This is the fifth blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2018 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
These examples are particularly stark, but each year across the globe 60-70 countries experience explosive violence, with tens of thousands of civilians being killed and injured. Clear illustrations of this persistent pattern of harm can be found across different countries and contexts, including in Côte d’Ivoire, Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen – raising concerns over the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
Armed conflicts are increasingly being fought in towns and cities, with some 50 million people bearing the brunt of the consequences. Too often the weapon of choice in these situations are the tools of the military – weapons designed for use in open battlefields and that impact a wide area. But their use in civilian areas including villages, town and cities, puts civilians at excessive risk of harm and must change.
Beyond direct deaths, injuries, and trauma, civilians also suffer from living under the bombing: many are forced to flee their homes, and for those that stay - and those that want to return - the widespread destruction of buildings and essential infrastructure, and the services that they provide including health care, education, water, sanitation, power supply and transportation, are severely impeded.
What can we work towards in 2018?
There is widespread and growing concern over the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas – these being weapons that are inherently inaccurate, weapons that have a large explosive content, or those that scatter explosives over a wide area, or a combination of these factors. A recent study in the Lancet on the impact of shelling in Syria, found “disproportionate lethal effects on civilians, calling into question the use of wide-area explosive weapons in urban areas.” This follows warnings not to use explosive weapons with a wide area impact in densely populated areas from the ICRC and the UN Secretary-General, who emphasised the “widespread” and “largely foreseeable” humanitarian harm such weapons use causes. Civil society organizations affiliated with the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) and other non-governmental organizations have also raised repeated concerns over the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in areas where there is a concentration of civilians. Greater recognition by states and other armed actors of this specific pattern of harm, which is largely foreseeable and has been extensively documented, is needed as a first step towards enhancing the protection of civilians, as well as a firm commitment not to use explosive weapons with wide area effects in towns and cities.
A focus on revising or otherwise developing specific operational policies and procedures that better guide the choice of weapons in populated areas that set an operational direction against the use of those that present the gravest risks to civilians and by doing such minimizing harm, is sorely needed. OCHA’s Compilation of Military Policies and Practice, which looks at existing policies and practices by militaries to protect civilians from explosive weapons, provides some useful examples of how militaries have restricted the use of explosive weapons to protect the civilian population and reduce civilian causalities, and how this choice has at the same time supported the strategic objective of their operations. Geneva Call reports that protecting civilians from the effects of weapons is also of concern to a number of non-state actors also, as documented in their latest report on this theme, Despite hostilities more and more often taking place in urban centers, few militaries have specific operational guidance on the use of explosive weapons in such challenging, densely populated environments. Whilst collateral damage estimates and other procedures help to provide important assessments, a specific focus on the choice of weapons as the primary instruments of violence and the cause of harm would be enormously beneficial in strengthening the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
A key focus of work for states and others concerned about the protection of civilians in armed conflict must be the development of an international political declaration on the prevention of harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Austria and Mozambique are among the states that have been leading discussions on this issue following calls from the UN Secretary General to engage constructively in developing a political declaration. A declaration would set an important political standard, and provide operational direction for parties to armed conflict with a view to avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. It could provide a framework for states to develop national measures and guidance, and a forum to discuss results and assess the effectiveness of such measures. Furthermore, it could contribute to assisting affected communities and individuals in addressing civilian harm from the effects of explosive weapons.
Whilst a political declaration would not solve this widespread problem overnight, a commitment led by a partnership of states and organizations dedicated to reducing humanitarian suffering would lay the foundations for greater action. This issue is urgent: treating it as such means that significant and concrete progress must be made in 2018.
Laura Boillot is the Coordinator of the International on Explosive Weapons (INEW) and Programme Manager for Article 36.