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Indiscriminate Attacks and Indiscriminate Weapons in International Humanitarian Law, March 2016 (OHCHR legal note) [EN/AR]

In the context of the ongoing conflict in Syria there has at times been some confusion surrounding the difference between the international humanitarian law principle prohibiting the use of indiscriminate weapons, and the prohibition on the launching of indiscriminate attacks. In this regard, there have been numerous statements and resolutions by the Security Council, General Assembly, UN agencies and member states condemning indiscriminate attacks being launched in Syria. On 14 December 2015, the Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs condemned indiscriminate attacks which resulted in schools being hit and children killed,1 while on 18 December the Security Council adopted a resolution2 which again demanded that all parties immediately cease “any indiscriminate use of weapons”. Similarly, there have been numerous statements condemning the use of indiscriminate weapons in Syria.3 On 9 November 2015, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement4 in which it categorically refuted that it uses indiscriminate weapons, though it notably said nothing about launching indiscriminate attacks. This paper seeks to briefly provide definitions on what exactly constitutes an “indiscriminate attack” and what constitutes the use of “indiscriminate weapons” in international humanitarian law. The paper then specifically looks to the use of chemical weapons, cluster bombs and barrel bombs in Syria.  

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Original Publication Date: 
30 Mar 2016
Document type: