Civilians are those who suffer the most when explosive weapons, such as artillery shells, missiles, rockets and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), are used in populated areas. The tragedy of immediate fatalities and injuries as a result of the initial blast and fragmentation is inevitably greatest in number in cities, whose inhabitants are situated close together amongst dense infrastructure that collapses during an attack. An estimated 80% of Raqqa city was destroyed during the ISIS occupation and subsequent allied bombing campaign, causing an estimated 1,600 deaths and reducing 11,000 homes reduced to ruins. For humanitarian organisations like MAG, whose goal is to eliminate the threat from explosive ordnance in the aftermath of conflict, operating in built-up areas becomes increasingly complex and resource intensive. Our teams must face the challenge of clearing dangerous items embedded in collapsed buildings, among rubble, twisted metal, and at times hazardous substances used in construction such as asbestos and fiberglass. Until this work is completed, even the first steps to recovery are impossible.
The destruction of housing and essential civilian infrastructure causes “reverberating effects” – the indirect consequences of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, whose harm to civilians often far outweighs immediate civilian casualties caused by an attack. Within the first six weeks of the ongoing conflict, an estimated 1.4 million people in eastern Ukraine were left without potable water, with widespread impact on health, food security, and health services. These indirect consequences compound and exacerbate the impact of more targeted attacks on key infrastructure, such as more recent targeting of the energy infrastructure in Ukraine by Russian forces.
The harm caused by such extensive attacks is not limited to urban areas, and the reverberating effects are often prolonged. The Kurdish village of Sigire, in the mountains of northern Iraq, was bombed four times before 1990 by Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein. Even today, the village remains a ghost town, never having been reconstructed, and its inhabitants unable to reclaim their homes. Some of Sigire's displaced population had begun to cultivate the surrounding land, planting orchards to rehabilitate and sustain their livelihoods. A sign of hope for a future beyond explosive weapons. Yet, without the protection offered by Sigire's former infrastructure, even this burgeoning recovery remains vulnerable to possible shocks, such as those caused by extreme weather caused by climate change.
As seen in Sinjar, in northern Iraq, those who survive an explosion remains under a constant fear that another explosion will kill or injure them or a member of the family, which last throughout the whole conflict. Following the end of hostilities, the explosions might have caused life-long disabilities and mental health and psychosocial effects among those who survived.
Furthermore, the destruction caused by those weapons or the danger caused by those of them that landed without exploding (unexploded ordnance or UXO) limit or impede the access to hospitals, schools, and even roads, obstruct post-conflict reconstruction and keep fuelling fear among civilians. This is sadly the every-day reality for many people around the world, and the need for a wider protection of civilians in this situation is essential.
On Friday 18th November 2022, the signing of the Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA) by States in Dublin is a crucial step towards the realisation of that essential wider protection of civilians from those immediate and reverberating effects. Various states and different stakeholders, including the United Nations (UN), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) of which MAG is member, and the wider civil society have been working towards this goal for more than a decade.
The Declaration is rooted in the fundamental humanitarian duty to protect civilians during any armed conflict, applicable to the whole international community, and contains a comprehensive series of measures aimed at preventing and reducing harm on civilians when explosive weapons are used in populated areas and addressing their direct and indirect effects.
The actual and potential contribution of the Declaration is wide and multifaceted, but two interrelated points are worth being highlighted. On the one hand, the Declaration serves to shed light on the various harmful effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, especially those that persist beyond the end of the hostilities. Since its foundation, MAG has worked to address the legacy of conflict in globally, where contamination from landmines, UXO, and IEDs fuels fear and obstruct the resumption of a peaceful life after a conflict.
On the other hand, the Declaration provides a framework under which lessons learned, best practice, and policies are shared among different stakeholders, including members of the armed forces and operators such as MAG, to perfect harm prevention and civilian protection.
Conflicts are increasingly taking place in urban environments and the challenges faced in the prevention of harm to civilians, their protection during armed conflicts, and post-conflict reconstruction are very complex. Constant dialogue, view exchange, and mutual learning and cooperation among different stakeholders are essential to reduce the risk of direct and indirect harm on civilians and when explosive weapons are used in populated areas and promptly address their humanitarian impact, effectively implementing a wider protection for civilians.
By Josephine Dresner, International Policy and Partnerships Director & Riccardo Labianco, International Policy Coordinator.