A year ago on Saturday 18th November, 83 countries signed a political declaration designed to protect civilians from the horror inflicted by explosive weapons when they are used in populated areas.
Like many of those gathered in Dublin that day, it felt to me like a moment of rare hope and a significant step towards the eradication of this most inhumane and cruel of modern military tactics.
But today, just 365 days later, that hope has all but evaporated, as it has for those millions of civilians caught up in the horror of conflict in so many places across the world.
With the terrifying toll on civilians, events in Gaza have brought this issue to the world’s attention. The reality, however, is that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, including in villages, towns and cities, has become normalised in too many places.
From Sudan to Syria, from Myanmar to Yemen, and from Ukraine to Iraq, we have seen civilians – ordinary children, women and men – pay the highest price in conflict. In many of the countries where my organisation, MAG (Mines Advisory Group), works, our colleagues and their loved ones have also paid the price and there are many who have been scarred by the lived experience of conflict.
It is this creeping normalisation of the use of explosive weapons on populated areas that causes such grave concern. This is behaviour that was specifically prohibited when contemporary International Humanitarian Law was drafted but its normalisation dramatically increases the likelihood of repeat behaviour by other states or non-state actors elsewhere in the world.
When much of the international community nods along in tacit approval (and the United Nations is rendered largely powerless), then the global landscape changes and the parameters of what is considered acceptable change too.
One of the indirect consequences of what we have witnessed in Gaza is that the precedent set makes it that much easier for a military or government leader anywhere in the world to unleash hell on either its own or another’s citizens.
And make no mistake: extensive civilian harm as a direct result of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a clear violation of international humanitarian law and in direct contravention of the Political Declaration that I witnessed being signed a year ago today.
Put bluntly, it is a war crime. The atrocities committed against Israeli citizens cannot justify disregard for those basic rules that minimise armed violence and its effects. All civilians and civilian assets, including schools, hospitals and vital infrastructure, must always be protected.
The use of explosive weapons in populated areas is fundamentally indiscriminate. It causes unimaginable suffering and trauma, especially for children, and stores up further suffering for the future, impeding recovery and development for years or even decades, way after the end of the conflict itself.
And a world in which the fundamental rules of International Humanitarian Law are routinely ignored and dismissed as militarily inexpedient or as somehow ‘optional’ is a world where no holds are barred and where the universal value of humanity is denied. We are at risk of becoming desensitised to horror.
So, from this position of global despair, where do we go now? How do we respond?
For our part, in relation to Gaza specifically, we have done what we can. MAG’s risk and safety messaging, delivered through the power of Facebook’s algorithms and advising people how to stay safe during the bombardment, has reached some 1.5 million people in Gaza and the West Bank in the last month.
We have a specialist team ready to mobilise as soon as possible to find and make safe the explosive items that will inevitably hinder relief and recovery efforts in Gaza as they do in many parts of the world. A ceasefire and humanitarian access, in the meantime, must be implemented as soon as possible.
But this is not enough.
A year ago, the backdrop of the Ukraine conflict – and the toll it was taking on civilians – undoubtedly gave the Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA) Political Declaration additional impetus. Next April, when signatory States and observers meet again in Oslo, events in Gaza must reinforce the need to get more countries to sign-up to the principles that the declaration espouses and to rebuild global consensus on what is not acceptable in war.
MAG and like-minded humanitarian organisations must also redouble their efforts to ensure popular understanding of and support for the principles underpinning international humanitarian law. This begins with the principle of humanity and the dictates of public conscience that should lead us to condemn heinous acts even if they are not explicitly banned by international rules.
And the stigma attached to any event breaching international humanitarian law or causing human suffering must act as a much more powerful deterrent to the world’s leaders when they consider their actions and respond to the actions of other states.
Only in this way can we get to a point where it is manifestly unacceptable for leaders to condemn the targeting of a hospital in Ukraine but stay silent when that hospital is in Gaza.
International humanitarian law and developing rules on the protection of civilians, such as those in the Declaration signed a year ago, provide consistency and give governments and state militaries clear boundaries.
To ignore those rules is to usher in an ugly and dangerous world. Because when governments ignore the rules, when militaries ignore the boundaries, then all hope is lost.
Last month, we shared a statement on the situation in the Middle East and the impact of explosive weapons.
Cover photo - Mohammed Ibrahim via Unsplash