Joint appeal with the UN Secretary-General in September 2019:
“Alarmed at the devastating humanitarian consequences of urban warfare, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations today are jointly appealing to States and all parties to armed conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas.
As the world urbanizes, so does armed conflict. When cities are bombed and shelled – whether by airstrikes, rockets, artillery or improvised explosive devices – civilians overwhelmingly bear the brunt. In fact, the large majority of casualties – over 90 per cent, according to one estimate – are civilians. The harrowing images from population centres in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine – to name but a few – show a pattern of grave civilian harm impossible to ignore, yet too often forgotten.
Parties to conflict should recognize that they cannot fight in populated areas in the way they would in open battlefields. They must recognize that using explosive weapons with wide area effects in cities, towns, and refugee camps places civilians at high risk of indiscriminate harm.
Armed conflict in cities kills and gravely wounds countless civilians, leaving many with life-long disabilities and psychological trauma. Infrastructure necessary for the functioning of basic services – water, electricity, sanitation, health care – is damaged or destroyed. This triggers domino effects that exacerbate suffering. In one of countless examples, last month in Aden, Yemen, at least 200,000 people were left without clean water after intense fighting.
And when water or electricity is disrupted because supply lines have been blown up, providing healthcare becomes extremely difficult or impossible. Indeed, when cities are bombed and shelled, healthcare is also hard-hit: medical personnel are killed and injured, ambulances can’t reach the wounded, and hospitals are irreparably damaged.
For those who survive, life becomes unbearable – and they are often forced to flee. This past summer, in two months alone, around 100,000 people were displaced due to heavy bombing and shelling in Tripoli. Displaced persons are particularly vulnerable to risks to their health and lives, especially women and children. In Iraq, 1.5 million internally displaced across the country are unable to go back home. Those who do, struggle to rebuild their lives against all odds; their homes have been destroyed, essential service networks have collapsed, and the threat of explosive remnants of war is everywhere.
The massive destruction caused by armed conflicts in cities can set development indexes back by years and even decades: for example, after the first four years of the armed conflict in Yemen, human development indicators dropped to their index of 20 years ago. This is a major setback to the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals. Progress gained over decades can be quickly reversed as once lively and prospering population centres turn into ghost towns.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, universally accepted treaties which provide the protective power of international humanitarian law (IHL) when its rules are scrupulously respected. IHL absolutely prohibits directing attacks against civilians or civilian objects, indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, indiscriminate weapons, and using civilians as human shields. It requires conflict parties to take steps to minimize incidental civilian harm. Respect for these rules is all the more critical when armed conflict is waged in populated environments – where military targets and civilians and civilian structures are comingled, and civilians are at great risk of harm.
The inherent vulnerability of civilians in populated areas make it imperative for States to reassess and adapt their choice of weapons and tactics to avoid civilian harm, and to adequately prepare, train and equip their armed forces for this purpose. States must also exercise influence over their partners and other supported conflict parties to this end. And it is imperative that the protection of civilians is made a strategic priority in the planning and conduct of military operations. Some steps are being taken in this direction, but much more needs to be done, and soon.
We are encouraged that a number of initiatives for strengthening civilian protection in urban armed conflict are under way. As a first step, we support the efforts of States to develop a political declaration, as well as appropriate limitations, common standards and operational policies in conformity with IHL relating to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
We further urge States and other stakeholders to strengthen the collection of data on civilian casualties and to establish mechanisms to mitigate and investigate harm to civilians, ensure accountability and draw lessons for future operations.
We encourage States to identify and share good practices for mitigating the risk of civilian harm in urban armed conflict, including restrictions and limitations on the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, and we undertake to support such good practice exchanges.
We call on all parties to armed conflicts to employ strategies and tactics that take combat outside populated areas to try to reduce urban fighting altogether, and we urge parties to allow civilians to leave besieged areas.
And we appeal to States to adopt policies and practices that will enhance the protection of civilians when warfare takes place in populated areas, including policies and practices to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects. This will go a long way to mitigate the impact of war on cities and to reduce suffering.”
Statement during the December 2018 Annual Meeting of High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – November 2018
“The use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas continues to have devastating effects on civilians. These effects are not limited to civilians and civilian objects present in the vicinity of the attack, but are often widespread in both space and time and affect a much larger part of the population, in particular when essential services such as water and sanitation, electricity, and healthcare, are disrupted due to damage or destruction to critical civilian infrastructure. These effects are foreseeable and preventable. And warring parties must adapt their policies and practices regarding the choice of weapons in populated areas to minimize civilian harm. Since 2011 the ICRC has been calling on States and parties to armed conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in densely populated areas due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects, and despite the absence of an express prohibition for specific types of weapons. This avoidance principle suggests a presumption of non-use of such weapons due to the high risk of harm to civilians, which could be reversed if sufficient mitigation measures could be taken to reduce such risk to an acceptable level.”
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Statement during the General Debate of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly First Committee, 2018:
“The ICRC continues to witness the devastating effects, direct and indirect, of using explosive weapons in populated areas: high levels of civilian death and injury (including lifelong disabilities), destruction of critical civilian infrastructure and consequent disruption of services essential to the survival of the civilian population (such as vital health care and water and electricity supply), and displacement. These effects are reasonably foreseeable and warring parties have a legal and moral duty to take measures to avoid them. The ICRC once again calls on States and parties to armed conflicts to avoid the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, owing to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects. This “avoidance principle” suggests a presumption of non-use of such weapons because of the high risk of harm to civilians, which could be reversed if sufficient mitigation measures were taken to lower such risk to an acceptable level – notably, targeting and weaponeering measures to significantly reduce the impact area of the explosive weapon in question. The “avoidance principle” should be accompanied by concrete measures and guidance (policies and practices) to be prepared in advance of armed conflicts and military operations, and faithfully implemented when conducting hostilities.”
Statement during the May 2018 UN Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict:
“The first issue – which echoes the concerns of the Secretary-General – is the enormous impact on civilians of the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. Working on the frontlines of armed conflicts as we do, the ICRC sees close-up the often-devastating humanitarian consequences of these weapons – in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Ukraine, in Afghanistan, in Libya and elsewhere.
With conflicts becoming more urbanised and protracted, these consequences are becoming more widespread and are lasting longer, sometimes for generations. This is not only in terms of traumatic loss of life, livelihoods, infrastructure and services, but also the deep mental scars.
The obvious solution lies in changing behaviour. In view of the unique vulnerabilities of civilians living in population centres, it is crucial that parties to armed conflicts reassess and adapt their choice of weapons in urban warfare. To this end, we once again urge States and parties to armed conflicts to avoid the use of explosive weapons that have wide area effects in densely populated areas. This “avoidance principle” suggests a presumption of non-use of such weapons due to the high risk of indiscriminate effects and of consequent harm to civilians.”
Full statement here
Statement during the May 2017 UN Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict:
“The ICRC endorses the three priorities of protection in the report and supports the call to focus on the particular challenges of urban warfare. The return of armed conflict to towns and cities has been a particular concern of the ICRC in recent years. Approximately 50 million people in urban areas now bear the brunt of conflict. The overwhelming percentage of people killed or injured by explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians. They are mothers, fathers and children who are not part of the fighting and simply wish to lead their lives, not fear for them.
The ICRC advocates that all parties should avoid using explosive weapons that have a wide-impact area in populated places. In addition to the high risk of indiscriminate civilian death and injury, heavy explosive weapons can cause extensive damage to critical infrastructure, such as health care, water and electricity facilities. Critically, under international humanitarian law, civilians must not only be protected from attack and the impact of conflict, but also be able to go about their daily lives, but too often we see the fabric of communities being eroded. Children are unable to attend school. The sick cannot reach hospitals, and livelihoods are interrupted or cease entirely. When people live in fear and cannot safely continue their activities, they risk becoming marginalized, destitute and reliant on humanitarian aid.”
Statement during UN General Assembly First Committee, October 2016:
“Current and recent armed conflicts – such as those in Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Gaza – continue to expose the particularly devastating effects on civilians of heavy explosive weapons when used in populated areas. Large bombs and missiles, indirect-fire weapon systems such as mortars, rockets and artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers, and certain types of improvised explosive devices, are prone to indiscriminate effects when used in population centres, owing to their wide-area effects. In addition to the high risk of incidental civilian death, injury and disability, heavy explosive weapons tend to cause extensive damage to critical civilian infrastructure, triggering debilitating “domino effects” on interconnected essential services such as health care, and water and electricity supply systems. This in turn provokes further civilian death and displacement. And these effects are exacerbated in protracted armed conflicts.
While there is no question that IHL permits parties to armed conflicts to attack military targets located in populated areas, it also constrains their choice of means and methods to do so, with the aim of protecting civilians from unacceptable harm. The ICRC welcomes that a growing number of States are engaging on this crucial humanitarian issue, and we encourage them to share how they put into practice the constraints of IHL on their choice of weapons in urban warfare. We continue to call on States and parties to armed conflict to avoid using explosive weapons with a wide impact area in densely populated areas, owing to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects.”
Statement during the January 2016 UN Security Council open debate on the protection of civilians:
“The use of explosive weapons in populated areas is one example that raises serious concern in terms of compliance, especially in urban environments. These weapons are prone to indiscriminate effects, with often devastating consequences for civilians. Many civilians are killed or injured by such weapons. Critical infrastructure on which civilians depend for their livelihoods and survival, such as power stations, water treatment plants and hospitals, can be continuously and cumulatively damaged so that they cease to be able to provide essential services to meet people’s basic needs. Precisely for those reasons, the ICRC has urged that the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area should be avoided in densely populated areas.
To address this humanitarian issue, States should make known their policies on the use of such weapons and explain how their use of explosive weapons in populated areas complies with international humanitarian law. We also ask that the upcoming third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, which will address the development of a new urban agenda, take account of the risks faced by many millions of people threatened by armed conflict and other situations of violence in today’s densely populated and fast-growing cities.”
World at a turning point: Heads of UN and Red Cross issue joint warning
They called on States to take the following urgent actions:
- Redouble efforts to find sustainable solutions to conflicts and take concrete steps to that effect.
- Individually and collectively, use every means to wield influence over parties to armed conflict to respect the law, including carrying out effective investigations into breaches of international humanitarian law, holding perpetrators accountable, and developing concrete mechanisms to improve compliance.
- Condemn those who commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, such as deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.
- Ensure unhindered access to medical and humanitarian missions and protect medical and humanitarian workers and facilities.
- Protect and assist internally displaced people and refugees while they are fleeing insecurity, and help them to find long-term solutions, while supporting host countries and communities.
- Stop the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas.
Statement during the General Debate of the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly First Committee, 2014:
“It is not just the availability of conventional arms that engenders civilian suffering. The types of conventional weapons chosen by belligerents when fighting in populated areas are also of concern. This year alone, a number of armed conflicts have seen the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, such as large bombs or missiles, unguided indirect-fire weapons including artillery and mortars, and weapons systems designed to deliver multiple munitions over a wide area.
The ICRC considers that explosive weapons with a wide impact area should be avoided in densely populated areas due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects and despite the absence of an express legal prohibition against specific types of weapons. Recent conflicts show that there is a need for States to pay greater attention to this important humanitarian issue.
In its day-to-day work to protect and assist civilians affected by armed conflict, the ICRC continues to witness the devastating human cost of such weapons, in terms of incidental or indiscriminate death and injury and severe damage to critical civilian infrastructure. Damaged or destroyed buildings are the most visible effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Less visible is the damage caused to vital water and electrical supply systems, which has severe adverse consequences on the functioning of hospitals and more generally on the survival of the civilian population. Moreover, the loss of homes and livelihoods caused by explosive weapons in populated areas leads to the long-lasting displacement of civilians. These effects raise questions about the choice of means and methods of warfare, including whether it is appropriate, in populated areas, to employ weapons that have been designed for combat in an open battlefield, or otherwise to employ large amounts of explosive force.
In his November 2013 Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, the Secretary- General encouraged States to share information on their respective policies, operational practices and lessons learned on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which would contribute to informing discussions and to eventually developing policy guidance. The ICRC joins the Secretary-General in this call.”
Statement during February 2014 Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict:
“In many armed conflicts, the prevalent use of explosive weapons with wide impact in densely populated areas — with all its inherent risk of incidental or indiscriminate death, injury and destruction of homes and vital civilian infrastructure — further fuels displacement and inhibits return. The ICRC joins the Secretary-General in encouraging States to share information on their respective polices, operational practices and lessons learned on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. That would contribute to informed discussions on this important humanitarian issue, and hopefully to the development of operational guidance by States.”
Statement by ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger, August 2010:
“The debate has been prompted in part by the growing number of military operations conducted in densely populated urban areas, often using heavy or highly explosive weapons, which have devastating humanitarian consequences for civilian populations. The media images of death, injury and destruction – of terrible suffering – in such situations of conflict in different parts of the world are surely all too familiar to everyone here today.” View statement