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The legacy of explosive

remnants of war


by Louis Maresca and Camilla Waszink
Some 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 everyday work.

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 by ERW.


Huge amounts of lethal explosives can kill and maim civilians for years or decades after an armed conflict ends.
© 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

Too late

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 of war.

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.

Preventive action

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 future.

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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