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Urban warfare and violence

It is heartbreaking to watch a city you love die. Yet that is exactly what happens when armed conflicts are fought in the middle of cities, endangering the lives of civilians and the infrastructure they depend on. The humanitarian consequences of urban warfare persist for years – if not decades – after the fighting ends.

A woman amidst the city ruins after heavy fighting in Benghazi, Libya.

The impact of warfare and violence in urban areas

An unbearable human toll

In urban centres, civilians and military objectives are often found in the same areas. Heavy explosive weapons, such as large bombs, missiles, rockets, mortars and artillery shells, are more likely to hit the military target, but their wide, inaccurate and all too often indiscriminate blast areas take down everything around them too. They significantly affect civilians, causing deaths, injuries and trauma.

Ceaseless worry about loved ones' safety and unremitting anxiety about food and other necessities exacerbate all the personal difficulties associated with the traumatizing situation. Intense grief is common, as is fear. While most people will be able to continue to function and cope with the distress they have endured, others will suffer incapacitating psychological trauma.

Life interrupted

Urban fighting often destroys or damages the critical infrastructure necessary to supply vital services such as electricity, water and sanitation, health care, food and education. Urban residents, who depend for their daily survival on the supporting infrastructure, and on goods and services provided by others, are inherently vulnerable to market and supply disruptions. One failure often results in the collapse of many others. This creates greater risks to public health and people's livelihoods, which may in turn lead to the massive displacement of populations.

Bombing and shelling may also irreparably damage hospitals, prevent ambulances from reaching the wounded, and disrupt medical supplies. Medical personnel, as civilians, also suffer directly and can be forced to leave their jobs and flee.

Run for your life

As neighbourhoods become front lines, the basics of life – water, food, health care, jobs, education and decent accommodation – suddenly become hard to find. People are often forced to flee their homes, overturning their lives and exposing themselves to greater risks, such as sexual and gender-based violence, as they lose their livelihoods and support networks. It then usually falls to local communities – which may also be suffering from the effects of conflict – to help those who have been displaced.

Even after the guns have fallen silent, displacement can continue for years, as homes and infrastructure have been destroyed and unexploded and abandoned explosive devices litter residential areas. They may take years, decades even, to be cleared, preventing residents from returning safely.

Back to square one

The massive destruction caused by conflict in cities can set development indicators back decades.

As people leave for safety or better opportunities, the “brain drain” of those who knew how to build, run and maintain infrastructure – and the complex systems that require it – becomes an issue. Similarly, the security situation and school closures mean that children may be unable to go to school for years, impeding an entire generation in their quest for a better life.

The humanitarian consequences of urban warfare are complex, direct and indirect, immediate and long-term, visible and invisible. But they are not an inevitable by-product of warfare.

How can we reduce, or even prevent civilian harm in urban warfare?

1. In order to better safeguard civilians and civilian infrastructure, parties to armed conflicts must rigorously apply and better comply with existing international humanitarian law, which is adapted to the major trends in warfare. The underlying principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution are critical in protecting civilians against the effects of hostilities in urban areas.

2. They must also urgently reassess their approach to operations in urban environments, including by reviewing urban warfare doctrines, training and planning procedures, tactics and choice of weapons. Protecting civilians must be made a strategic priority in the planning and conduct of military operations, as warring parties remain obliged to take all feasible precautions to avoid incidental harm to civilians.

3. Most importantly, they must avoid using heavy explosive weapons at all costs. Such weapons are designed to deliver large explosive force from a distance and over wide areas, which causes indiscriminate damage and makes them ill-adapted for use in urban and other population centres. They should not be used unless sufficient mitigation measures are taken to limit their wide-area effects and the subsequent risk for civilians.

4. Allies and partners of parties to armed conflict also bear a great responsibility: they should design and frame their support appropriately in order to avoid aggravating the humanitarian consequences on cities. Instead, they should proactively contribute to a higher level of protection for civilians and civilian objects.

Our approach to limiting the humanitarian impact of urban warfare

The ICRC and the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement continue to bolster their capacity to prevent and respond to the humanitarian consequences of urban warfare. We favour an integrated, multidisciplinary approach to helping civilians, combining prevention, protection and assistance specifically adapted to the urban context. We engage with belligerents at every level, driven by the needs of the people who are most affected. 

We work to prevent critical infrastructure from collapsing and forcing millions into crisis. This involves repairing and rehabilitating infrastructure, supplying spare parts, providing training and capacity-building for local service providers and developing emergency preparedness plans.

However, there are limits to what the collective humanitarian response can achieve in the face of extensive damage and destruction to critical infrastructure and its misuse by parties to a conflict. When systems fail, the scale of the consequences far exceeds what can be addressed by humanitarian action alone.

Given the scope and complexity of urban warfare's humanitarian consequences, partnerships must be developed, especially with local authorities and essential service providers, but also with communities, local organizations and businesses, to ensure responses are grounded in local realities and attract widespread support. Such partnerships can help safeguard public health, reduce displacement and enable a more rapid response to acute emergencies. These partnerships can be supported by the combined efforts of humanitarian and development organizations to capitalize on their respective security, political and technical expertise.

From the Humanitarian Law and Policy podcast