Earlier this month, Ireland convened a set of informal consultations on a political declaration to reduce the civilian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). In recent years, warfare has increasingly shifted into towns and cities, and MAG has spoken extensively about our first-hand experience with the harms that are inflicted upon civilian populations by the use of EWIPA. In light of the devastation that has taken place in cities like Sinjar in Iraq, which has seen 70 per cent of its housing stock destroyed by conflict, the international community has begun to take steps to alleviate the suffering experienced by the civilians living in towns and cities decimated by explosive weapons.

The impact of conflict in Sinjar

Discussions surrounding a political declaration on EWIPA have been ongoing for a couple of years – and the recently published draft provides a strong indication of the declaration’s eventual contents. In the coming months, once negotiations conclude, the declaration will open for signature, and states will be given the opportunity to commit to taking concrete action to mitigate against civilian harm. That said, the capacity of the declaration to bring about meaningful change can only be as strong as the text itself, and negotiations up to this point have been fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, the impending deadline for the final declaration has brought a renewed sense of urgency to the consultations.

As an organisation that has been engaged in clearance activities in parts of the world that have been devastated by the use of EWIPA, MAG has been active in the discussions. Our senior community liaison advisor Sebastian Kasack stressed the importance of parties to conflict sharing data on the location, type and quantity of explosive weapons used, as it would greatly speed up clearance efforts. As the focus of the declaration is on reducing civilian harm, MAG also emphasised the importance of explosive ordnance risk education as a proven tool for protecting civilians until the deadly remnants of war can be cleared.

These issues are intimately tied to MAG’s humanitarian work and we are pleased to see them echoed by some of our colleagues at the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as well as the United Nations office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs. As such, there is good reason to hope that our recommendations may make their way into the final political declaration.

The area of primary concern emerging from the consultations, however, concerns language pertaining to the use of explosive weapons with ‘wide-area effects’ in populated areas. The term ‘wide area effects’ is used to refer to explosive weapons which are difficult to control – whether because they have exceptionally high explosive yields, are inherently inaccurate, or have multiple warheads. The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas is particularly destructive because it is impossible to ensure intended targets are hit without also impacting the surrounding civilian population.

Children play in Sinjar while a painting on the wall hints at the devastating impact of the deadly legacy of conflict

Some participants – mainly militarily active states – argued that language obligating signatories to ‘avoid’ or ‘restrict’ the use of EWIPA would unjustly stigmatise weapons which – when they are used in compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) – do not necessarily cause civilian harm. These states also argue that it is inappropriate for a political declaration to establish restrictions not explicitly outlined in IHL – insisting instead that the declaration should simply re-state the core principles of IHL.

These arguments are strongly contested by various parties – notably by states from Latin America, Africa and Palestine from the Middle East, as well as civil society organisations and the ICRC. The argument that EWIPA do not necessarily cause civilian harm came under particularly scrutiny, largely on the grounds that the claim is not supported by any available evidence. On the contrary, the data clearly demonstrates that civilian harm is an inevitable outcome when explosive weapons with wide-area effects are used in populated areas. There was also strong disagreement with the idea that a declaration advocating the avoidance of EWIPA would constitute restrictions additional to IHL. The ICRC, in particular, have argued, that adopting avoidance policy is desirable as it “commits states to strengthening the protection of civilians and to facilitating respect for international humanitarian law, in an environment where both present considerable difficulties”.

The imminent political declaration is an invaluable opportunity that must not be wasted. There is already incontrovertible evidence that the use of EWIPA must be curtailed to protect civilian populations. MAG aligns itself with INEW as we continue to call for a strong declaration that advocates the avoidance of EWIPA.