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Armed conflicts are increasingly fought in urban areas and often with weapons designed for use in open battlefields, not cities. As witnessed in places like Mosul, Aleppo, Raqqa, Tripoli, and more recently in Kharkiv and Mariupol, when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, they cause death and injuries to civilians. They also disrupt essential services such as water, sanitation, electricity, and health care facilities, leading to displacement, death, and disease.

The United Nations estimates that 90% of casualties are civilians when explosive weapons are used in populated areas (EWIPA).

From 6 to 8 April 2022, state representatives, the United Nations, and international and civil society organizations will resume consultations in Geneva to adopt a Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas. Ireland has been leading the consultations on a draft declaration since 2019.

For over ten years, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) has been participating in multilateral discussions on the use of EWIPA. CIVIC has undertaken research on the impact of urban warfare on civilians and civilian infrastructure, conducted assessments on capabilities of forces to fight in urban areas, and provided technical assistance and training to armed forces on good practices and tools needed to mitigate civilian harm, including on explosive weapons.

CIVIC welcomes the talks on finalizing the political declaration and urges states to support commitments outlined in the declaration to strengthen protection norms.

See CIVIC’s comments on the April 2022 version of the draft political declaration.

Sahr Muhammedally, CIVIC’s Director, MENA and South Asia, answers questions

Q: What are explosive weapons with wide-area effects?

A: These are the weapons predominantly used in urban warfare today: heavy, mostly inaccurate, and unguided artillery and mortars, multi-barrel rocket launchers, large bombs and missiles, and improvised explosive devises (IEDs).

 

Q: What are the effects of such weapons on civilians?

A: The use of such weapons with wide impact area put entire areas at risk of harm because of their large payload and large destructive radius, their inaccuracy, or because they are designed to fire multiple munitions simultaneously over a wide area.

The harm directly caused by these weapons is devastating. Every year, thousands of men, women, boys, and girls are killed or injured, and many are left with disabilities and/or psychological trauma. Homes and critical infrastructure are damaged or destroyed. Moreover, unexploded ordnances continue to cause harm to civilians and prevent the return of displaced persons long after hostilities end. There are also indirect or reverberating effects, especially when essential services like water, sanitation, electricity, and health care are damaged or disrupted, leading to displacement and disease.

 

Q: What does international humanitarian law says about explosive weapons with wide-area impact?

A: There is no general prohibition in international humanitarian law on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. But use of any weapon has to comply with the rules regulating the conduct of hostilities, such as prohibitions of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks and the obligation to take all feasible precautions to avoid and minimize harm to civilians.

In populated areas, military objectives are often located near civilians and civilian objects. The heavy payload and/or inaccuracy of such weapons, and their resulting area effects, raise serious questions as to whether their effects can be limited to a specific military objective.

 

Q: How is the political declaration initiated by Ireland addressing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas?

A: The latest draft of the political declaration acknowledges the direct and indirect harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure. It outlines concrete commitments that states should undertake to lower risks to civilians by restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. The UN Secretary General, the ICRC, the International Network of Explosive Weapons, and CIVIC are calling on states to go further and avoid the use of weapons with wide-area effects as it would provide further clarity to the core commitment in the declaration to ensure the strongest protection of civilians.

The political declaration asks states to track civilian harm to identify mistakes to inform policy changes and support accountability mechanisms. It also calls for states to improve training and to share good policies and practices to reduce civilian harm. Finally, there is recognition that states should support victims, including both those directly injured and family members, and support post-conflict recovery.

There is an urgent need for states and parties to conflict to adapt their policies and practices to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects unless sufficient mitigation measures are undertaken to limit their wide impact area and risk of civilian harm. The adoption and implementation of this political declaration will strengthen adherence to international humanitarian law and civilian protection norms to more effectively alleviate the human suffering that we are seeing in current conflicts.

Image courtesy of OCHA / Philippe Kropf
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