Reducing Civilian Harm in Urban Warfare: A Handbook for Armed Groups

Reducing Civilian Harm in Urban Warfare: A Handbook for Armed Groups

Direct contact and dialogue with armed groups enables access to territories and persons they control and allows the ICRC to assist people affected by armed conflict. As armed groups will often fights in cities, ICRC is releasing a handbook for armed groups to reduce civilian harm in urban warfare.
Article 04 April 2023

In 2022, from Africa to the Americas, Near and Middle East to Asia, the ICRC mapped 524 armed groups that are of humanitarian concern, with at least 175 million people estimated to live in areas fully or fluidly under their control.

Urban areas, which convey both tactical and strategic advantages to them, have become the battlefield of predilection of armed groups. As their irregular and improvised methods of urban warfare result in incidental and deliberate harm to civilians, ICRC released a new set of guidance to Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs), "Reducing Civilian Harm in Urban Warfare: A Handbook for Armed Groups".

Based on engagement with armed groups around the world and extensive analysis of their practice, the handbook focuses on practical measures in doctrine, training, equipment, planning and conduct of hostilities that mitigate civilian harm in urban warfare, in accordance with international humanitarian law (IHL) and other relevant norms.

This handbook shares practical measures that indicate how NSAGs can mitigate harm to civilians in urban warfare if they have the intention to do so.

Recommendations cover command responsibilities and operational guidance, the collection of accurate information, consideration of the civilian environment in planning of an attack, how to conduct a lawful urban operation, as well as activities and behaviors to adopt once the hostilities have ended and best training practices in IHL education, tactics, weapon handling and equipment.

The handbook also spells out the responsibilities of commanders, fighters and those supporting them, their legal obligation and the benefits to comply with IHL, even if the enemy or other groups and forces do not.

Watch the summary video: How can fighters reduce civilian harm in urban warfare?


However, nobody fights wars alone: half of the armed groups mapped by ICRC are supported by states (49% / 298 groups), mainly politically and financially, or through transfer of weaponry. States who decide to support a partner in war should therefore always assess, as a precondition, whether this partner takes all the necessary measures to protect civilians. Otherwise, such support may contribute to violations of IHL and increased human suffering.

Finally, the handbook stresses the crucial role peers, partners, and other influencers (tribes, clans, religious and spiritual leaders, political and economic personalities, women's organizations, trade unions, student groups, social media influencers and platforms, international organizations,etc.) can play when they advocate and support a positive approach towards civilians, making it more likely to be internalized by the fighters and become part of their identity as the "right thing to do".

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