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Is It Time to Ban Explosive Weapons?

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UK-based NGO Landmine Action says yes. In a recent report, the organization points out that we do not consider explosive bombs an acceptable tool in police operations, and proposes they be stigmatized as tools of counter-insurgency and military operations other than war as well – at least when used in populated areas.

The report cites evidence of the civilian consequences of explosive violence used in populated areas, an argument with which it’s easy to agree from a human security perspective. Whether the exact percentage of civilian deaths from explosives are 83% as the report concludes or marginally lower, it is clear that when you drop 500 lb bombs in urban areas, collateral damage levels will be unacceptably high. One of the great strengths of the report, however, is that it doesn’t limit itself to direct civilian casualties but also documents the long-term developmental consequences of destroying civilian infrastructure with explosives.

Explosive weapons have a high capacity to damage the social and economic infrastructure on which civilian populations rely. The destruction of housing, power supplies, water and sanitation systems, health facilities, schools, markets, roads and transport links, and energy infrastructure present direct humanitarian problems, deplete local and national capacity for production and growth, and necessitate high levels of reconstruction expenditure, diverting scarce resources from investments necessary to achieving developmental targets.”

Finally, the report also suggests that the appropriation of such violence by non-state actors gives governments an incentive to seize the moral high ground in order to better distinguish themselves from their illegitimate foes:

A stigma against theuse of explosive weapons in populated areas would provide a basis for better differentiation between those acting on their common responsibility to protect
civilians and those subordinating civilian protection in the pursuit of other goals.

This is an intriguing argument because it counters the conventional wisdom among some scholars and policy-makers – that states must increasingly use heavy-handed means to counter enemies who themselves have little respect for civilians. So I’ll be interested to see how this argument plays as Landmine Action presses its claims. But it sure is good to see members of the NGO community – as well as the United Nations Secretary General – framing explosive weapons as the humanitarian travesty they are.

In analytical terms, this report constitutes an example of “problem definition” – what scholars of agenda-setting would consider an early step toward the development of a global prohibition regime. Yet it’s interesting that Executive Director Richard Moyes, who authored the report and also maintains a blogsabout explosive violence – isn’t calling for an outright ban on the state use of explosive weapons. Instead what is suggested here are baby-steps: states should more clearly articulate the circumstances under which they would be allowable, develop better mechanisms for determining the consequences of their use, and compensate civilians who are harmed by explosions.

What do readers think? Should explosive weapons go the way of landmines in global “civil” society?

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