Waging war in cities: A deadly choice

29 July 2020

As the world becomes more urbanized, so, too, does armed conflict. Many of today's conflicts are fought in cities and other population centres. When war comes to town, millions suffer: currently, an estimated 50 million people around the world are bearing the brunt of urban warfare.

In this new film, produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), experts from the fields of humanitarian protection and assistance, law and military operations explain why the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas is a deadly choice.

 When weapons such as large bombs or missiles, artillery, mortars and multi-barrel rocket-launchers are used to attack targets located in densely populated areas, the result is often widespread death and suffering – overwhelmingly among civilians. This is because these weapons have wide-area effects, meaning that they are likely to go beyond the target and impact civilians and civilian objects indiscriminately.

Many people, including children, lose their lives in such destructive blasts. Many others are left with life-long disabilities or lasting psychological trauma. In addition, damage caused to essential services – including water, sanitation, power supply and health care – forces survivors to flee, and aggravates health risks, such as those posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The bottom line is that bombing and shelling towns and cities leaves civilians scarred for life, whether physically, mentally or both.

The grave pattern of harm caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects underlines the importance of ensuring respect for the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) and, in particular, its principles of distinction and proportionality.

To stem the unacceptable tide of civilian death and suffering, parties to armed conflicts should avoid using heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. They must urgently review their policies and practices, and put the protection of civilians at the heart of their military planning and operations.

While some military forces have already taken steps in this direction, much more needs to be done – and soon. Efforts are currently underway to agree on a political declaration to strengthen the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The ICRC calls on all states to undertake strong and unequivocal commitments to protect civilians and cities from the effects of hostilities.

See our short explainer