A Call for International Action to Protect Civilians in Conflicts

International representatives at work during the Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare Conference 2019 at the Vienna International Center, Vienna, 1st October 2019
Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare Conference 2019 at the Vienna International Center, Vienna, October 1, 2019 Photo Credit: BMEIA/Eugenie Berger

Governments should make a commitment to protect civilians from the harmful impacts of explosive weapons used in towns and cities during conflicts, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch said in a report released today at a diplomatic conference in Geneva.

The 23-page report, “A Commitment to Civilians: Precedent for a Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas,” lays out the components of a new political declaration on explosive weapons, bolstering its case with precedent from existing declarations.

Explosive weapons, including artillery shells, rockets, mortars, and air-dropped bombs, have recently caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. Civilians are often killed or injured by the initial explosion, crushed by collapsing buildings, or maimed by explosive remnants of war. Reverberating effects include damage to homes and essential infrastructure, interference with health care and education, large-scale displacement of people, degradation of the environment, and denial of humanitarian access.

“We should not look away from today’s victims of conflict, who are all too often civilians living in towns and cities that are under attack from bombs, rockets, artillery shells, and other explosive weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, who is associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the Clinic. “Military forces should avoid using explosive weapons in populated areas due to the unacceptable harm they often cause.”

Two types of explosive weapons – antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions – have been prohibited outright due to their indiscriminate and devastating effects on civilians. Yet other types of explosive weapons used in populated areas, especially those with wide-area effects, have become the primary cause of civilian harm in many of today’s armed conflicts, the organizations found.

In October 2019, more than 130 countries met in Austria to discuss how to better protect civilians in urban warfare. That meeting began a process in which, over the coming months, countries will negotiate the text of a political declaration aimed at reducing the civilian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The current process is focused in particular on explosive weapons with wide-area effects, which can be attributed to inaccurate weapons, weapons with a large blast radius, or the delivery of multiple munitions at the same time. The declaration should recognize the rights of victims and affected communities.

Political declarations commit countries to individual and coordinated action to achieve agreed-upon political goals. While not legally binding, such commitments carry significant weight because they outline standards for conduct and clarify existing international law. For example, the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration, now endorsed by 99 countries, presses governments and others involved in armed conflict to ban the military use of schools and to keep children in school during conflicts.

Political declarations almost always include commitments to adopt relevant practical measures and promulgate laws and policies at the national or international level, Human Rights Watch and the clinic said. Countries may pledge, for example, to reform military policies, increase training, and exchange best practices. Political declarations also usually include commitments to assist victims, gather and share data, and continue to engage with the problem at hand.

All of these commitments should be included in a political declaration on explosive weapons, the organizations said.

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the International Network on Explosive Weapons, a coalition established by humanitarian, legal, and other civil society groups in 2011 to push for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

“Civilians in many countries are suffering enormous harm daily from the use of explosive weapons in urban areas,” said Docherty, who is also senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Countries should come together to say that they will do everything they can to protect people from this harm and to plan a course of action.”

Harvard Law School students Cayla Calderwood JD/MPP ’20, Andie Forsee JD ’21, Jillian Rafferty JD/MPP ’20, and Parker White JD/MPP ’20 contributed to the report.