2018 has seen a continuation of severe humanitarian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Yet it has also seen distinct positive movement towards a multilateral policy response to frame this issue as an urgent humanitarian concern, and start to drive practical national policies, and international expectations of behaviour, that strengthen the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

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

It was towards the end of 2015 that the President of the ICRC and the UN Secretary-General issues an unprecedented “joint warning” which urged states to “stop the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas.” Now three years later a substantial group of states have committed to taking action on this issue. In 2017 a group of 19 African states endorsed the Maputo Communiqué, and in late 2018 a group of 23 states from Latin America and the Caribbean supported a Santiago Communiqué. Both of these regional instruments support work towards an international political declaration to avoid the use, in populated areas, of explosive weapons with wide area effects. At the UN General Assembly’s First Committee a group of 50 states supported a joint statement, led by Ireland, that commits to further work on this issue, including through a future political declaration.

In the intervening years the UN and ICRC have maintained their calls to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wider area effects in populated areas. This year, the ICRC has strongly advocated in particular for the adoption by states of an “avoidance principle”: a presumption of non-use of such weapons due to the high risk of indiscriminate effects and of consequent harm to civilians. As well as calls to avoid use, the UN Secretary General’s 2018 Protection of Civilians in Conflict report included a significant focus on military policies and procedures to better protect civilians from explosive weapons, and in his New Disarmament Agenda he outlined the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons – particularly those with wide-area effects – in populated areas and reiterated his support for the development of an international political declaration. 

Meanwhile, the UN Convention on Convention Weapons demonstrated its inability to work effectively on this issue. An engaged discussion, initiated by Germany’s and building on their constructive work during the year, was ultimately dismissed through a process of political posturing by states with no interest in promoting stronger civilian protection.

The result of these initiatives is a growing body of states clearly committed to developing a policy response to a pattern of civilian death, injury and suffering. There is a growing understanding of how that response can strengthen military policy and procedure towards stronger civilian protection. And a recognition that such a response needs to be pursued by those that are willing to do so, in a framework where they cannot be blocked by states without that commitment to stronger protection. 2019 will see the development of such a process towards a political declaration – as a key platform from which to reduce civilian harm in the long term.

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