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UN First Committee Side Event: The impact of explosive weapons in populated areas

 Gabriella Irsten | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

In partnership with the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), Austria hosted a side event on 22 October to discuss the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Concern over the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has increased over the last few years, due to the severe harm caused to civilians and their communities. Three speakers from the INEW network presented: Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Maya Brehm on behalf of PAX, and Richard Moyes of Article 36 and joint Coordinator of INEW.

Steve Goose gave a comprehensive overview of HRW’s research on the widespread use of explosive weapons during recent conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Gaza/Israel, and Iraq. He also referred to the impact of explosive weapons in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, and South Sudan. Goose noted that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is one of the biggest—if not the biggest—cause of harm to civilians in modern armed conflict. The effective curtailment of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas might be the most important step states could take to protect civilians from the horrors of war, he said.

Launching the new PAX report Unacceptable Risk, Maya Brehm recalled that the main principles of international humanitarian law regarding protection of civilians from attacks, reflected in Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions and also underpinning international customary law, are “distinction,” “proportionality,” and “precaution”. The report makes the case for new standards on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas based on the treatment of this issue in three cases before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The report notes that while many experts considered weapons like unguided rockets and artillery inappropriate for use in a city, the existing legal rules for the protection of civilians leave much room for differing interpretations. In this way, a clear standard to prevent harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas would be welcome.

Richard Moyes outlined the INEW call for the development of stronger international standards and for states to revise national and international policies and practices in order to limit the effects mentioned above and reduce harm to civilians. Moyes also discussed the concept of wide area effects, which could be caused by the size of the blast radius of a given weapon, the accuracy with which it is delivered, and numbers of munitions used Moyes emphasized that while existing law provides guidance on this theme, we have not yet reached an end point of our efforts to protect civilians during armed conflict. An international commitment to prevent the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects would thus be a useful progression of the general rejection of bombing and bombardment of towns and cities.

During the discussion Norway reiterated its support for work on this theme from a humanitarian perspective and reported on the outcome of its expert meeting last June. Mexico also indicated its support for work on the topic. OCHA and the ICRC both highlighted their ongoing work to push forward the agenda towards greater protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

This article was first published by Reaching Critical Will. Find the original here.

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