Today, armed conflicts are increasingly fought in urban areas affecting some 50 million people. Thus, urban areas are vulnerable to the effects of conflict, because they are the centers of gravity for civilian life. Within the complex and dynamic context of modern conflict, the risk to civilians and civilian objects grows exponentially in urbanized environments, as the co-mingling of military, civilians, and civilian objects creates challenges for belligerents to comply with international humanitarian law (IHL). Protecting civilians in urban environments, therefore, requires a comprehensive approach to foresee and mitigate risks to civilians and ensure respect for IHL.
Separating military targets from civilian populations is difficult for militaries in any environment, but combat in urban areas is particularly manpower and resource intensive. The density of the population, civilian objects such as homes, schools, and infrastructure like hospitals, electrical power grids, and water sources magnify the challenges to conduct operations and minimize harm. Thus, building capabilities across the spectrum of urban operations necessitates foreseeing risks to civilians and civilian objects, as well as planning, training, and resourcing to mitigate those risks.
CIVIC’s new brief, A Primer on Civilian Harm Mitigation in Urban Operations, aims to provide security actors with an overview of challenges, mitigation strategies, and considerations to protecting civilians during urban operations. This paper contributes to discussions on a comprehensive approach to protecting civilians in urban operations. It is based on examining conflicts in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Nigeria, Philippines, Syria, Somalia, Ukraine, and Yemen, as well as interviews with civilians, armed actors, humanitarian organizations, protection of civilians practitioners, and military experts on urban warfare.