Today is World Cities Day. In many cities across the world it is a celebration of culture and community. Yet elsewhere war is increasingly taking place in cities where heavy explosive weapons are being used, resulting in tens of thousands of civilians being killed every year, destroying buildings and infrastructure, and leaving people without shelter, water, electricity and access to medical care and food.
The shelling of Ganja and other of major cities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is just one recent example. Similar stories of injury and destruction are told by people in Aleppo, Mosul, Raqqa, Sana’a, Donetsk, Gaza City and Tripoli, where many have been forced to leave their homes and in search of safety elsewhere and unsure when they might be able to return.
While the horrors of carpet-bombing in Dresden and other cities in World War II has been made illegal, still today, civilians are suffering the devastating consequences of war in cities, which the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned is impacting some 50 million people.
All too often salvos of rockets are fired into residential areas, large aircraft bombs are dropped in city centres, and unguided and inaccurate missiles and artillery shelling is destroy vital infrastructure, which has severe knock on effects and long-lasting consequences years after the fighting stops.
Whilst taking warfare out of cities would be the best way to protect civilians, it is being more widely understood that the choice of weapon has a significant bearing on the likelihood of civilian harm and destruction.
Heavy explosive weapons were designed for use in open battlefields, and should not be used in populated areas – even when fired against military targets. The risk of harming civilians is far too high, and the civilian casualty data backs this up – when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of the victims are civilians.
But the encouraging news is that there is growing momentum to address this practice and prevent use of heavy explosive weapons in cities, towns and other populated areas by requiring stricter rules that will change military policy and practice.
An international political process is underway, backed by the United Nations Secretary-General, and under the leadership of Ireland, that will see states develop an international political declaration next year that will set out new standards to curb the use of heavy explosive weapons in towns and cities, and better protect and assist civilians. States need to make sure that these new rules make a difference.
Image: Firefighters try to extinguish fire at the community hall where Saudi-led warplanes struck a funeral in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, October 9, 2016. © REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah