Law and Policy Events 9 September 2020 15:00 - 7 October 2020 16:30

43rd Round Table on Current Issues of International Humanitarian Law


About the event

43rd Sanremo Round Table on "New Dimensions and Challenges of Urban Warfare"

From 9 September to 7 October 2020, the International Institute of Humanitarian Law (IIHL) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) jointly organized the 43rd Sanremo Round Table on "New Dimensions and Challenges of Urban Warfare", marking the 50th anniversary of the IIHL.

The 43rd Sanremo Round Table consisted of five webinars, recordings of which can be accessed below:

  • Wednesday, 9 September 15:00-17:00 CET: The Opening Session and panel discussion on "The evolution of urban warfare over the past 50 years and its impact on civilians" (Rewatch the video recording here)
  • Wednesday, 16 September 15:00-16:15 CET: Panel discussion on "Protecting civilians during urban warfare - lessons learned from recent operations" (Rewatch the video recording here)
  • Wednesday, 23 September 15:00-16:15 CET: Panel discussion on "Addressing the humanitarian consequences of urban warfare in the midst of the hostilities" (Rewatch the video recording here)
  • Wednesday, 7 October 15:00-16:30 CET: Panel discussion on "Is a change of approach required to better protect civilians in the urban environment?" (Rewatch the  videorecording here)

The Round Table, in which various high-level international experts and practitioners participated, offered a forum for lively debates on some of the contemporary challenges for international humanitarian law (IHL) raised by urban warfare. The discussion addressed these challenges from different perspectives – legal, military, humanitarian and architectural. It provided inputs from different contexts, illustrating the diversity of urban warfare today. What was clear from the rich and fruitful discussions is that when fighting moves to cities, civilians and civilian infrastructure and services are often the first casualties.

Why is it a crucial moment to address the challenges of urban warfare?

Although urban warfare is not a new phenomenon, hostilities are increasingly being conducted in populated areas. The recent cases of war-ravaged cities, such as Aleppo, Mosul, Sana'a or Mogadishu, illustrate this growing trend and the enormous cost of urban warfare for the civilians living in these areas. This trend is likely to continue in line with increasing urbanization around the world and the rising strategic value of cities, and is compounded when parties to the conflict avoid facing their enemy in open areas and, instead, intermingle with the civilian population.

When war moves to cities, civilians bear the brunt of the humanitarian consequences. The most visible direct results of urban fighting are the significant numbers of deaths and injuries among civilians, and the large-scale destruction of civilian homes and critical civilian infrastructure. This, in turn, leads to various indirect consequences, including the disruption of essential civilian services. These effects are very often caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area. While generally not a concern when used in open battlefields, these can have devastating effects for the civilian population when used in populated areas. Indeed, cities are inherently vulnerable, dependent as they are on a complex web of interconnected services. When critical infrastructure is damaged, these services are disrupted, or even collapse, when the conflict is protracted. This triggers a domino effect that causes humanitarian consequences far beyond a weapon's impact zone. 

Armed conflicts in urban areas, especially when protracted, also lead to consequences that are not immediately visible: fear, shock, grief and lasting psychological trauma; extensive reduction of livelihoods; large-scale displacement; increasing risk to public health; and breakdown of the economic and societal fabric and support networks.

International humanitarian law (IHL) imposes limits on the choice of means and methods of warfare, protecting civilians and civilian infrastructure against unacceptable harm and destruction. Even so, the human cost of urban warfare remains far too high, raising serious questions about how states and other parties to armed conflict interpret and apply the rules of IHL when it comes to operations in populated areas. More must be done to ensure the human cost of urban warfare is not the same in the future as it has been in the past.

Disclaimer: The presentations by the experts and the summary of the discussions of the 43rd Sanremo Round Table represent the participants' personal views and do not necessarily represent the view of the ICRC, unless specifically indicated.




For more information with regard to the agenda and speakers, visit the IIHL website.



Date & Time

9 September 2020 15:00 - 7 October 2020 16:30

Venue address

Online and at the Humanitarium
17 avenue de la Paix
1202 Geneva