What's In Blue

Posted Mon 24 Jan 2022

Protection of Civilians in Urban Warfare: High-level Open Debate

Tomorrow (25 January), the Security Council will hold a high-level open debate on the protection of civilians (POC), under the theme “Wars in cities: protection of civilians in urban settings”. The meeting, which is one of the signature events of Norway’s Council presidency, will be chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre. The expected briefers are Secretary-General António Guterres, ICRC President Peter Maurer and a civil society representative. Non-Council member states are invited to participate in person at tomorrow’s open debate or submit a written statement to be included in the meeting’s official record.

A presidential statement proposed by Norway on the protection of civilians in the context of urban warfare is a possible outcome of tomorrow’s debate. At the time of writing, a draft of the presidential statement is being negotiated, and its adoption is not expected at tomorrow’s meeting.

Norway has identified the protection of civilians, including in the context of urban warfare, as one of its priorities during its two-year Council membership. The concept note prepared by Oslo ahead of the meeting (S/2022/23) says that “armed conflicts are increasingly being fought in urban areas, with devastating and unacceptable humanitarian consequences”. It maintains that the cumulative and protracted civilian suffering in situations of armed conflict, which is exacerbated by urban warfare, tears apart communities’ social fabric, increasing the risk of recurring violence and damaging prospects for achieving lasting peace and reconciliation.

The concept note focusses primarily on the long-term humanitarian effects of urban warfare, such as displacement, psychological trauma, disabilities, disruption of essential services, and explosive remnants of war. It notes that while the consequences of urban warfare are not unique, they tend to occur “on a significantly larger scale” than is occasioned by armed conflict in rural settings, because of urban areas’ higher population density and greater dependency on critical infrastructure.

Council members discussed some of these issues during the Council’s virtual open debate on “Critical Infrastructure: The Protection of Objects Indispensable to the Survival of the Civilian Population”, which was organised by then-Council member Viet Nam in April 2021. At that meeting, several member states underscored the devastating toll of urban warfare on essential infrastructure and services. After the meeting, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2573 on attacks against critical civilian infrastructure, which highlighted the humanitarian effects of the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population and expressed concern about “indiscriminate attacks and the establishment of military positions in densely populated areas, and their devastating impacts upon civilians”.

According to the concept note prepared by Norway, the aim of tomorrow’s meeting is to raise awareness of the compounding ways in which urban warfare affects civilian populations. It will also serve as a platform to identify concrete steps that states can take to mitigate these consequences and to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian objects, in line with international humanitarian law.

The concept note proposes several questions to help guide the discussion at tomorrow’s open debate:

  • How can the Security Council prevent and respond to the consequences of urban warfare on civilian populations and critical infrastructure?
  • How can state parties to conflict ensure that the planning and conduct of military operations in urban settings are in line with international humanitarian law?
  • How can authorities, together with humanitarian and development actors, improve their coordination and response to ensure the continuity of essential services during protracted conflicts in urban settings?
  • How can humanitarian organisations, the UN system, non-governmental organisations and other relevant actors better provide sustainable humanitarian protection and assistance to civilians that better reflects the accumulated and protracted needs created by urban warfare?

At tomorrow’s open debate, Guterres is likely to highlight the disproportionate effects of explosive weapons on civilian populations in urban settings. The Secretary-General’s latest annual POC report, issued on 3 May 2021, 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 of such weaponry on essential civilian infrastructure, including disrupted access to vital resources and public services. While the report urged parties to conflict 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.

Many Council members and non-Council member states are likely to frame their remarks at tomorrow’s meeting around compliance with international humanitarian law. Some speakers are also likely to condemn the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and echo the call made by the Secretary-General in his POC report for states and all parties to armed conflict to avoid their use in populated areas. While all current Council members recognise that the planning and conduct of military operations in urban settings should reflect the international humanitarian law principles of distinction and proportionality, divisions remain over whether existing international humanitarian law provides an adequate framework to address the problem of explosive weapons.

Some Council members have expressed the view that the political declaration against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas (often referred to as EWIPA) that Ireland is promoting in Geneva should seek to strengthen international humanitarian law. Others have argued against this approach. For instance, during the latest round of negotiations on the political declaration held on 3 March 2021 in Geneva, the US said that the political declaration “should not seek to introduce new interpretations of existing international humanitarian law, create new standards, or propose commitments based on novel terminology not reflected in existing international humanitarian law”. The next round of in-person negotiations on the declaration is scheduled to take place from 2 to 4 February.

Maurer is expected to describe the challenges to providing adequate humanitarian assistance to civilians in urban warfare and the obstacles humanitarian actors face in such settings. He may argue that humanitarian actors should shift away from the traditional “relief-rehabilitation-development” paradigm and move towards one that combines long-term support, ensuring continuity in essential service delivery during armed conflict, while reinforcing short-term support for individuals. He is also likely to note that the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas raises serious questions about the interpretation of and compliance with international humanitarian law.

Some Council members may express positions that were set out during the Council’s April 2021 open debate on the protection of objects indispensable to the survival of civilian populations. At that meeting, some members stressed the need to adapt military manuals, strategies and ground rules to the new realities of urban warfare and to an interpretation of international humanitarian law that centres on the principle of humanity. Others raised the issue of cyber-attacks against critical civilian infrastructure, including on electrical and water systems and healthcare facilities, maintaining that such disruptions in urban settings could deprive a vast number of people of essential public services. (The effects of cyber activities on civilian populations were recently raised in a closed Arria-formula meeting organised by then-Council member Estonia and the UK in December 2021.) Some member states might also say that the mandates of relevant UN peacekeeping operations should better reflect the realities on the ground regarding the protection of civilians in urban settings.

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