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In his 20th anniversary report on the protection of civilians, UN Secretary-General once again raises serious concerns over use of explosive weapons in populated areas

New report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict issued on 7 May 2019 

In his new report on the protection of civilians in conflict, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres raises serious concerns over the continued use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Deep concern over the “acute impact on civilians and civilian objects of fighting when it takes place in populated areas and involves explosive weapons” is central to his report, which marks the 20th anniversary of the Security Council’s inclusion of the protection of civilians as an item in its agenda. As well as referencing his repeated calls “on parties to conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas”, Guterres also sets out a number of ways in which the Security Council can build on the progress achieved to date to further strengthen and transform the protection of civilians in contemporary and conflicts. Among these, he calls for the Council’s approach to specifically “[acknowledge] the challenges of urban warfare, including the use of explosive weapons, for the protection of civilians and [call] for specific protective measures”.

The state of the protection of civilians: “tragic and appalling”

Describing the deaths and injuries of tens of thousands of civilians throughout 2018 as “tragic and appalling”, and referencing AOAV’s 2018 dataset that estimates 20,384 civilian casualties from explosive weapons used in populated areas, Guterres cautions that such a high casualty toll “reinforces the long-standing concern that parties are failing, deliberately or otherwise, to take constant care to spare the civilian population and civilian objects in the conduct of military operations”.

The report notes the “the immediate and cumulative, complex and long-term harm” caused by explosive weapons, citing the impact of attacks on “houses, schools, hospitals, markets, camps for refugees and internally displaced persons, places of worship and infrastructure on which civilians depend for their survival”. Using the city of Raqqa, where explosive weapons were widely used, as an example, the report notes that a UN assessment mission found that “nearly 70 per cent of buildings in the city were destroyed or damaged and that essential services, such as water, electricity and health care were absent or severely limited”.

Policy responses and state action

In his report, Guterres references increased transparency among some Member States with regard to targeting processes and other steps taken to try to minimise civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects. He is clear, however, that serious concerns remain including over the reliability of intelligence, the “adequacy of existing collateral damage estimation methodology” in cases of dynamic targeting, and whether post-attack battle damage assessments, where carried out, adequately capture the impact on civilians and civilian objects. He also notes that civilian casualty tracking is employed only by a handful of armed forces, despite its utility in allowing armed forces to “understand the impact of their operations on civilians and take corrective measures”.

With this in mind, the Secretary-General used his report to “welcome ongoing State-led efforts to address the use of explosive weapons in populated areas”. Citing his “repeatedly expressed support for a declaration that would, inter alia, commit endorsing States to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and develop operational policies based on a presumption against such use, Guterres in particular welcomes Austria’s decision to host an international conference on the matter in October 2019 and encouraged states to both participate constructively and to initiate a process to draft a declaration.

The report also references the talks convened by Germany in Geneva in 2018, the joint statement by 50 states to the General Assembly’s First Committee in October 2018 in which states committed themselves to addressing the humanitarian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons by means of a political declaration, and the Santiago regional meeting and Communiqué in which 23 Latin American and Caribbean states acknowledged the need to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and supported the development of a political declaration.


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