Civilian suffering in Gaza has been driven by the extensive use of heavy explosive weapons across a populated area.  The UK is nominally the lead nation for the Protection of Civilians on the UN Security Council where the impact of explosive weapons in populated areas has been a key issue of concern. Yet the UK has remained publically silent on this issue and, behind the scenes, has apparently worked to block collective statements calling for this issue to be addressed. As the UK prime minister is accused of losing his moral authority over the conflict in Gaza, so the UK’s diplomatic authority as a leader on civilian protection looks increasingly thin.

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has been by far the leading cause of deaths and injuries to civilians during the conflict in Gaza these past few weeks. The situation is intolerable for civilians. Bombardment and shelling has damaged schools and hospitals, and destroyed vital infrastructure. Beyond the immediate suffering, the long-term costs will be severe.

Within the UN Security Council, the UK is formally the lead nation for the protection of civilians in armed conflict (see extract from UK FCO briefing here).  From this position it should be expected that the UK would take a leading role in promoting engagement with issues recognised as causing civilian harm.  A key concern for civilian protection identified by the UN Secretary-General and raised by some 40 governments internationally in recent years has been the impact of explosive weapons in populated areas.   In particular, the impact of explosive weapons with wide area effects, such as heavy artillery and large air-dropped bombs and use of unguided rockets in villages towns and cities has been identified as a major source of harm. This has been raised extensively in the UN Secretary General’s reports on the protection of civilians (most recently here – para 69 and elsewhere) and is also considered a key challenge by the International Committee of the Red Cross (see here).

The recent conflict in Gaza, following from events in Syria and elsewhere, make it starkly clear why this should be a priority for civilian protection.  The shelling and bombing of towns and cities has been the major cause of direct and indirect civilian harm in these conflict zones.  Yet despite this, and although the UN, ICRC and some 40 governments have spoken out on this, the UK has refused to support engagement on this issue and is understood to have worked behind the scenes to repeatedly block reference to this issue in collective statements by the ‘Group of Friends on the Protection of Civilians’ (a group of states that are supposed to see civilian protection as a priority).

In their 2012 internal notes to UK diplomats in New York, the FCO warned that:  “When talking of air-delivery of weapons or heavy artillery in relation to populated areas, care should be taken not to imply that the air-delivery of weapons or the use of heavy artillery, or of any other weapons, projectiles or munitions, is less accurate or less capable of being carried out discriminately than all or any other means.”  This is effectively saying ‘don’t suggest that heavy bombing or shelling of populated areas might be worse than anything else.’  Based on these instructions, UK diplomats are reported to have blocked engagement with this issue in collective statements by the Group of Friends on the Protection of Civilians.  Subsequent Freedom of Information requests for more recent versions of these instructions have been turned down, but diplomats on the ground in New York have continued to confidentially report active blocking on this issue by the UK.

When asked in parliament earlier this year, “what assessment they have made of the recommendations of the United Nations Secretary-General and the International Committee of the Red Cross that explosive weapons with a wide impact area should be avoided in densely populated areas”, Baroness Warsi, for the Government replied that:

“The British Government’s view is there is no utility in attempting to describe, beyond the current provisions given under International Humanitarian Law, a category of ‘explosive weapons with wide impact area’. We condemn the indiscriminate or disproportionate use of any weapon, including the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian objects. The UK fully complies with and is a champion of International Humanitarian Law which makes provision for the use of lethal force only with adequate precautions, and is committed to upholding the Geneva Conventions and encouraging others to do the same.”

Again, this is an effort to assert that bombing or shelling towns or cities doesn’t present any particular problems, and is not worth engaging with as a distinct humanitarian concern.  In private their argument is essentially that all weapons pose risks and the issue is making sure people use them carefully. Clearly it is incorrect that a large air-dropped bomb or heavy artillery strike in a densely populated area poses the same risk to civilians as “any other weapon”.  This position is also directly at odds with the UK’s recognition through its membership of specific legal instruments, that certain weapons do pose particular risks (a recognition heralded recently by William Hague as an example to be followed on other issues).

International humanitarian law does not explicitly prohibit the use of heavy explosive weapons in towns or cities, but relies on a case-by-case assessment for each attack.  In Gaza now, as in many other examples, governments are often not prepared to state definitively that the actions are unlawful.  Although UK Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed that “international law is very, very clear” it was not actually clear enough for him to make a definitive legal assessment about a specific attack or about the general pattern of violence either.  Exactly like the UK, Israel consistently articulates its commitment to international humanitarian law in the context of military operations.  Yet it is obvious that such rhetoric is inadequate for preventing extremely high levels of civilian suffering.

A group of NGOs, including Article 36, working together as the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), are calling on governments to agree an international commitment to curb the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects.  This would not necessarily have to be a legal commitment – but could be a political tool to recognise this pattern of violence as presenting extreme risks to civilians and to be worked against by the international community.

By refusing even to acknowledge that using heavy explosive weapons in populated areas is likely to cause high levels of civilian harm, despite this impact being highly predictable, and by working to stop others acknowledging this, the UK has been trying to block an effort to have this practice considered progressively less acceptable internationally.  In the face of the civilian suffering on the ground the UK position is not compatible with a claim to leadership on the protection of civilians.

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