Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

October 29th, 2018

     Held on 18 October, a side event of the United Nations First Committee examined the devastating effects of the use of explosive weapons (in populated areas (EWIPA) and suggested avenues to address the problem. Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi, Head of the Disarmament Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Austria and chair of the discussion, noted that conflict is increasingly taking place in cities and densely populated areas. The chair also raised the issue of compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL), emphasizing the devastating humanitarian impact of the use of EWIPA. In fact, studies have found that, on average, 91 per cent of reported casualties of EWIPA are civilians.

     Mr. Aurelien Buffler, Senior Policy Advisor in the Policy Development and Studies Branch of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), stressed the often neglected, protracted and indirect harm that the use of EWIPA inflict on civilians. Repeated attacks involving EWIPA disrupt vital civilian infrastructure such as electricity, water supplies and health systems while displacing large numbers of people who fear explosives and flee their destroyed homes. For OCHA, it is key to understand the use of EWIPA, especially in terms of humanitarian implications and gendered impacts, in order to inform responses.

     Ms. Kathleen Lawand, Head of the Arms Unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), underlined the importance the ICRC attaches to the issue of EWIPA in the light of more and more protracted, urban conflicts. She noted that the damage to vital civilian infrastructure by attacks involving EWIPA accumulates over time. The ICRC is calling for States to adopt a “presumption against use” of EWIPA because of their demonstrated patterns of harm. Weapons of concern, Ms. Lawand said, include munitions with a large blast and fragmentation range; inaccurate delivery systems such as unguided missiles; and weapon systems delivering explosives over a large area. She noted that weapons designed to spread their effect over large areas by their very nature lead to civilian suffering. In a time where battle fields are increasingly taking place in cities instead of remote areas, correct weaponeering is crucial, she said: the weapon has to be carefully selected based on the target and its environment. She also raised the criticism that militaries are often not aware of the unique vulnerabilities of populations, as studies by ICRC and other organizations have shown. Consequently, she recommended that armed forces receive proper training on urban warfare.

     Ms. Laura Boillot, Coordinator of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), noted that she has been actively working, through her network of civil society organizations, to promote an international political declaration on EWIPA. Ms. Boillot stressed that a declaration must include robust, concrete and action-oriented provisions. A declaration, she hoped, can provide a framework for States to implement national rules and guidance and act as a forum to review these.

     Alma Al-Osta, Arms Advocacy Manager at Humanity and Inclusion (formerly Handicap International), reported on the group’s regional approach to building awareness among States on EWIPA. Last year, an African regional meeting on EWIPA took place in Maputo, Mozambique, resulting in development and adoption of a communiqué. Furthermore, Humanity and Inclusion noted its targeted outreach to parliamentarians, contributing to political momentum on EWIPA.

     All panellists welcomed the increased momentum in tackling this issue, noting in particular the Secretary-General’s Agenda on Disarmament. At the same time, Mr. Buffler expressed concern over limiting the

     EWIPA debate to compliance with IHL and that discussions must also address the longer-term impact of the use of EWIPA.

     Responding to questions from the audience, the panellists also addressed the topics of non-State actors and precision-guided weapons. Mr. Hajnoczi and Ms. Lawand both acknowledged the problem that non-State actors pose, noting the importance of dialogue. Ms. Lawand and Ms. Boillot stressed the importance of proper targeting with a view to avoiding civilian harm., emphasizing the particular challenges posed by the use heavy explosive weapons in populated areas.



Text by Ruben Nicolin