The armed conflict in populated areas have large scale devastating impact. On June 17, 2022, the Governments will meet at the United Nations in Geneva to conclude the final text of the draft Declaration on the Protection of Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas. How good is the political declaration in protecting the civilians from armed conflicts?
The Human Rights Watch concludes that the new political declaration holds great potential to protect civilians in armed conflict by having governments commit to avoid bombing and shelling populated villages, towns, and cities.
“Today’s armed conflicts show the urgent need to unite around the goal of preventing foreseeable harm to civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch.
“All countries should agree to the proposed declaration on curbing explosive weapons and work to implement it effectively to prevent civilian harm.” In his 2022 annual report to the UN Security Council on the “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted this pattern of harm in calling for a declaration committing countries to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.
The practice has inflicted immediate and long-term harm on civilians in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and other conflicts in recent years.
SOME TAKES FROM THE DECLARATION
The declaration notes that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas can have devastating impact on civilians and civilian objects. When critical civilian infrastructure, such as energy, food, water and sanitation systems are damaged or destroyed, the provision of basic needs and essential services, such as healthcare and education are disrupted, the declaration said. More to say, the damage and destruction of housing, schools, hospitals, places of worship and cultural heritage sites further aggravates civilian suffering. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas can also result in psychological and psychosocial harm to civilians. It recognizes that both the direct and reverberating effects of explosive weapons are foreseeable when used in populated areas. And it notes that the risks increase depending on the weapons’ explosive power, level of accuracy, and the number of munitions used. Those factors create wide area effects and make explosive weapons an inappropriate choice for use in populated villages, towns, and cities, the Human Rights Watch said.
The political declaration commits governments to undertake national policies and practices that strive to avoid civilian harm by “restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. That provision should be understood to mean that countries should refrain from using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas and should restrict the use of other explosive weapons.
Other key provisions of the declaration include commitments to assist victims, facilitate humanitarian access, collect and share data about the effects of explosive weapons, and hold follow-up meetings to promote the commitments in the declaration.
In the declaration, the authors said that improved data on civilian harm would help to inform policies designed to avoid, and in any event minimise, civilian harm; aid efforts to investigate harm to civilians; support efforts to determine or establish accountability, and enhance lessons learned processes in armed forces.
INTERNATIONAL NETWORK ON EXPLOSIVE WEAPONS
Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the International Network on Explosive Weapons, a coalition established by humanitarian, human rights, legal, and other groups in 2011 to push for such a declaration as well as for operational and policy positions aimed at ending the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. After agreement on the political declaration is reached, it will be opened for all states to endorse at a high-level signing event later in 2022.
It is unclear if the United States will sign. It was one of a minority of countries that sought to water down the declaration by proposing weaker commitments on the broader topic of urban warfare.
“The explosive weapons declaration responds to a proven and devastating pattern of harm caused to civilians, which drives people to flee their homes and causes them to lose their livelihoods,” Goose said. “Countries that are committed to complying with the laws of war should not hesitate to endorse the declaration and ensure effective policies and procedures to carry it out.”