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Week 5 Report on First Committee

Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

Katherine Young | Explosive Weapons Monitor, International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW)

First Committee meetings take place each year amidst a backdrop of armed conflict, most of which provide real-time examples of how the use of explosive weapons in populated areas causes harm to civilians. This year was no exception.

In Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, the use of air- and ground-launched explosive weapons destroyed entire sections of the city, caused the displacement of more than one million civilians, and caused critical shortages of water, electricity, food, and medicine. In the Syrian cities of Idlib and Aleppo, recent shelling and airstrikes are causing rising casualties—one-third of which are children—and are damaging and destroying schools and hospitals. In Ukraine, “relentless” strikes and other attacks continue to kill and injure civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure.

The most illustrative of the devastating impacts of explosive weapons use on civilians are the ongoing hostilities in the Gaza Strip, a particularly densely populated and closed area under siege, where more than 9,000 Palestinians have died since 7 October and nearly 23,000 have been injured. Thousands more are reported missing and are assumed to be trapped or dead under rubble, while civilians continue to face intense bombardment from airstrikes and shelling.

The UN Secretary-General, alarmed by “the relentless bombardment of Gaza by Israeli forces, the level of civilian casualties, and the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods,” has called for a humanitarian ceasefire to “ease epic suffering, make the delivery of aid easier and safer, and facilitate the release of hostages.”

When explosive weapons are dropped or launched into populated areas, it causes a predictable pattern of harm. Each year, the bombing and shelling of towns and cities kills and injures tens of thousands of civilians, with children particularly vulnerable. It destroys critical civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, and power and water systems, which impacts the provision of essential services and leads to long-term civilian suffering.

In the last three weeks of First Committee meetings, some states and regional groups acknowledged this pattern of harm, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Guatemala, Holy See, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, and Mexico.

Many states and regional groups gave examples of the impact on civilians of explosive weapons use in current conflicts. Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, League of Arab States, Non-Aligned Movement, Saudi Arabia, State of Palestine, and Syria all referenced explosive weapon use by Israeli armed forces in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Israel referenced the use of rockets by Palestinian armed groups in Israel.

Australia (on behalf of a group of states), Czechia, Norway, United Kingdom, and Ukraine continued to highlight the humanitarian consequences of explosive weapon use by Russian forces in Ukraine, but not elsewhere.

Despite the widespread harm to civilians from the use of explosive weapons in current conflicts, most states that endorsed the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas did not acknowledge these examples of such use or call for action to address them, despite their clear illustration of the need to strengthen the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) issued an open letter to states that have endorsed the political declaration that called for action to stop the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas and the consequent deteriorating humanitarian situation unfolding in the Gaza Strip. It appealed to all 83 endorsing states to “make good on their undertaking to ‘actively promote the Declaration’ and to ‘seek adherence to its commitments’ by the parties to the conflict, including through their public statements, as a means to strengthen the protection of civilians.”

The European Union, Austria, France, Germany, Holy See, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, and United Kingdom all welcomed the political declaration and highlighted the importance of its adoption. Ireland noted, with concern, the widespread use of explosive weapons around the world and was proud to welcome the declaration as a means of addressing its impacts. Austria, France, and Ireland also called for the declaration’s endorsement by all states that have not yet done so.

The European Union, Austria, Germany, and United Kingdom highlighted the work ahead for implementing the declaration’s commitments, including at the Oslo Conference next year. Austria made clear its dedication to both the universalisation and implementation of the declaration and shared that it will host a workshop for militaries from endorsing states regarding implementation in January 2024.

INEW welcomes these statements and calls on all endorsing states to:

  • Publicly acknowledge and call for action to address the devastating impacts on civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and to support the call to stop the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas;
  • Use diplomatic means and influence to promote specific actions in line with the political declaration, including to:
    • Call on parties to the conflict to take into account both the direct and indirect effects on civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas;
    • Call on parties to the conflict to facilitate rapid, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access to those in need;
    • Call on parties to the conflict to provide, facilitate, or support assistance to victims—which includes people injured, survivors, families of people killed or injured, as well as communities affected by the armed conflict; and
    • Call on parties to the conflict to facilitate the work of the United Nations, the ICRC, and civil society organisations aimed at protecting and assisting civilian populations from the humanitarian impacts of explosive weapon use.

Action by endorsing states to promote the political declaration is vitally needed at this time to better protect civilians from the impacts of explosive weapons and armed conflict.

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