Featured image: Men sit in a room among debris after shelling in the village of Garagoyunlu. © REUTERS/Aziz Karimov

The use of heavy explosive weapons, including heavy artillery guns and multiple rocket launchers, in cities, towns and other populated areas in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is killing and injuring civilians, destroying vital infrastructure and homes, and has forced half the population to flee for safety.

The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), which Article 36 coordinates, has called on parties to the conflict to stop using heavy explosive weapons in towns, cities and other populated areas due to the high risk of harm to civilians, and amid rising civilian casualties.

Use of heavy explosive weapon systems

Several towns and cities have been under attack from heavy explosive weapons used by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, causing civilian casualties and destruction of residential areas and infrastructure. Much of the use of these heavy weapon systems has been documented widely online.

Heavy shelling on Stepanakert, the capital of the disputed territory where 50,000 live, from multiple-launch rocket systems and other long-range missiles has had devastating consequences for civilians. Footage and photographs of the city shows residential areas that have been completely destroyed, with civilians being forced to find underground shelter or leave the city altogether.

The BM-30 Smerch rocket launcher which has been used by Azerbaijan, can fire a salvo of rockets across an area. Each individual rocket can have a lethal area of around 15 metres with blast and fragmentation extending beyond that. The firing of multiple rockets produces multiple detonations across an even wider area, any civilians that are within this area are at severe risk of being killed or injured. Further inaccuracy results from the rockets being fired at a distance, which can be between 20 and 70 km. Such heavy explosive weapon systems are highly inappropriate to use in populated areas due to their wide area effects and the high risk of harm to the civilian population, even if directed against a target.

Reports also show Armenia using 122mm and 152mm artillery shells, fired by Howitzer guns on the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city. A 155mm high explosive howitzer shell can project fragmentation across an area of 500-600 km. These systems deliver multiple rounds at a target projecting blast and fragmentation yet further. Such weapons have significant limitations of accuracy and a wide range of operational factors can limit accuracy still further, as can the range at which they are fired (12-17 km), and the movement of the gun from multiple firings. The wide area effects from these explosive weapons systems, present a high risk of harm to any civilians in the area.

Pattern of civilian harm

The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that hundreds of homes and infrastructure including hospitals and schools, as well as roads, electricity, gas and communications networks, have been destroyed or damaged. Media reports have documented attacks that have not only struck city centres and in one instance a maternity hospital, but other public infrastructure including hydroelectric plants, and a water reservoir which can have severe knock-on effects. Half the population – around 70,000 civilians – have been forcibly displaced by the conflict.

Every year tens of thousands of civilians are killed and injured by bombing and shelling in urban and other populated areas using weapons designed for use in open battlefields. Many more civilians experience life-changing injuries, and suffer from destruction of homes, hospitals, schools and vital services. The use of explosive weapons is also one of the main catalysts of forced displacement, as civilians flee for safety. Unexploded ordnance left behind after a conflict has ended further impedes the safe return of civilians.

New international rules against use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas

The bombing and shelling in these towns and cities highlights the needs for new international standards against the use of heavy explosive weapons in towns and cities. Heavy explosive weapons are those with wide area effects, and include weapons that produce a large blast area or spread fragments widely, weapons that deliver multiple munitions that saturate a large area, such as multiple-launch rocket systems, and inaccurate weapons where the effects of the weapon extend beyond the target. When used in cities and towns where there are concentrations of civilians, the risk of harm to civilians is great

Over 100 countries have recognised the harm caused to civilians from the use of explosive weapons in cities, towns and other populated areas. States have started discussions on the development of new international standards to adopt stronger rules against attacks using heavy explosive weapons in cities, towns and other populated areas, under the leadership of Ireland. INEW calls upon states to include in the elaboration of a political declaration, a commitment to avoid use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.


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International Network on Explosive Weapons – declaration negotiation resources

The draft political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas: key comments

Rejecting calls to address only the “indiscriminate use” of explosive weapons in populated areas