Report by the International Network on Explosive Weapons on the United Nations Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, 25 June 2012

The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) has been working with states and organisations to highlight the need for action to address the problem of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). A key forum of engagement so far has been in the context of the Security Council debates on protection of civilians. The latest such debate on 25 June 2012 saw growing recognition by states of this humanitarian problem.

INEW advocacy in advance of the debate consisted of a mission to New York from 14-18 May 2012, including several bilateral meetings and separate briefings to group of friends on protection of civilians and the group of friends on children and armed conflict. INEW circulated an advocacy sheet calling for states to welcome the UNSG’s recommendations to prevent harm from explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) set out in his 2012 report on protection of civilians, issued at the beginning of June. The widely read Security Council Report also highlighted EWIPA in its crosscutting report previewing the protection of civilians debate.

The UNSG and the Emergency Relief Coordinator both made strong remarks on EWIPA during their introductory briefings to the debate. Their key call was for an end to the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated areas. They also called for more focused discussions on this issue, including on the basis of further research into the problem and continued cooperation with civil society and international organisations.

Some 45 countries spoke during the debate, with a number of them welcoming the UNSG’s and / or ICRC’s strong recommendations on the topic of explosive weapons in populated areas. There were references to the problem of EWIPA by Switzerland on behalf of the group of friends on protection of civilians (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, UK and Uruguay) and by Jordan, which welcomed the UNSG’s recommendations on explosive weapons on behalf of theHuman Security Network (Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Greece, Ireland, Mali, Norway, Panama, Slovenia, Switzerland and Thailand, with South Africa as an observer).

The European Union, (on behalf of its member states as well as Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia) stated that: “we furthermore continue to be very preoccupied by the humanitarian impact of the use of weapons in densely populated areas. We take note of the view expressed by the ICRC that the use of explosive weapons with a wide area impact should be avoided in densely populated areas. This issue should be addressed in a more systematic and proactive way.”

Finland, on behalf of the Nordic Countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) made reference to EWIPA in the context of attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria.

Australia noted that “the use of powerful explosive weapons in populated areas without proper regard for international humanitarian law restrictions … is a clear violation of the limits of conflict. We support the Secretary-General’s recommendations on this. We encourage greater collection of data on the issue. We welcome the Council’s attention to this threat in Syria, and we encourage the Council to be systematic in its approach in this area.”

Germany noted that: “a central question is the application of the rule of distinction in today’s military operations. Experiences in recent conflicts beg the question of how the principle of distinction is implemented in practice, in particular when conducting warfare within densely populated areas. The devastating humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in densely populated areas is a major concern in this regard. We agree with the ICRC that explosive weapons with a wide-impact area should be avoided in densely populated areas. We welcome initiatives to address this issue in a more systematic and proactive way, including possible stronger engagement of the Security Council in this regard.”

Austria noted that it shares the UNSG’s concern about the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in densely populated areas, stating that “Austria welcomes the Emergency Relief Coordinator’s appeals in this regard and supports the ICRC’s view and the Secretary General’s recommendation that explosive weapons with a wide area impact should be avoided in densely populated areas. Under International Humanitarian Law their use is not prohibited as such, but the heightened risk of indiscriminate harm and the appalling suffering they cause when used in densely populated areas should be reason enough for us to consider this issue in depth, including the possibility of developing stronger international standards. More systematic data collection, the refinement of national policies on the use of explosive weapons and conducting post-strike analysis are important in this respect.”

Japan noted that “the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas is a grave concern, as it results in numerous civilian casualties. It also leads to the creation of scores of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees, which affects not only the epicentre of violence, but also neighbouring countries and regions.”

Luxembourg, with reference to Syria, noted that “the use of heavy weapons, artillery and tanks, in urban areas and the use of all types of explosive weapons has reached a level that there is no longer any doubt [that an armed conflict is taking place and that the Geneva Conventions should apply]”.

Mexico acknowledged the concerns over use of explosive weapons in populated areas and called for an end to the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated areas.

Togo noted that “the fact that the principle of proportionality is not respected and that heavy weaponry and explosive devices are being used in populated areas explains the very high number of civilians killed in armed conflict. Very often, it is vulnerable people, such as women, children, the elderly and the disabled, who bear the brunt of that violence.”

Uruguay also made reference to the problem of explosive weapons in populated areas in its statement.

While not referencing explosive weapons explicitly, Morocco noted that “the use of artillery against urban zones, and the shelling of buildings and social edifices such as hospitals, schools and places of worship, are not only contrary to international humanitarian and human rights law but are, above all, unjustified and unjustifiable. It is our collective duty to put an end to it.”

Along similar lines, Canada noted its concern over the “use of heavy weapons in population centres” in Syria andChile noted concern over government forces undertaking “bombardments with heavy weapons in densely populated cities” in Syria, as well as noting concern over “explosive attacks undertaken supposedly by opposition elements”.

The next Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians is expected to take place in November under the Indian Presidency of the Security Council.

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