January 2022 Monthly Forecast

Posted 28 December 2021
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Protection of Civilians: The Humanitarian Impact of Urban Warfare

Expected Council Action

In January, Norway plans to hold a high-level open debate on “Wars in cities: protection of civilians in urban settings” as one of the signature events of its presidency. The open debate is expected to focus on the long-term, cumulative humanitarian repercussions of urban warfare. Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre will chair the meeting. Secretary-General António Guterres, ICRC President Peter Maurer, and a civil society representative are expected to brief. Non-Council member states will be invited to participate in person, pending the COVID-19 situation, or submit a written statement to be included in the meeting’s official record.

Background and Key Recent Developments

The Security Council first took up the protection of civilians in armed conflict (POC) as a thematic issue in 1999. Since then, it has adopted several resolutions on the protection of categories of persons, including: humanitarian personnel in 2014 (resolution 2175), journalists and other media professionals in 2015 (resolution 2222), health care workers (and facilities) in 2016 (resolution 2286), missing persons (resolution 2474), and persons with disabilities in 2019 (resolution 2475). It has also adopted resolutions addressing other POC-related topics, such as hunger and conflict in 2018 (resolution 2417) and the protection of civilian infrastructure in 2021 (resolution 2573).

Recent Council discussions have also considered the humanitarian impact of urban warfare. Conflicts over the past decade in densely populated environments have led to high rates of civilian casualties and displacement. The Council first expressed its views on the urbanisation of conflict at the thematic level in April 2021. In resolution 2573 on attacks against critical civilian infrastructure, the Council voiced grave concern about “indiscriminate attacks and establishment of military positions in densely populated areas, and their devastating impacts upon civilians”.

While the Council has yet to hold a formal meeting on armed conflict in urban settings at the thematic level, the humanitarian impact of urban warfare has often been mentioned in its country-specific resolutions and in the Secretary-General’s annual POC reports. For example, in several of its resolutions on Syria, the Council has condemned indiscriminate attacks and the indiscriminate use of particular explosive weapons in populated areas. It has also demanded that parties to the conflict in Syria demilitarise civilian facilities and “avoid establishing military positions in populated areas”. In its 15 March 2018 presidential statement on Yemen, the Council expressed grave distress at indiscriminate attacks in densely populated areas and the impact of such attacks on civilians, including large numbers of civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects. In 2016, the Council also considered the issue of urban warfare in the context of terrorism in resolution 2274 on Afghanistan, condemning the use of civilians as “human shields” and “suicide attacks, often in civilian-populated areas”.

The Secretary-General’s latest annual POC report, issued on 3 May 2021, highlighted the disproportionate impact of explosive weapons on civilian populations in urban settings. It noted that in 2020, 88 percent of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in urban areas were civilians, compared to 16 percent in other areas. The report described the devastating toll that such weaponry takes on essential civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools and water plants, disrupting access to vital resources and public services, such as water, electricity, sanitation and health care. It also emphasised the long-term impact of explosive weapons, such as lifelong disabilities and grave psychological trauma suffered by victims of urban warfare.

While the report urged parties to abide by the rules of distinction and proportionality in international humanitarian law, it acknowledged that efforts to estimate and minimise collateral damage from explosive weapons may be ineffective in urban settings because of the unanticipated ways in which narrow streets and tall buildings channel blasts. As such, the report welcomed member states’ efforts to develop a political declaration against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas (often referred to as EWIPA).

Spearheaded by Ireland, the political declaration’s informal consultation process has been taking place in Geneva since 2019. The first two consultations were held on 18 November 2019 and 10 February 2020. Ireland released a first draft of the political declaration in March 2020, and subsequently began accepting written inputs throughout 2020. In January 2021, Ireland released a revised draft declaration and online consultations were held on 3-5 March 2021. While the completion date for this process remains unclear, Ireland intends to conduct a further round of in-person negotiations in Geneva from 2 to 4 February 2022.

Key Issues and Options

A key issue for the Council is how to promote the effective protection of civilians in urban warfare. As a relatively new sub-theme of the POC agenda, Council members could request more research from the UN on the challenges of urban warfare. In this regard, they could request the Secretary-General to include the issue of urban warfare as a sub-item in annual POC reports and to offer recommendations to member states on how best to employ the disarmament toolbox of the Secretary-General’s Agenda for Disarmament to develop national policies aimed at protecting civilians in urban warfare. Council members could also encourage the Secretary-General to assess the effectiveness of adding provisions related to urban warfare in the POC mandates of relevant UN peace operations.

Another key issue is how to promote Council engagement on various sub-themes of POC, such as urban warfare, as part of coherent and integrated protection of civilians agenda. Although dedicated discussions of certain sub-themes of the POC agenda allow for a more extensive and comprehensive examination of those topics, some in the UN system have raised concerns that the focus on specific sub-themes could contribute to the fragmentation of the POC agenda.

Council and Wider Dynamics

Council members agree that the likelihood of civilian casualties increases as armed conflicts become more protracted and urbanised. As such, there is significant support among Council members regarding the need to address issues related to the urbanisation of conflict. However, certain Council members may be reluctant to establish further sub-categories of the POC agenda and individuals requiring special protections. At the last annual open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, held on 25 May 2021, Russia maintained that, in practice, the approach of creating new topics or categories of persons under the POC umbrella could be counterproductive, as doing so “differentiates the legal regime and loosens protection that civilians could receive”.

Some member states are also concerned that a political declaration against the use of explosive weapons could lead to new interpretations of existing international humanitarian law or result in commitments based on novel terminology not reflected in existing laws. For example, rather than having the political declaration focused on the use of EWIPA, some member states have expressed a preference for focusing on the broader context of urban warfare. In its comment submitted to Ireland in the lead up to the March 2021 consultations on the draft declaration, the US said that it could not join an initiative that would “seek to stigmatise the use of ‘explosive weapons’, which are legitimate means of warfare under international humanitarian law”.

Furthermore, Council members remain divided over other aspects related to the POC agenda, including accountability mechanisms and emerging threats to peace and security. Russia has previously objected to including references to international tribunals and international prosecution in POC-related Council products. Several Council members have also objected to specific language on emerging threats such as climate change in POC products.

Security Council Resolutions
27 April 2021S/RES/2573 The Council unanimously condemned attacks on civilian infrastructure in conflict.
Secretary-General’s Reports
3 May 2021S/2021/423 This was the latest report of the Secretary-General on protection of civilians.
Security Council Letters
27 May 2021S/2021/505 This letter contained a record of the annual briefing on the protection of civilians in armed conflict convened on 25 May 2021.


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