct mechanisms and proper management in the storage
of munitions, are also important. While these preventive measures
continue to be discussed, they are not yet the subject of
negotiations. However, with increased public and political
support, they could become the basis for negotiations in the
The 28th International Conference will offer an important
opportunity for the Movement to be heard on these issues.
In 2001, the Council of Delegates encouraged CCW states parties
to negotiate a new protocol to address the problems caused
by explosive remnants of war and encouraged all components
of the Movement to raise awareness about the human costs of
these weapons. This year, it is hoped that both the Council
of Delegates and the International Conference will be able
to welcome the adoption of a new CCW instrument on explosive
remnants of war, or — if an instrument has not yet been
concluded — to urge CCW states parties to continue negotiations
and approve strong measures, such as those proposed by the
ICRC, to reduce the ERW problem. Only if the process yields
a new set of strict and comprehensive rules can it promise
to improve the lives of the countless civilians who continue
to be at risk of becoming war wounded long after the soldiers
have left the battlefield.
ICRC delegate teaching schoolchildren about the
dangers of explosive remnants of war in Barda, Azerbaijan.
©Boris Heger / ICRC
Louis Maresca and Camilla Waszink
Louis Maresca is ICRC legal advisor. Camilla Waszink is ICRC
National Society and programme officer in Geneva.
1 'Polish experiences with Remnants of War',
report by the Polish Engineering Forces, 2002.
2 Information provided by Phil Bean, director, National UXO
Programme, Laos, at the expert meeting on explosive remnants
of war held in Nyon, Switzerland, 18 and 19 November 2000.
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