War in cities

IRRC No. 901

War in cities

In an increasingly urban world, armed conflict and violence has also been urbanizing. Today, approximately 50 million people are affected by urban armed conflict, leading to mass displacement, destruction of critical infrastructure and interrupted or inadequate provision of basic public services. What steps can be taken to better protect civilian population in urban centers and ensure continuity in the provision of vital services in times of conflict? What are the specific challenges faced in urban warfare? Is IHL still adequate for the conflicts that take place in these settings? This edition of the Review attempts to answer these questions, and provide some insights into how the international community should approach war in cities.

Table of contents

  • Editorial: War in Cities: the Spectre of Total War

    A scene of devastation, blanketed with grey dust, stretches into the distance in eerie silence. Walls riddled with bullets, buildings collapsing in on themselves, external walls blown away to reveal an intimate view of a bedroom or living room, streets blocked by piles of rubble. These sickening images of destruction – filmed from above by drones and shared on social media – probably best symbolize the current resurgence in urban warfare. Other images come to mind: bombed-out hospitals, children being pulled from wreckage, snipers roaming the maze of tunnels and walkways that have been blasted through the walls of now-uninhabited houses.
    Vincent Bernard, International Review of the Red Cross

  • Announcement: Professor Andrew Thompson joins the Editorial Board of the International Review of the Red Cross

    The editorial team of the Review is pleased to announce that Professor Andrew Thompson has joined the journal's Editorial Board. Andrew Thompson is the Chief Executive of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He joined the University of Exeter in 2011, having previously held a Chair in Imperial and Global History at the University of Leeds where he was Dean of the Faculty of Arts and then Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research.
    Andrew Thompson, Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter

  • Life in a war-torn city: Residents of Aleppo tell their stories

    The Review has chosen to open this issue with the voices of residents of Aleppo, Syria. Fighting in the city of Aleppo has stopped since the last opposition fighters were evacuated from the eastern areas of the city in December 2016 as part of a deal, but war continues in the rest of Syria, including in large parts of Aleppo governorate. This section is meant to frame the academic discussion to follow in light of the realities faced by those who live in cities at war. The stories below were told to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Aleppo on 6 and 8 February 2017. These people agreed to share their experience with the ICRC so that others may understand what their lives are like. Although they have suffered much, they still have hope for the future. In order to protect them and their families, only their first names will be used.

  • Interview with Eyal Weizman

    Contemporary warfare is increasingly waged in urban settings and is often characterized by asymmetry between the parties. This trend is only likely to continue in light of a more and more urbanized world. It is compounded by the fact that belligerents often avoid facing their enemies in the open, intermingling instead with the civilian population, putting civilian lives and infrastructure at risk. Eyal Weizman is an architect and academic who has spent much of his career writing and thinking about the interaction of violence and the built environment. He has worked extensively on the ways in which war is fought in built-up areas and on how architecture can design an environment that is either more or less conducive to urban warfare. Most recently, he has been developing the new field of forensic architecture, which aims to research incidents that unfold in urban areas, examine the architectural aspects involved and draw patterns from those stories. In this interview, Professor Weizman shares some of his reflections on war in cities with the Review.
    Eyal Weizman, Goldsmiths, University of London and Forensic Architecture

  • Future war in cities: Urbanization’s challenge to strategic studies in the 21st century

    This article argues that, despite an ongoing global revolution in urban demography, most Western military research into urbanization is narrowly focused and remains disengaged from the interdisciplinary expertise of urban studies. Because so many cities are sui generis in terms of their governance, architectural design and demographic composition, the art of war must seek closer interaction with the science of cities. In the coming years, in order to control armed violence and reduce casualties across an urbanizing world, military analysts must seek greater cooperation with urban specialists. The common aim must be to develop an urbanoriented strand of strategic studies that is firmly based on a sophisticated understanding of the ecology of cities. Such a cooperative approach will assist in the development of military methods of operating in cities using appropriate rules of engagement that embrace international humanitarian law.
    Michael Evans, Deakin University, Melbourne

  • The impact of explosive weapons on urban services: Direct and reverberating effects across space and time

    This article reviews the factors that determine the impact of explosive weapons on urban services in space and time, with a focus on drinking water services. The evidence comes from published and unpublished research and records, as well as experience restoring or maintaining such services. Urban services are seen as interconnected, and each composed of interdependent components of people, consumables and hardware. Elements that make up the components are labelled "upstream", "midstream" and "downstream", to reflect their location and hierarchy in the production and delivery of any urban service. The impact of explosive weapons is broken into the direct effects on any of the components of a service, and the reverberating effects on up- and or downstream components of the same service, or on other services.
    Michael Talhami, International Committee of the Red Cross
    Mark Zeitoun, University of East Anglia

  • Before and after urban warfare: Conflict prevention and transitions in cities

    The rising pressures of urbanization in fragile and conflict-affected countries have increased concerns about the vulnerability of cities to armed threats. Changes in the character of armed conflict during the twenty-first century and its effects on cities in the developing world have exposed gaps in the planning and practice of peace and security, which retain a "nation-State bias" that circumvents local perspectives and agencies. Whereas full-scale use of military power in cities remains as destructive today as it has ever been, international organizations such as the United Nations have called for changed approaches to State tactics in urban areas. Mechanisms designed to prevent conflict or to help countries transition back to peace are particularly key if massive human and economic damages are to be avoided in a world of increasingly dense cities. Another key concern is the vulnerability of developing-world cities to low-intensity, if protracted, forms of violence by non-State actors, particularly in post-conflict contexts.
    Antonio Sampaio, International Institute for Strategic Studies

  • ICRC Q&A on the issue of explosive weapons in populated areas

    Hostilities in contemporary armed conflicts are increasingly being conducted in population centres, thereby exposing civilians to heightened risks of harm. This trend is only likely to continue with growing urbanization and is compounded by the fact that belligerents often avoid facing their enemy in the open, intermingling instead with the civilian population. Despite this, armed conflicts often continue to be waged with weapon systems originally designed for use in open battlefields. There is generally no cause for concern when explosive weapons with a wide impact area are used in open battlefields, but when they are used against military objectives located in populated areas they are prone to indiscriminate effects, often with devastating consequences for the civilian population.

  • Proportionality and precautions in attack: The reverberating effects of using explosive weapons in populated areas

    During an armed conflict, the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas has a devastating impact on civilians. Less visible than the direct effects of explosive weapons, but equally devastating, are the reverberating effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. While there is growing consensus that parties to an armed conflict are legally obliged to take into account the reasonably foreseeable reverberating effects of an attack, particularly for the purposes of the rules on proportionality and precautions in attack, the precise scope of this obligation remains unclear. After setting out the legal arguments in support of the position that reasonably foreseeable reverberating effects must be taken into account, this article goes on to examine how such effects should be evaluated and how they must be avoided or minimized.
    Isabel Robinson, International Committee of the Red Cross
    Ellen Nohle, International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Precautions against the effects of attacks in urban areas

    The conduct of hostilities in urban areas is inherently difficult, particularly with respect to the protection of civilians. International humanitarian law places restraints on both attackers and defenders. While much is written about the obligations of attackers with respect to protecting civilians, much less attention has been paid to the defender's obligations. These obligations are routinely referred to as "passive precautions" or "precautions against the effects of attacks" and are codified in Article 58 of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Article 58 requires parties, "to the maximum extent feasible", to remove civilians and civilian objects from the vicinity of military objectives, to avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas, and to take other necessary precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects from the dangers resulting from military operations.
    Eric Talbot Jensen, Brigham Young University

  • Protecting civilians in urban areas: A military perspective on the application of international humanitarian law

    Implementing the principles of international humanitarian law (IHL) represents a real challenge if the protection of civilians in today's urban armed conflicts remains a priority for armed forces. The application of the principle of distinction comes up against the difficulties of obtaining intelligence, in particular in the absence of troops on the ground. The minimalization of collateral damage requires putting in place very precise targeting procedures, and even the adoption of tactics designed to draw out traditional combat from cities. In terms of precautionary measures in attack or against the effects of an attack, these must be adapted to the context of urban combat. Nevertheless, IHL remains an essential instrument that must be analyzed and translated into action in a practical manner in order to conduct military operations that are at the same time effective and legally permissible.
    Nathalie Durhin, French Joint Staff

  • The ICRC’s approach to urban services during protracted armed conflict: Q & A with Evaristo de Pinho Oliveira

    The experience gained from addressing the challenge of maintaining public services (for example water, sanitation, electricity, and solid waste disposal) over time has taught us that the underlying causes of those challenges do not receive the attention they deserve. Even their symptoms are difficult to deal with through short-term emergency response. Addressing these challenges is all the more difficult when the complexity inherent in urban contexts is compounded by repeated cycles of armed conflict and international sanctions or other restrictions on importing goods. The ICRC's experience and research suggests that a new humanitarian era needs to be ushered in, where nothing less than a paradigm shift in our thinking is necessary, to design and implement interventions that are more effective for assisting affected people.
    Evaristo de Pinho Oliveira, International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Addressing urban crises: Bridging the humanitarian – development divide

    The world is urbanizing rapidly. Demographic shifts are intersecting with the impacts of climate change, conflict and displacement. In many parts of the world, chronic stresses mean that large proportions of the urban population are already vulnerable. Rapid and poorly planned urbanization is not just an issue for governments and development specialists; humanitarian actors must also increase their understanding of and ability to operate within towns and cities at risk of crises. Their current approaches do not always adequately reflect and work with the reality of urban populations and the systems that support urban life. This means that humanitarian interventions may not contribute to sustainable urban development and the wellbeing of town and city dwellers in the longer term. This article argues that greater collaboration between humanitarian responders, municipal actors, development specialists and professional associations could lead to better outcomes for crisisaffected populations in both the short and long term.
    Lucy Earle, UK Department for International Development and the International Rescue Committee

  • Minimizing civilian harm in populated areas: Lessons from examining ISAF and AMISOM policies

    Both the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's security assistance mission to Afghanistan – have recognized the importance of reducing civilian harm, and adopted policies and practices that restrict the use of certain weapons in populated areas. ISAF commanders issued a number of tactical directives that restricted the use of certain air-delivered weapons, and AMISOM developed an indirect fire policy limiting the use of artillery and other indirect fire munitions in populated areas. This article examines both ISAF and AMISOM policies and practices to reduce civilian harm in populated areas and explores how these policies strengthened adherence to international humanitarian law and illustrated new ways in which armed actors can take feasible precautions and prioritize civilian protection.
    Sahr Muhammedally, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

  • Permitted for law enforcement purposes but prohibited in the conduct of hostilities: The case of riot control agents and expanding bullets

    Riot control agents and expanding bullets are the only two kinds of weapon and ammunition that are used for law enforcement purposes but are explicitly prohibited in the conduct of hostilities. This article justifies this difference in treatment with two arguments. First, riot control agents and expanding bullets have different effects on the human body depending on their specific types and the circumstances in which they are deployed. Second, the issues raised by their use differ according to whether they are employed for law enforcement purposes or in the conduct of hostilities.
    Samuel Longuet, Université Libre de Bruxelles

  • It’s not about the gender binary, it’s about the gender hierarchy: A reply to “Letting Go of the Gender Binary”

    The "Debate" section of the Review aims to contribute to the reflection on current ethical, legal, or operational controversies around humanitarian issues. In its issue on "Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict" (Vol. 96, No. 894, 2014), the Review published an Opinion Note by Chris Dolan entitled "Letting Go of the Gender Binary: Charting New Pathways for Humanitarian Interventions on Gender-Based Violence". In light of the review process for the Inter-Agency Standing Committee's Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action (GBV Guidelines), Dolan argues for a shift in the conceptualization of gender-based violence (GBV) in humanitarian settings from an emphasis on gender equality to an ethos of gender inclusivity. This, he suggests, is essential to improving the situation of victims, furthering social justice and changing agendas. In this issue, the Review presents the view of Jeanne Ward, one of the lead authors of the revised GBV Guidelines. For Ward, attempts to shift away from a focus on gender equality in GBV programming represent a regression rather than an advancement for the GBV field, as a dedicated spotlight on the rights and needs of women and girls continues to be hard-won in humanitarian contexts. Instead, she suggests retaining a focus on women and girls in GBV work, while moving forward in partnership with those who wish to accelerate programming directed to men and LGBTI communities broadly.
    Jeanne Ward, Independent Consultant

  • Twenty years after Novye Atagi: A call to care for the carers

    Working in the humanitarian sector as an aid worker has become a dangerous endeavour, with attacks against humanitarian workers becoming more common. In this personal story by a former head of office at an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) surgical hospital, a short, violent encounter leads to a long journey of recovery. There is an important role for the community in supporting the healing process; the author suggests that an integral and collaborative involvement by organizations like the ICRC is effective in addressing the impact of violence directed towards humanitarian aid workers.
    Christoph Hensch, International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Strengthening compliance with IHL: The ICRC-Swiss initiative

    Lack of compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL), or insufficient observance of its rules, is probably the greatest current challenge to the continued credibility of this body of international law. The need to strengthen respect for IHL led the ICRC and Switzerland to facilitate unprecedented consultations among States between 2012 and 2015 focused, specifically, on improving the efficiency of mechanisms of compliance with IHL. This note outlines the background of the initiative and summarizes its course and outcome. Ongoing work in the current phase of the process, agreed to at the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent held in late 2015, is also very briefly indicated.
    Jelena Pejic, International Committee of the Red Cross

  • ICRC’s statement at Habitat III

    Plenary statement by the ICRC at Habitat III, given by Hugo Slim, head of Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, 17–20 October 2016, Quito, Ecuador.
    Hugo Slim, International Committee of the Red Cross

  • ICRC’s Statement to the Third Preparatory Committee of Habitat III

    Delivered by Dr Hugo Slim, Head of Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, at the Third Preparatory Committee of Habitat III, 25 July 2016, Surabaya.
    Hugo Slim, International Committee of the Red Cross

  • What’s new in law and case law around the world?

    Biannual update on national implementation of international humanitarian law July–December 2015.

  • Books and articles: New IHL handbook - International Humanitarian Law: A Comprehensive Introduction

    International Humanitarian Law: A Comprehensive Introduction is an introductory handbook that aims to promote and strengthen knowledge of international humanitarian law (IHL) among academics, weapon-bearers, humanitarian workers and media professionals. It presents contemporary issues related to IHL in an accessible and practical style, and in line with the ICRC's reading of the law. That, plus its distinctive format – combining "In a nutshell", "To go further" and thematic textboxes – make it the ideal everyday companion for anyone approaching IHL for the first time and curious about conflict-related matters, as well as for military and humanitarian personnel seeking useful guidance on a vast array of topics.

  • Book review: Humanitarian Work Psychology and the Global Development Agenda: Case Studies and Interventions

    Entrenched in human resources, leadership development and Fortune 500 selection systems, industrial and organizational (I-O) psychology is the study of human psychology in the workplace. I-O psychologists employ an empirical approach to selection, training and performance management in order to improve the profitability and overall success of organizations. I-O psychology has not classically been known for a focus on the humanitarian pursuits and organizations of the world. However, recent years have seen the growth of humanitarian work psychology (HWP) as a subfield of I-O, focused on translating research and application of traditional I-O principles to improving human welfare. With this increased interest in the ability and responsibility of I-O psychologists to contribute to the "greater good" has come a strong call for more information and research on effective methods of transferring I-O across humanitarian contexts.
    Ashley J. Hoffman, North Carolina State University
    Drew B. Mallory, Purdue University

  • Book review: Legitimate Targets? Social Construction, International Law and US Bombing

    In this book, Dr Janina Dill takes on the considerable challenge of trying to work out whether international law can effectively regulate the conduct of States in the absence of an independent enforcing authority. She does this by considering the law regulating conduct in war and, more specifically, the effectiveness of international humanitarian law (IHL) in delimiting the scope of legitimate targets of attack in US air campaigns. She uses this discussion as an indicator of the wider ability of international law to regulate State behaviour more generally.
    Dr Bill Boothby, Royal Air Force

  • Book review: The Contours of International Prosecutions: As Defined by Facts, Charges and Jurisdiction

    The Contours of International Prosecutions, by Elinor Fry, challenges the reader's understanding of a number of well-known principles of international criminal justice by questioning the outer limits of those principles. Divided into three main parts, the book addresses the typical nature of an international crime, the factual demarcation at the case level (effectively, the micro level), and the jurisdictional reach of the International Criminal Court (ICC) (the macro level of one specific international institution). She takes the reader on a journey through the various stages of a criminal prosecution – from the indictment to the facts to the evidence – in order to demonstrate the importance of "a meticulous stance towards and respect for the basic building blocks that are the essentials of a criminal prosecution".
    Sarah Swart, International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Books and articles: New publications in humanitarian action and the law

    This selection is based on the new acquisitions of the ICRC's Library and Research Services.