Wars in cities: protection of civilians in urban settings

Speech given by Mr Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. UN Security Council Open Debate. 25 January 2022 via video link.
Statement 25 January 2022

I commend Norway and the leadership of Prime Minister Støre, for bringing attention to this critical humanitarian concern. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to share the perspective of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Why are we discussing this issue today? For these critical reasons:

  • Because of mounting evidence of the unacceptable harm of warfare in urban areas to civilians and because repeated calls for action have not translated into major improvements;
  • Because the urbanization of conflict and attacks on inter-connected infrastructure is having massively negative impacts on populations in urban areas;
  • And thirdly, because the application of international humanitarian law and other normative systems to reduce the impact of war in urban areas is objectively complex and needs sophisticated guidance to achieve increased respect.


The ICRC and the wider Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are on the frontline of the humanitarian response to urban warfare. We take our protection responsibility seriously and spare no effort to support States and non-state armed groups in taking the right decisions.

However, the responsibility to comply with IHL lies with the parties to armed conflict. States must redouble their efforts to spare civilian populations from the effects of urban warfare. The humanitarian impacts are not inevitable.

Today, I have four calls:

First, all parties to armed conflict, and those who support them, must work for improved compliance with international humanitarian law that is adapted to the major trends in warfare.

As the Concept Note to this meeting correctly highlights, urban fighting makes the implementation of IHL more demanding than in open terrain because of the proximity of military objectives to protected persons and objects. Parties to a conflict have an obligation to attack only military targets. IHL requires them to do everything feasible to verify that such targets are indeed military objectives. That is why respect for IHL rules is critical in urban environments.

The massive impact of urban warfare calls for good faith interpretation and implementation of the rules governing the conduct of hostilities, notably distinction, proportionality and precaution.

The ICRC is particularly concerned about the extensive use of heavy explosive weapons in urban and other populated areas, which is a principal cause of civilian harm in today's armed conflicts. This week, the ICRC is launching a major report on heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, based on over a decade of analysis of their devastating consequences, technical characteristics, legal implications and relevant military policy and practice.

Action to change the unacceptable status quo is urgently needed and possible: The use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas should be avoided, and preventive and mitigation measures taken to this effect in military doctrine, education, and training, and reflected in equipment and military decision-making processes. Our report provides good practice recommendations to political authorities and armed forces on a range of such measures. It concretizes the concept of 'avoidance' and can serve as a tool to inform the ongoing negotiations on a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas.

We urge all States and conflict parties to implement these recommendations to significantly strengthen the protection of civilians and respect for IHL. In particular I highlight the need to make the protection of civilians a strategic priority; to ensure alternatives to the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area; to identify and implement good practices on the use of such weapons to limit their effects; to train and equip armed forces so that they can fight in populated areas in a manner that respects IHL and minimizes risks to civilians; and to share these good practices with partners and supported parties to armed conflicts.

Efforts to protect civilians must also consider that parties to armed conflict rarely fight alone: A multiplication of actors provide direct or indirect support to belligerents in conflicts, leading to a diffusion of responsibility that can put civilians, the wounded and detainees at risk. The ICRC continues to urge Member States to act more decisively to improve their own action and leverage their special relationships with allies and partners to enhance respect of IHL. This includes for instance, making the export of explosive weapons with a wide impact area conditional on recipients putting in place limits on the use of such weapons in populated areas.

Second, there is an urgent need to adopt and implement measures to protect essential services, such as electricity, health, education, water and sanitation.

When essential services are damaged in conflict the impacts are severe and cumulative. Diseases spread, hospitals struggle to provide care, schools go dark. Given the enormous suffering of civilians, serious questions are raised as to how parties to conflict are interpreting and applying their obligations to ensure the continuity of essential services in urban conflicts.

Investing in preventive measures to ensure continuity in essential civilian services provides an additional safeguard for the public health of communities. This is particularly significant now, when we are confronted with the double vulnerability of armed conflict and a pandemic.

These efforts should be part of a more holistic approach to 'build back better' and strengthen the resilience of essential services to ensure inclusive and equitable access for civilians. Most urgently, Member States should support and give priority to early recovery schemes in upcoming debates and resolution renewals.

Donors should also adopt mechanisms allowing for more flexible multi-year funding to prevent the collapse of essential service systems and reduce the extent of development reversals, while reinforcing the short-term emergency response to meet individuals' needs.

The ICRC urges States to fully – and swiftly – implement the landmark UNSC resolution 2573, which recognizes the importance of protecting critical infrastructure, service provider personnel and consumables.

This also means that a different approach must underpin sanctions policies. Members of the Council must ensure that sanctions allow humanitarian actors to prevent the implosion of basic social services systems and we remind them that in warfare, and even more so in urban fighting, States must facilitate – and not hinder – the work of neutral and impartial humanitarian actors.

Third, there is a need to intensify efforts to mitigate hunger and food insecurity and prevent famine in protracted urban conflicts.

Urban warfare creates food insecurity by disrupting the supply chains and markets that urban dwellers depend on to survive. This cannot be addressed through short-term relief alone. It requires early and anticipatory action.

Parties to conflict can help prevent food insecurity by respecting IHL, notably the rules protecting civilian structures – such as markets, warehouses, shops, and water installations – and other objects indispensable to the survival of the population from attack, and by ensuring the continued functioning of food logistics and markets.

Finally, much more must be done to prevent internal displacement and to enhance protection and assistance for internally displaced people during urban warfare.

Urban warfare uproots the lives of millions of individuals, families, and communities. It may force people to flee if their homes are damaged or destroyed, or if the essential services and livelihoods on which they depend are disrupted.

Cities are theatres of war but can become places of refuge. As IDPs flee towards cities, rapidly increasing population densities may increase vulnerabilities and put pressure on already scarce essential services. People wishing to leave their homes to seek refuge in or outside the city to avoid danger may be prevented from doing so. Those who flee often remain at risk during displacement.

Ensuring respect for IHL can help prevent large numbers of people from being displaced and enhance their protection and dignity. All possible measures must be taken to provide displaced people with shelter, hygiene, health, safety, nutrition, and to ensure that family members are not separated.

In these efforts, concrete measures must be taken to maintain and repair critical infrastructure, and to include affected communities in designing the response. Supporting displaced persons' access to livelihoods, essential services, and security of tenure, and advocating a comprehensive and voluntary approach to durable solutions with the authorities, are also essential steps.

Wars are changing at a fast pace. We are struggling to keep up our efforts to prevent and respond to their humanitarian impacts. This is experienced most severely by people trapped in urban warfare.

We can and must do more, for the sake of generations present and future.