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Explosive weapons in populated areas: a humanitarian perspective ahead of a milestone report

Child standing on city rubble.
A child stands in the middle of destroyed buildings in his neighbourhood (Sana'a, Yemen) © ICRC

Cities can be as vulnerable to the effects of conflict as the communities that live within them. After critical infrastructure serving the residents of Aden city in Yemen was damaged by fighting in August 2019, nearly 200,000 people were left without clean drinking water. It took only 72 hours of fighting with heavy weapons to disrupt this critical service that had endured since the start of the Yemeni conflict in 2015. And Aden is only one example within Yemen. Between January and September 2019, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) worked to provide water and sanitation services to more than five million Yemenis. A further 24 million Yemenis require humanitarian aid, as fighting in cities cuts off access to health services, workplaces, food, water and sanitation. This is a stark reminder of how civilians bear the brunt of urban warfare.

More pointedly, the Aden case reflects a problem that extends beyond Yemen—to contemporary conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and the Philippines, among others. Weapons that were designed for open battlefields are employed in city streets and village squares. The impact of explosive weapons in populated areas—sometimes abbreviated to EWIPA—is of grave concern to the ICRC; a concern that steadily increases as warfare becomes more urbanised, and with more people living in cities than ever before. Available data indicates that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of the victims are civilian.

The use of explosive weapons—specifically those with a wide impact area—in populated environments, where military objectives will often be in close proximity to civilians and civilian objects, is very likely to have indiscriminate effects or even cause disproportionate damage. Next to the scores of civilians killed, injured or disabled for life, civilian objects—including critical civilian infrastructure—are damaged or destroyed, disrupting the essential services necessary for a city to sustain itself and for populations to recover post-conflict. The humanitarian impact of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas is devastating, varied, long-lasting and hard to repair.

With these humanitarian concerns in mind, the ICRC continues to call upon parties to armed conflict to avoid using explosive weapons that have a wide impact area in populated areas. Unless risks to civilians can be sufficiently mitigated, notably through mitigation measures that aim to reduce the weapons’ wide area effects to an acceptable level therby reducing the consequent risk of civilian harm, such weapons should not be used in populated areas. An avoidance policy is not a binary ‘black-and-white’ approach; it does not always come down to choosing an expensive precision-guided munition over an old-fashioned artillery gun. Rather, more often than not it involves a gradient of choices—of mitigation measures to help ensure that the weapon will no longer have wide area effects, that the area of impact of the weapon is no longer populated, or that the risk for civilians and civilian objects is otherwise sufficiently reduced. Changing the munitions’ fuse or warhead to ensure the effects are contained on the target, choosing the angle of attack so as to reduce the weapon’s impact area, keeping minimum safety distances from civilians and civilian objects, ensuring the reverberating effects of attacks are anticipated—these are all examples of such mitigation measures.

A group of children playing football against a backdrop of destroyed houses in Yemen.
A group of children play football against a backdrop of destroyed houses (Saada, Yemen) © ICRC

To counter concerning trends that have seen an increase in their use in cities, towns and refugee camps, the ICRC will release a report on the impact of explosive weapons in populated areas in early 2020. The Report will outline key humanitarian, technical, legal and policy considerations with regard to the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, and will contain ‘good practice’ recommendations to both political authorities and armed forces. The Report will reflect the ICRC’s observations and conclusions from its work on the issue, including its engagement with States and parties to armed conflicts, and purports to provide a concrete tool for militaries in their efforts to strengthen the protection of civilians. Australia is deployed in numerous arenas where urban conflict is the norm. Operations Highroad and Augury are conducted in contexts where heavy explosive weapons have already devastated urban environments, throwing the lives of thousands of civilians into turmoil. Learning from conflicts past and present can be as critical for humanitarian workers as for any soldier, given that frontlines look increasingly urban.

Conventional heavy explosive weapons are of course not by their nature indiscriminate nor otherwise specifically prohibited by the law of armed conflict. However, in practice, their use in populated urban areas makes complying with the rules on the conduct of hostilities a difficult task. The law of armed conflict that gives the ICRC its mandate to help those caught in armed conflict also prohibits the targeting of civilians or civilian objects, as well as attacks that are of a nature to affect military objectives, civilians and civilian objects indiscriminately. An attack may be indiscriminate if the weapon used cannot, under the circumstances, be directed against a specific military objective. Where munitions with a large destructive radius, inaccurate delivery systems, or weapons designed to deliver multiple munitions simultaneously over a wide area are used, discriminating between highly intermingled military and civilian personnel and objects will be very difficult. The legal obligation to take all feasible precautions in attack may require a commander to consider alternative (including low payload) munitions or more targeted methods of attack than an explosive weapon with a wide impact area, to ensure that an attack is not indiscriminate and to avoid—or at least minimise—incidental civilian harm.

The impact of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas on the civilian population is not limited to the direct effect—the death, injury, disability and trauma they can cause. Due to the interconnectedness and complexity of urban infrastructure, an attack on one part of a city can have much wider reverberating effects; for example on a power grid, sewage or water supply system. These indirect or reverberating effects mean that an attack using heavy explosive weapons will often affect a much larger part of the civilian population that those in the immediate vicinity of the attack. The direct and indirect effects of heavy explosive weapons are to a large extent reasonably foreseeable, and will often outweigh the military advantage of the attack. Within the law of armed conflict, proportionality prohibits attacks causing civilian harm that is excessive to the anticipated military advantage. The strong likelihood that the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas will have disproportionate effects underpins the ICRC’s position urging all parties to conflict to avoid using such weapons altogether. As such, commanders face several choices. The means and methods of warfare they choose, and their timing and manner of deployment, will be decisive factors determining whether an attack is proportionate or not.

Apart from the severe humanitarian concerns raised by using heavy explosive weapons in cities, others make the point that there are also practical military and political reasons to avoid their use. For modern militaries deployed in conflicts around the world—like the ADF—the urbanisation of war poses a unique challenge. Civilian harm through heavy explosive weapon use in urban areas may impact the practical considerations for both local as well as partner forces involved in train and assist missions, increasing the complexity of the operating environment. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Knight, with the Australian Army Research Centre, takes the view that this includes reputational risk. In his analysis of the protracted fight for the city of Marawi in the Philippines he describes the trade-off between military and civilian casualties as a ‘brutal dilemma’. “The reputational risk for the ADF in any future urban fight is acute,” he writes, “as the Australian public has come to expect a degree of discrimination that’s unlikely to be possible [in these environments].” Options that mitigate the risk to civilians need to be considered, he states, including the development of new means of fighting that reduce casualties. These are complex considerations for any armed force. They underscore the importance of pointed reflection and sharing best practices. To these ends, the ICRC’s report on explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas promises to provide a useful tool.

People in the back of an ICRC Land Cruiser being evacuated from Marawi City
The ICRC played a role in helping residents evacuate Marawi City in 2017 © ICRC

A diplomatic process is underway involving over 130 States, aimed at addressing the consequences of using explosive weapons in populated areas. The process was officially launched in October 2019 at the Vienna Conference on the Protection of Civilians in Urban Warfare. Ireland is currently facilitating a series of consultations on a political declaration to address the civilian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The ICRC has shared its views on key elements of a draft Political Declaration and is actively engaged in the process.

Strengthening the protection of civilians in urban warfare is a humanitarian imperative and should be made a strategic priority in planning and executing military operations. In September 2019, the ICRC President and UN Secretary General issued a joint appeal calling on States to avoid the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects. They expressed hope that international efforts to strengthen the protection of civilians—including by placing restrictions and limitations on the choice and use of weapons—will stop the tide of civilian death and suffering that has become characteristic of urban warfare today, and will contribute to addressing the situation of 50 million people around the world estimated to be affected by war in cities. Idlib, Tripoli, Mosul, Aleppo, Raqqa, Taiz, Donetsk, Fallujah and Sana’a—these are names that should not be forgotten.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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