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UN Secretary-General once again raises serious protection concerns over use of explosive weapons in populated areas

New report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict issued on 14 May 2018

In his new report on the protection of civilians in conflict, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has once again called on parties to conflict “to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas”. Referencing the “unrelenting horror and suffering” of civilians in armed conflict, he noted that “[c]ivilians are routinely killed or maimed, and civilian objects damaged or destroyed, in targeted or indiscriminate attacks that frequently involve the widespread use of explosive weapons.”The serious protection concerns resulting from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is again a central theme in the report, which focuses on how parties can enhance respect for the law and promote good practice by parties to conflict to better protect civilians.

“The state of the protection of civilians is bleak”

Guterres raises serious concerns over the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, terming the casualty statistics “alarming” and calling for urgent international action. Referencing the 50 million people affected by urban warfare, and noting that this number is only likely to increase, he emphasises that “[t]he impact of conflict on civilians and civilian objects was particularly acute when fighting took place in densely populated areas and involved the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects”.

The report specifically cites the damage caused by explosive weapons with wide area effects in towns and cities, highlighting the immediate impact – not least the deaths and maiming of civilians – as well as the destructive longer term and reverberating effects on water, electricity and other essential urban services. Singling out as particularly problematic the “widespread use in urban areas” of aircraft bombs, rockets, mortars, IEDs and ‘other explosive weapons’, and citing AOAV’s 2017 dataset that puts civilian casualty rates at 92% when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, the report emphasises that the extensive destruction wrought is largely foreseeable and “must be taken in to account in the planning and conduct of military operations”.

A focus on strengthening national operational policy

Key in this year’s report is a significant focus, for the first time, on the need for improved national operational policies and procedures that guide the conduct of military operations and can improve the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Specifically, the report recommends the inclusion in national policy frameworks of “a clear presumption against [the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in towns, cities and other populated areas]”, based on the “high degree of civilian harm and other, broader, negative consequences they incur”, as well as “the potential for such use to violate the prohibition of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks”. This presumption should be “based on a clear understanding of the area effects” of explosive weapons and the risks they pose to civilians in the immediate and longer term.

Detailing what this means in practice, Guterres explains that such an understanding could be built by taking into account technical data on the expected performance of a particular weapon in a conflict setting; analyses of the practical procedures through which the weapons are applied to targets; and an understanding that urban terrain and infrastructure have an impact on the employment and effectiveness of weapons. Guterres said this presumption “should be further developed in operational policies” that include tactical alternatives to the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, as well as “specific steps to be taken to mitigate civilian harm” where the use of such weapons is unavoidable. The report cites a number of specific policies and practices also documented in an OCHA report published earlier this year on current military policy and practice, specifically the need for higher command authority for such use to reflect the increased risk to the civilian population and enable access to additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance resources; and the improvement, where needed, and implementation of collateral damage estimation and battle damage assessments

Welcomes increasing interest by states in the problem

The UN Secretary-General welcomed the range of efforts on this issue at the international level, including the Maputo Communiqué endorsed by 19 states, committing them to supporting the development of an international political declaration to prevent harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and to avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. He also praised the Austrian-led process on a political declaration on explosive weapons and the German initiative in the context of the CCW, noting that “progress on these initiatives would provide important recognition of the problem and commit member states to specific steps to address it”.

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