THIS week, dozens of Syrians were killed in a chemical weapons attack in Idlib, northwestern Syria. The use of chemical weapons is a global taboo, in the words of legal officer Yasmin Naqvi from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
International humanitarian law forbids any kind of indiscriminate weapon, but chemical weapons in particular invoke the greatest strain of public fear and loathing since they were first used, to horrific effect, in World War I.
The most common types of these weapons are choking agents (such as chlorine and phosgene), nerve agents (sarin, soman, and VX), blister agents (mustard and lewisite), and blood agents (hydrogen cyanide).
In Africa, chemical weapons were allegedly used last year against civilians by the Sudanese government in Darfur, according to this report from Amnesty International.
Based on testimony from caregivers and survivors, the investigation indicates that at least 30 likely chemical attacks have taken place in the Jebel Marra area of Darfur since January 2016. Between 200 and 250 people may have died as a result of exposure to the chemical weapons agents, with many or most being children.
“It is hard to exaggerate just how cruel the effects of these chemicals are when they come into contact with the human body. Chemical weapons have been banned for decades in recognition of the fact that the level of suffering they cause can never be justified,” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty Internationals Director of Crisis Research.
Chemical weapons aren’t the only type of indiscriminate weapon used in warfare that disproportionately targets civilians – barrel bombs, cluster munitions, landmines, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) also have devastating, and widespread effects.
In 2016, Somalia was Africa’s most dangerous country to be a civilian, with regard to the risk of being caught up in explosive violence. This is according to most recent data from the Action on Armed Violence, which monitors trends on explosive violence globally.
There were 1,445 deaths and injuries from explosive violence in Somalia in 2016, 58% of whom were civilians. Three-quarters of civilian deaths and injuries were caused by IEDs, and a further 21% by ground-launched weapons.
Last yearsaw a dramatic scale-up in attacks against civilians in Somalia compared to 2015, the monitoring group recorded an increase in civilian deaths and injuries by 83%. The number of civilians killed or injured by suicide attacks more than tripled, while those killed or injured by IEDs more than doubled.
Nigeria is in second place, there were 926 deaths and injuries from explosive violence in Nigeria last year, 57% of which were civilians. Nearly all civilian deaths and injuries were caused by IEDs, 88% were suicide attacks, and a third of the deaths and injuries happened in the northeastern town of Maiduguri alone, which has been worst affected by the Boko Haram insurgency.
Still, last year was much better than the previous year of 2015 in Nigeria, when the same monitoring group ranked the country as the worst place to be a civilian in Africa. Compared to 2015, civilian deaths and injuries from explosive violence fell 83% in 2016.
Libya is in third place in Africa according to most recent data, where explosive violence killed or injured 219 civilians between January and September 2016. Though a similar amount of deaths was recorded during the same time period in the previous year, civilian deaths and injuries in 2016 show a decrease of over 50% compared to 2015.
This is because many militant groups are increasingly targeting police and military as opposed to civilians. In fact, 84% of those killed or injured specifically by IEDs in Libya last year were that of armed groups, not civilians.
Of those killed and injured last year, 40% have been by air-launched explosives, 28% by ground-launched, and 32% by IEDs.
Chad and Cameroon recorded very high casualties from explosive violence in 2015, in spite of the fact that not a single incident was recorded in either of them in 2014.
This was a result of the Boko Haram insurgency that spilled over Nigeria and into their borders. All but one of the incidents recorded in Chad and Cameroon in 2015 were suicide bombings,and all most probably launched by Boko Haram.
In fact, in 2015,the two had the highest number of civilian deaths per attack, with fewer, but relatively deadlier attacks – Chad had 66, and Cameroon recorded42 deaths per attack. By contrast, Libya recorded 10 deaths per attack, and Somalia 11.