Heavy explosive weapons in populated areas: A change of mindset is urgently needed

Heavy explosive weapons in populated areas: A change of mindset is urgently needed

Speech given by Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, at the occasion of the launch of the ICRC report "Explosive Weapons with Wide Area Effects: A Deadly Choice in Populated Areas" - 27 January 2022, Geneva
Statement 27 January 2022 Switzerland

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The use of heavy explosive weapons in urban and other populated areas has been a grave concern to the ICRC for many decades.

On a daily basis, ICRC staff working to protect and assist those affected by armed conflict bear witness to the human suffering resulting from the use of what we call "explosive weapons with wide area effects", or heavy explosive weapons.

These include large bombs and missiles, indirect – and often inaccurate – fire weapon systems such as artillery and mortars, multi-barrel rocket launchers and improvised explosive devices. Their use in populated areas is a major cause of civilian harm in today's armed conflicts.

One need only look at cities like Sana'a, Mosul, Raqqa, Aleppo or Gaza City, or other populated areas like the Donetsk region in Ukraine, numerous villages and provincial cities in Afghanistan, the outskirts of Tripoli and the downtown Benghazi in Libya, or Nagorno-Karabakh, to see their devastating humanitarian consequences.

Scores of civilians are killed or injured, often left with permanent disabilities or grave mental trauma. Cities are turned to rubble, with houses, infrastructure, schools, means of livelihood and cultural sites destroyed. Services essential for human survival collapse, leaving entire populations without access to water, sanitation, electricity or health care, and trigger displacement. Streets and backyards are littered with unexploded ordnances, which keep on killing long after hostilities have ended. Reconstruction costs and further impacts on development can be enormous, especially when the use of heavy explosive weapons happens in protracted conflicts.

There is an urgent need for a change of mindset, and that belligerents put the protection of civilians back at the centre of their policy and practices.

I am confident that our new report Explosive Weapons with Wide Area Effects: A Deadly Choice in Populated Areas will contribute to such a shift and it is my honour to launch it today.

The direct and reverberating effects of the use of heavy explosive weapons in urban and other populated areas are foreseeable and largely avoidable. In fact, warring parties have a responsibility to prevent and mitigate them. This requires full compliance with the principles and rules of international humanitarian law (IHL), but it may also require belligerents to go beyond that.

States and all parties to armed conflict need to review and adapt their military policy and practice to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas. These weapons should not be used in urban and other populated environments unless sufficient mitigation measures are taken to limit their wide area effects and the consequent risk of civilian harm.

Our report aims to contribute to a better understanding of the humanitarian, technical, legal and military-operational aspects of the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, and to assist States and non-State armed groups to give effect to an avoidance policy and to identify effective mitigation measures.

It is the result of multidisciplinary research, field documentation and dialogue with a number of States, non-State armed groups, experts and international and non-governmental organizations conducted by the ICRC over a number of years.

The report provides an overview of the grave pattern of civilian harm caused by the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, which is well documented in many parts of the world.

It examines the technical characteristics of weapons of concern which give rise to wide area effects, that is, effects that go well beyond the target. It demonstrates that the use of such weapons in populated areas entails a high risk of indiscriminate or disproportionate effects, and thus a high chance of violating IHL – a risk that increases with population density and with the area effects of the weapons used. And it includes a synopsis of relevant policies and practices adopted by parties to armed conflicts, including restrictions and limitations on the use of heavy explosive weapons in urban and other populated areas.

The report concludes with detailed practical recommendations for political authorities and armed forces on preventive and mitigation measures to be taken as a matter of good practice to strengthen protection for civilians and facilitate respect for IHL. Our recommendations cover the entire spectrum from doctrine and policies, to training, planning and conduct.

They include:

  • elevating the protection of civilians into a strategic priority that should permeate all stages of military decision-making;

  • taking measures at all levels – strategic, operational and tactical – to avoid, where possible, conducting hostilities in populated areas;

  • integrating key avoidance measures into military doctrine, training, planning and practice;

  • ensuring alternatives to the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area;

  • identifying and implementing good practices on the use of such weapons to limit their effects;

  • training and equipping armed forces so that they can fight in populated areas in a manner that respects IHL and minimizes risks to civilians; and

  • sharing these good practices with partners and supported parties to armed conflicts.

This report demonstrates that action to change the unacceptable status quo is both urgently needed and possible.

I urge policymakers and armed forces not to accept the death and destruction caused by heavy bombing and shelling in populated areas as a tragic but unavoidable by-product of warfare. Instead, they have a responsibility to adapt their military policies and practices to the requirements of the law, humanitarian imperatives and the realities of the modern battlefield.

Efforts are currently under way to develop a political declaration to this purpose. The ICRC strongly supports this diplomatic process. I am confident that this report will contribute to the implementation of the political declaration and to tangible progress in preventing and mitigating civilian harm, by fostering the necessary change of behaviour among parties to armed conflicts.

We call on all States and parties to armed conflict to adopt and implement the recommendations contained in this new report as a matter of policy. In the ICRC's view, this would significantly strengthen protection for civilians and respect for IHL in high-risk environments such as urban and other populated areas, where achieving such protection and respect is a particularly challenging task.

We hear those, who have concerns with the recommended approach:

  • They suggest that avoidance language is insufficiently precise to change the battlefield realities of today's belligerents.
    This report responds to these concerns and helps to define what avoidance can mean and how to translate concrete action into doctrine, training, manuals and realities.

  • They suggest that restricting the use of force in asymmetric conflict gives an unacceptable advantage to "the other side".
    We strongly disagree with this statement because exposing populations to unbridled violence, and accepting "collateral damage" to the extent it is happening today, is delegitimizing combat in the eyes of communities and will destroy trust and governance over their populations.

  • We hear those who say that an avoidance policy de facto makes war impossible in populated areas and thus is an illusionary strategy.
    This report demonstrates the opposite: a lot can be improved before abandoning civilians to such unacceptable risk of harm.

The ICRC will continue to document and raise awareness over the devastating humanitarian consequences of the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. And we will continue engaging in multilateral, as well as bilateral and confidential, dialogue with States, their armed forces and non-State armed groups on these and other measures to effectively address this pressing humanitarian concern. It is the least we can do in order to alleviate the suffering of men, women, girls and boys affected by armed conflict.

Thank you.