The major conflicts of the last ten years – Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen and others – have produced many searing images. Hospitals attacked, with patients dragged out on gurneys or over shoulders. Children climbing up mountains of cement shards and twisted metal. Entire city blocks sliced open, covered in thick gray ash. 

It’s not coincidental that many of these haunting scenes are of urban devastation: Warfare is increasingly an urban phenomenon, and it has become more devastating over time. That trend is driven by a number of factors. 

As the world’s population has become more concentrated in cities, controlling urban areas has become a more important, and more common, strategic objective for armed actors. When armed actors seek to defend these areas, they often disregard the legal principle that civilian buildings (and even civilians themselves) must not be used as shields during combat. This draws destruction to the hospitals or schools used for military ends. 

Meanwhile, when armed actors attack urban areas, they sometimes use tactics that cause extreme collateral damage. Most worrying of all is the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) that can devastate thousands of square meters. Such weapons are often fired far away from their intended target, which decreases their accuracy and forces militaries to fire many rounds at once to ensure one finds its mark.

The ruins of populated ares decimated by explosive weapons in Sinjar, Iraq

MAG has seen the effects of EWIPA use up close in northern Iraq while clearing war-torn cities like Sinjar. Roughly 70 per cent of the Sinjar’s housing stock was wrecked during the conflict between ISIS and Iraqi government-aligned forces, along with schools and much of the primary hospital. The city streets were left covered in rubble, which MAG teams had to carefully screen for unexploded bombs and improvised mines. By early 2020, MAG teams had spent more than 2,200 hours clearing Sinjar, yet much of the city remained uninhabitable and thousands of residents had not returned.

Addressing the EWIPA challenge is not just a matter of clearing up afterward (though MAG and other mine action organizations play a critical role therein). It also means changing the behavior of those who fight wars – and especially of governments, which have both the ability and the legal obligation to operate differently. That’s why MAG, alongside our partners in the International Network on Explosive Weapons, are calling on states to:

  1. Avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.
  2. Consistently collect data on the use of explosive weapons, and promptly share that data with the mine action community.
  3. Provide comprehensive aid to those harmed by explosive weapons, and to the communities who support them.
  4. Identify and share other good practices that reduce harm to civilians during urban warfare.

Later this year, states will have the chance to adopt an international declaration endorsing these key commitments. MAG has contributed to its development and urges all governments to support a robust and principled final version – especially governments like the United Kingdom and United States which claim to prioritise the protection of civilians in conflict. 

We must not accept today’s devastating urban conflicts as inevitable. MAG, at least, will not – and we will continue to speak out. Not just for those communities that have already suffered, like Sinjar, but also for those that enjoy peace today yet may (as the saying goes) find conflict just around the corner.