This week has been filled with tragic scenes of destruction and suffering in Beirut. The death toll from the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in the city’s port has risen above 150. Thousands more have been injured and whole districts displaced.
The Beirut disaster has rightly focused the world’s attention on what happens when stockpiles of explosive are neglected or ignored. Like all chemicals, explosives require structured management. They otherwise degrade over time, becoming volatile and frequently detonating spontaneously or when there are fires or lightning strikes.
There have been over 240 ammunition depot explosions over the last decade. Around the world, stockpiles of ammunition are – quite literally – ticking bombs.
The last disaster of this scale and impact took place on a Sunday morning in 2012, when a combination of ammonium nitrate and ammunition exploded in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. It killed over 500 people and – like Beirut – flattened homes and the city’s infrastructure. It led to immediate and widespread displacement with as little warning as a devastating earthquake. The reverberating impact was felt in damage to education, healthcare and livelihoods.
Addressing surplus ammunition and explosives has been championed as a disarmament priority by several states, particularly Germany and Switzerland, as well as by the UN’s Office for Disarmament Affairs. Meanwhile, experts have built a substantial body of global standards in the form of the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines. States, international organisations and NGOs like HALO have the technical skills to support states whose stockpiles are at risk.
Yet the explosions keep happening, meaning that states and the international community need to do more and do things differently to prevent avoidable tragedies like Beirut and Brazzaville. The answer obviously involves more resources and technical assistance. But – critical though that is – it will not be enough. The scale of the issue is too big, and at the national level it is frequently viewed as a sensitive defence and security issue.
Success will depend first and foremost on political prioritisation and cooperation. Addressing the detrimental impact of weapons and ammunition needs to be a foreign policy priority for all states, and a domestic priority for those with unmanaged or surplus stockpiles. And all countries should have this on their policy priority list as they engage with this year’s landmark 75th session of the UN General Assembly.
Prioritising ammunition is not an easy decision in the face of COVID-19 and other national and international priorities. But it is the bold one, the right one, and long overdue.
Simon Conway is HALO's Director of Capability
& Chris Loughran is Senior Policy & Advocacy Advisor