Work to Protect Civilians Begins—Not Ends—at the Dublin Conference to Endorse the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons

Katherine Young, Explosive Weapons Monitor

On November 18, 2022, states and other stakeholders  will meet in Dublin, Ireland, for a conference to endorse the new Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.

The declaration is a landmark achievement with the potential to significantly strengthen the protection of civilians from the bombing and shelling of towns and cities. It marks the culmination of more than a decade of work undertaken in close partnership by states, international organizations, and civil society groups under the umbrella of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW). It was completed during a consultation process led by Ireland over the past three years.

By signing the political declaration, states will commit to steps to prevent the harm to civilians caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and to provide necessary and lifesaving assistance to victims of armed conflicts. After the endorsement conference in Dublin, much of the declaration’s success will come down to its universalization, strong interpretation, and effective implementation.

Large areas of Bodoryanka, Ukraine, were destroyed during intense and sustained bombardments in 2022. Credit:  MAG/Sean Sutton, 2022.

Universalization of the Declaration

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a global problem with a well-documented pattern of harm—on average, 90 percent of those killed and injured when explosive weapons are used in populated areas are civilians. Since 2010, incidents involving civilian harm from the use of explosive weapons has been documented by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) in at least 130 countries.

A political declaration will benefit from the participation of a broad and diverse group of states. This includes regional diversity, as well as diversity in experience with the issue of explosive weapons in populated areas. To date, more than 60 states from all regions of the world have indicated their intention to endorse the declaration in Dublin, including some major users of explosive weapons and states affected by their use.

Endorsement of the political declaration is an act of recognition of the harms experienced by civilians as a result of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, as well as a commitment to work to prevent and address harms. Article 36 notes, “While the declaration is not an international treaty giving rise to legal obligations for those states that join it, states that sign and endorse the declaration are committing—and will be expected—to act in good faith and take the necessary steps to implement the commitments they have voluntarily consented to.”  

Continued universalization to increase the number of states that are signatories to the declaration will be an important focus of work to promote broad adoption and implementation of its standards, and it will require dedicated outreach by a range of states and organizations throughout the years ahead.

Interpretation and Implementation of the Declaration

An important first step towards effective implementation is the interpretation of the declaration’s commitments by states, which should seek to maximize the declaration’s aim to protect civilians in armed conflict. Interpretation of some commitments in the declaration will require detailed discussion between relevant government departments and national armed forces, in consultation with the United Nations, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and civil society organizations. Civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch and Article 36, have already provided useful guidance on how states can interpret and implement the declaration’s provisions.

For example, one of the declaration’s core provisions, Paragraph 3.3, commits states to adopt policies and practices “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.” According to Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, states should understand that paragraph as committing them to “refrain from using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas and [to] restrict the use of all other explosive weapons in populated areas.” This interpretation would maximize civilian protection, the goal of the declaration.

Endorsing states will also need to begin work to implement the political declaration without delay. A key area of work will be developing policies to operationalize the declaration at the national level. This will be particularly important when it comes to changing military policy and practice in order to prevent harm to civilians and make a difference on the ground.

The declaration’s full and effective implementation will require endorsing states to take appropriate actions, including the revision of existing or development of new policy and practices, to:

  • Avoid civilian harm by restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas;
  • Protect civilians from the foreseeable direct and indirect or reverberating effects of military operations;
  • Improve understanding of the impacts of explosive weapons use on civilians and inform operational changes and effective responses through the collection and sharing of data;
  • Ensure prompt and effective assistance to the victims and communities affected by armed conflict; and
  • Ensure an effective follow-up process to review and further the implementation and widespread adoption of the declaration.

According to Article 36, implementation of the declaration will ultimately require time to revise existing, or develop new, policies and processes required to give “practical effect” to the commitments contained in the declaration. In that sense, “the declaration should be seen as setting an agenda for positive change and the progressive realisation of strengthened protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.”

Next Steps and Recommendations

For the declaration to serve as a major contribution to the protection of civilians from the harm caused by bombing and shelling in towns and cities, all states should:

  • Endorse the political declaration, as endorsement is a recognition of harm and a commitment to work to prevent and address future harms;
  • Encourage other states to endorse the political declaration, both in Dublin and thereafter, to help to promote the adoption and implementation of the declaration by the greatest number of states possible;
  • Develop and express strong interpretations of the declaration’s provisions, in consultation with the UN, ICRC, and civil society, as needed, to advance the declaration’s humanitarian objectives;
  • Assess the steps required at the national level to implement the commitments in the political declaration, including in the areas of military policy and practice, victim assistance, and data collection; and
  • Continue to publicly acknowledge and call for action to address the severe direct and indirect harm to individuals and communities resulting from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
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