Laura Boillot

This post was originally published in the Forum on the Arms Trade ‘Looking Ahead’ series here.

After a decade of work building concern over the use of explosive weapons in towns, cities and other populated areas, an ambitious timeframe has now been set out for developing an international political declaration in the first half of 2020. The aim of the initiative is to develop a tool to tackle the high levels of civilian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas by driving change in government and military policy and practice.

It is urgently needed. Over the past decade, data shows that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of the casualties are civilians. Explosive weapon systems – including aircraft bombs, artillery, mortars and rocket systems – function by projecting blast and fragmentation across an area, and around the point of detonation, often causing multiple casualties in a single incident. This is a pattern of harm documented in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen, among other places.

Even looking beyond the tens of thousands of civilians that are killed and injured each year, and the many more that are traumatised, the effects of explosive weapon systems have a devastating impact on the fabric of a city and the built environment.  Buildings are reduced to rubble, hospitals and medical facilities are destroyed, and schools are forced to close. The provision of essential services is hampered. The scale of impact goes far beyond those immediately hurt, or those in the vicinity of the attack, and the impact can be felt long after the bombing ends.

Ill-suited for use in urban centres and other populated areas, heavy explosive weapon systems are particularly problematic owing to their large destructive capacity and high explosive content, inaccuracy, and ability to fire multiple warheads across an area – or a combination of these factors. Particular emphasis has rightly been put on addressing use of explosive weapons with wide area effects – and excessively wide in relation to the military objective being targeted.

Key milestones in 2019

The situation is not entirely without hope. Important progress has been made in 2019 to address this issue at the political level.

This issue featured prominently once again in the UN Secretary-General’s report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict issued in May 2019. Citing examples from a range of countries devastated by conflict, he concluded that the protection of civilians in armed conflict is both “tragic and appalling”. A case in point is the city of Raqqa, Syria, which experienced regular airstrikes and shelling, where nearly 80 per cent of buildings in the city were destroyed or damaged and essential services, such as water, electricity and health care were absent or severely limited rendering it inhabitable.

A central recommendation in this report is to avoid use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, owing to the cumulative, complex and long-term harm resulting from such use. The Secretary-General also reiterated his call on states to develop a political declaration on explosive weapons that would see states commit to avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and develop operational policies based on a presumption against such use.

A joint warning by the UN Secretary-General and ICRC President was issued in September 2019 and reiterated the same message warning against use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas, cautioning that “civilian devastation and suffering must stop”. It proposes militaries reassess and adapt their choice of weapons and tactics to avoid civilian harm, including taking combat outside of populated areas altogether to try to reduce urban fighting altogether.

States are starting to respond to the repeated calls of the UN Secretary-General. Following regional conferences in Africa in 2017, and Latin America in 2018, over 130 states met in Vienna in October 2019 for the first global conference on the protection of civilians in urban warfare, with a specific focus on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The Vienna conference represented a turning point. The outcome of the meeting was broad support among participating states to start negotiations on developing an international political declaration on explosive weapons.

Later the same month, a joint statement at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee, led by Ireland and joined by a group of 71 states from all regions, expressed collective concern over the humanitarian impacts on civilians from the bombing and shelling in towns and cities and laid out the aim of negotiating an international political declaration in 2020.

Towards a political declaration in 2020

A widely-attended initial consultation with states on a declaration was convened by Ireland at the United Nations in Geneva in November 2019, gathering views from states and organisations on the type of actions endorsing states can be committed to undertaking. Some key themes from that discussion include:

  • Establishing a presumption of non-use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas

Many states and organisations highlighted that central to the issue, is recognising and addressing the link between the area effect of explosive weapons, and the risk of harm that using such systems in populated areas presents to civilians.

To address this, a presumption of non-use of explosive weapons with wide area effects, should be established along with a requirement on states to actively implement this through the development and review of national operational policies and procedures.

How to articulate the necessary restrictions over the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, in a declaration text will be a contentious issue however. States engaged in military operations have expressed concerns over such restrictions.

  • “Existing law is adequate”

Some states argue that existing law is adequate. However, it is not an initiative aimed at changing the legal framework. There has been widespread support from states to develop a political declaration in order to drive operational change, and set clearer standards and expectations of behaviour around the use of explosive weapons.

  • “National military policies and procedures are adequate”

Certain states maintain that they have sufficiently robust military policies and procedures to adequately deal with the humanitarian harm from explosive weapon use in towns and cities, such as collateral damage estimation methodologies (CDEs) and complex targeting procedures.

However, the high levels of civilian harm point to the need for clearer guidelines that relate specifically to the use of explosive weapons with wide area effect in populated areas.

There are limitations to the extent that existing tools and procedures are sufficient in the absence of international standards that ensure the risk of harm from explosive weapon use is adequately reflected in these assessments. Nor do all states have policies, capabilities, and trainings relevant to the use of explosive weapons or are applying them. A declaration can help to identify, develop and exchange good practices.

  • Assisting victims and affected communities

A declaration should assist people and affected communities, including fulfilling the rights of victims, and ensuring basic needs are met in a timely manner, as well as safe and timely access to services.

Given the number of people that are impacted, and the extensive costs and work associated with rebuilding towns and cities, as well as the burden falling upon affected countries, the scope of this commitment has received some push back from certain states. But the fact that there are a large number of victims is not a justification for denying people their rights, but rather should be driver of the urgency of addressing this problem.

Towards a political declaration

The process laid out by Ireland is expected to conclude in May or June of 2020 in Dublin, following a series of meetings in Geneva in February and March or April of 2020. Ahead of the next meeting, a draft text will be circulated in the new year, and will be the basis of discussions moving forward.

It’s an ambitious timeframe but it can be concluded successfully in this period. It is a similar timeframe and approach that delivered the Safe School’s declaration a few years ago. Civil society’s goal will be on getting a declaration that is sufficiently strong in its commitments to have a meaningful humanitarian impact.


Read more

INEW paper on key elements for a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas

INEW Frequently Asked Questions, with more information on policy positions on key issues


Featured image: Views of Beit Hanoun, one of the neighborhoods most affected by the bombings in Northern Gaza, 2014 (Photo: © Yann Libessart/MSF)

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