If there is a weapon that reflects our times, it is the improvised explosive device (IED). These weapons come in myriad forms– whether it's the suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest approaching a checkpoint in Afghanistan, the command-detonated roadside bombs encountered by troops in Iraq or, indeed, the seizure of passenger planes in mid-air by hijackers to be used as flying bombs – as occurred on 911.
Most often on this blog, when we’ve provided commentary on the work of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) it’s been with reference to its Group of Government Experts’ efforts on cluster munitions. However, the CCW is a framework treaty that contains five protocols, two of which – Amended Protocol II on mines and booby traps, and Protocol V on explosive remnants of war – have active sub-processes of their own.
Last week, in a discussion facilitated by the Swiss, states party to Amended Protocol II began a discussion about IEDs. Presenting were Chris Clark from the UN Mine Action Service, Richard Moyes from UK NGO Landmine Action, Erik Tollefsen from the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, and Colin King, an independent explosive ordnance consultant.
An IED is
“A device placed or fabricated in an improvised manner incorporating destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic, or incendiary chemicals or explosives and designed to destroy, incapacitate, harass or distract. It may incorporate military stores, but is normally devised from non-military components.” (IED Factsheet)Colin King observed there has been an evolution of attacks using IEDs over the last few decades. In the 1970s, non-state armed groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) really did have to improvise using commonly available materials such as nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers, stolen blasting caps and mechanical or electronic timers cannibalized from devices like alarm clocks. The IEDs tended to be unreliable, and to have uncertain effects in terms of explosive yield and signature. In other words, these types of IED were low-tech, basic weapons not particularly well suited to their targets.
The 1970s seem rather halcyon days now. Armed groups making and deploying IEDs in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have become highly sophisticated in terms of funding and organisation: as their experience and access to materials began to match the scale of their ambitions and inventiveness, it has made life increasingly hazardous for both soldiers and civilians.
The IRA’s best chance of destroying a vehicle in Britain or Northern Ireland in the 1970s, for instance, was by physically attaching a time-delay bomb. More recently, insurgents in Iraq and many other places have long had access to shaped-charge explosives like the High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds launched from rocket-propelled grenade launchers. But in recent years they’ve also been able to hold of explosively formed penetrators able to destroy modern armoured vehicles - potentially from a significant distance, we were told. And along with the technology, methods of attack involving sophisticated means of coordination have made counter-measures against IEDs a difficult cat-and-mouse game for military forces.
And, as Richard Moyes pointed out, IEDs are certainly an issue in humanitarian terms too. Landmine Action’s research into incidents of explosive ordnance based on English language news reports of 1,836 incidents in 38 countries over six months revealed that 60 per cent related to IEDs causing many civilian deaths and injuries.
It’s a moot point what the CCW can actually do – if anything – about IEDs, not least because the primary makers and users of IEDs are armed non-state actors, not governments bound by agreements like Amended Protocol II. And, as the International Committee of the Red Cross pointed out, there isn’t anything especially novel about the fact a munition is improvised from a humanitarian law perspective. IHL rules still apply.
Nevertheless, in a ‘food for thought’ paper for the meeting, the Swiss set out some possible avenues for discussion about specific measures such as:
“What are specific best practices to cut the supply?Certainly last week’s CCW talks didn’t come up with any clear answers about what to do next. But, as presenters like King pointed out, a lot of IEDs are ‘local manufactures’ – mass produced, but using parts like abandoned or stolen military munitions. Artillery shells have become a favoured source of explosive for many roadside or vehicle-borne IEDs in Iraq, for instance.
• What can be done in order to avoid that AXO, UXO, badly managed stockpiles, and commercially available products provide the explosives)?
• Could the CCW APII work towards a best practice guide for the improved storage, security, and transport of explosives?
• What mechanisms would help better controlling the manufacture and trafficking of explosives?
• Are there different approaches to deal with IEDs under domestic criminal law?”
So, governments undertaking practical work at the national level to tighten up stockpile management and storage of explosive material in places under their jurisdiction or control would be an important start. Another thing states can do is to join and fully implement the CCW’s ERW protocol to ensure that unexploded and abandoned ordnance is cleared up quickly, and not diverted to putting the bang into IEDs. Not sexy stuff, but worthwhile.
Image: IEDs made from military munitions found in Baghdad (retrieved from Wikipedia Commons, sourced in turn from U.S. Department of Defense).