Adoption of Explosive Weapons Declaration to Mark Major Milestone in Protection of Civilians

Katherine Young, Explosive Weapons Monitor

States, civil society, and international organizations will convene in Geneva on June 17 to finalize a landmark international agreement on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This political declaration aims to strengthen the protection of civilians arising from the use of explosive weapons in towns, cities, and other populated areas.

After the penultimate consultations in April, Ireland, which has chaired the two-and-a-half-year process, revised the declaration. It based its amendments on positions shared by delegations during the April consultations, in written submissions, and in bilateral meetings. Ireland will formally present the new draft, disseminated on May 25, during the final consultation, but it will not open the text to substantive changes. Ireland will also share information about the adoption process at that time.

Though the final draft falls short of strongly and clearly committing states to avoiding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas when they have wide area effects, the declaration as a whole reflects many of the calls made by the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations secretary-general, and other international and civil society organizations. In particular, it acknowledges the harm to civilians from explosive weapons, imposes limits on their use in populated areas, establishes victim assistance commitments, and creates a platform for future work. As such, it will serve as a major contribution to the protection of civilians from the harm caused by bombing and shelling in towns and cities. 

Streets of Gaza during Israel’s bombing, May 2021. Credit: NPA Palestine | Mohammed Zaanoun, 2021

A Political Declaration That Is Fit for Purpose

For more than a decade, INEW and other organizations have worked towards a political declaration that strengthens the protection of civilians by preventing and reducing harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, setting out expectations for state and military behaviour through changes in policy and practice, and going beyond a simple reaffirmation of the need for states to abide by existing international law. 

The final text of the political declaration contributes to these objectives as it includes provisions that do the following:

Acknowledges the severe and widespread harm to civilians when explosive weapons are used in populated areas

The preamble of the declaration, in Section 1, clearly acknowledges and describes the harm caused to civilians when explosive weapons are used in populated areas. It recognizes the practice’s devastating direct impacts on civilians and civilian objects, including death and injury, damage to and destruction of infrastructure, and psychological and psychosocial harm. It also highlights indirect effects—“often referred to as reverberating effects”—including disruptions to the provision of basic needs and essential services, and the displacement of people within and across borders. 

Though the term “wide area effects” does not appear in the declaration text, Section 1 acknowledges that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas presents an increased risk of harm to civilians “depending on a range of factors, including the weapon’s explosive power, its level of accuracy, and the number of munitions used.” As explosive weapons with wide area effects include those with a large scale of blast and fragmentation, inaccuracy of delivery, and firing of multiple munitions across an area, Section 1’s language embeds this increased risk in the declaration’s text and may be recalled in reading the operative sections.  

Commits states to have policies to restrict or refrain from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in order to avoid civilian harm

While a commitment to “avoid” the use of explosive weapons when they have wide area effects in populated areas would have provided clarity and boldness to the core commitment in the declaration, the text of operative paragraph 3.3 nonetheless places limits on such use. It includes a commitment to ensure that armed forces “adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to avoid civilian harm, by restricting or refraining as appropriate from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, when their use may be expected to cause harm to civilians or civilian objects.” In this context, “refrain” should be understood to mean that states should avoid the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects due to the increased risk of harm to civilians described in the preamble, and should “restrict” the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in all other cases.

Furthermore, operative paragraph 3.4 includes a commitment to ensure that armed forces, in both policy and practice, “take into account the direct and indirect effects on civilians and civilian objects which can reasonably be foreseen in the planning of military operations and the execution of attacks in populated areas.” Upholding this commitment requires states to consider the reverberating effects that stem from damage to critical infrastructure, including water and power supplies, which in turn affects hospitals and the provision of medical care and other services essential to the civilian population.

Recognizes the rights of victims and has commitments to assist affected communities and to provide humanitarian access

The political declaration also includes victim assistance provisions in operative section 4. Operative paragraph 4.5 commits parties to “provide, facilitate or support assistance to victims,” and makes clear that victims include “people injured, survivors, families of people killed or injured,” as well as communities affected by armed conflict. The paragraph also calls for a “a holistic, integrated, gender-sensitive, and non-discriminatory approach” to victim assistance that takes into account the rights of persons with disabilities.

Operative paragraph 4.4 commits states to “[f]acilitate rapid, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access to those in need in situations of armed conflict in accordance with applicable international law, including International Humanitarian Law.” The inclusion of this provision strengthens states’ commitments to ensuring assistance can reach victims when needed.

Creates a platform for collaborative and inclusive future work on this issue 

The political declaration ensures an inclusive follow-up process of work to “review in a collaborative spirit its implementation and identify any relevant additional measures that may need to be taken” in order to strengthen adherence to its provisions. As civil society and other international organizations have a crucial role to play in supporting implementation of the declaration, it explicitly states that the “United Nations, the ICRC, other relevant international organisations and civil society organisations may participate in these meetings.” While structured intergovernmental and military-to-military exchanges are encouraged, they may “help to inform meetings on this Declaration” and not take the place of them. Instead, the declaration text suggests meetings could include exchanges on good policies and practice and views on “emerging concepts and terminology.”

The Way Forward

The adoption of the political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas will mark a major milestone in the protection of civilians from harm caused by bombing and shelling in towns and cities. However, after the political declaration is finalized on June 17, much of its success will come down to universalization of the declaration, its effective implementation, and the work that follows.

The declaration is a starting point—not an end point—and movement away from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas will be a long-term undertaking that builds on the international community’s shared goal of reducing civilian harm. While the declaration’s impact might not be immediate, it demonstrates states’ commitments to addressing the challenges that civilians face when explosive weapons are used in populated areas.

INEW is ready to play a key role in continuing collaboration between states and international and civil society organizations, and it looks forward to the work ahead. 

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