Ireland’s webinar on explosive weapons keeps momentum on the process for a political declaration on the protection of civilians

By Katrin Geyer
9 September 2020

On 7 September 2020, the government of Ireland hosted the webinar “Protection of civilians in urban warfare – explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA): Issues, policy and practice”. The online event included a high-level panel discussion and two additional panels examining issues surrounding the use, impact, and measures that can be taken to address the humanitarian harm caused by EWIPA. The webinar was open to UN member states and civil society organisations, and close to 300 participants joined the discussion. The exchange helped to maintain momentum on the process towards a political declaration (PD) on EWIPA. Under the leadership of Ireland, two informal consultations were convened in late 2019 and early 2020; the third consultation, and the originally planned adoption of the declaration in May 2020, had to be postponed due to COVID-19.

The webinar allowed for an exchange of diverse views on the complex issues surrounding EWIPA, but was not intended to provide a platform to negotiate concrete text for the PD. Across the different panels, participants reiterated the grave pattern of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure caused by the use of EWIPA, and the need to better understand the reverberating effects of their use. Panelists agreed that the PD should have real impact and protect civilians in conflict zones. Most speakers agreed that there is lots of common ground in the joint objective to prevent unacceptable harm to civilians, and were optimistic that a strong political declaration can be achieved.

That said, tension persists between the majority of participants, who want the PD to be a strong political commitment that commits states to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, and others who see the PD as a forum to facilitate an “exchange of best military practices.” This latter approach risks diluting the original intention of the process for a PD, which is to address the distinct pattern of harm caused by EWIPA and to protect civilians from explosive violence in their towns and cities.

Ambassador Gaffey, Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva and moderator of the webinar, as well as the chair of the consultations on the PD, said that a revised version of the declaration will maintain the same broad structure as the previous draft. Ireland will not allow for written submissions on the next draft, but will wait until an in-person consultation is possible again. Due to the current uncertainties, no concrete information on timeline and next steps could be shared, but Ambassador Gaffey expressed determination to maintain an inclusive process.

Keynote address

Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Minister for Defence of Ireland, delivered the keynote address to the webinar. Coveney stressed that next to the COVID-19 crisis, challenges created by armed conflict still remain. He expressed his deep concern about the many violations of international law and international humanitarian law (IHL) resulting in the death and suffering of civilians. He cited the well document evidence of EWIPA’s devastating impacts, including loss of life, physical and psychological impacts, destruction of critical infrastructure, and displacement within and across borders. Coveney underscored that a PD on EWIPA can strengthen compliance with international law, especially IHL, and urged for states to adopt a PD that will have real and lasting impact on the ground.

High-level panel discussion

The high-level panel discussion featured Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs; Gilles Corbonnier, Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); and Dr. Renata Dwan, Director of the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Affairs (UNIDIR).

Nakamitsu explained why the issue of EWIPA is now more important than ever, given COVID-19 and the associated crisis. She regretted that rhetorical commitments by 170 states and a dozen non-state actors for a global ceasefire did not translate into the desired impact on the ground. She expressed worry about unabated conflict, which has undermined already-fragile healthcare systems further and has displaced at least 661,000 people just between 23 March and 15 May this year, further hindering efforts to contain the pandemic. She reminded participants of the joint appeal by the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) and the ICRC’s president in September 2019, which called on states to adopt an avoidance policy on the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects (WAE) in populated areas. She further reminded that the appeal called for the collection of age and sex disaggregated data on conflict related deaths, including the types of arms used.

Carbonnier of the ICRC recalled the dramatic humanitarian consequences of the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, including countless lost lives, disabilities, psychological trauma, forced displacement, and the destruction of vital infrastructure. He highlighted the harrowing images from Mosul, Raqqa, Tripoli, Sanaa, and other places around the world. Carbonnier also drew links to COVID-19, noting how the pandemic has exacerbated impacts of the use of EWIPA and how challenging it is to limit the impacts of the virus in contexts of continued urban warfare. He said that he expects strong policy commitments contained in a future PD, leading to effective change on the ground. He reiterated the ICRC’s call that due to the highly indiscriminate effects of explosive weapons with WAE in populated areas, states should adopt an avoidance policy of their use unless sufficient mitigation measures are taken to reduce the risk to civilians. He stressed that the adoption of such policy requires a mindset shift, which includes, inter alia, changes in political decision-making about supplying warrying parties, or the provision of any other support. Carbonnier offered examples where states have placed restrictions on the use of EWIPA in contexts such as Somalia and Afghanistan, and where it was shown that such restrictions can significantly reduce casualties without “negatively impacting the objective of the mission”.

As the last speaker of the high-level panel discussion, Dr. Dwan drew a broader picture, outlining how urbanisation is one of the most significant global trends, which will mean that by 2050, almost two thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas. She highlighted how urbanisation isn’t a feature of one particular type of conflict but a feature of our world, and that the use of EWIPA is not a “niche issue” but at the heart of the question of how war is regulated in the 21st century. Dr. Dwan offered practical actions to prevent humanitarian harm from the use of EWIPA. She noted that in terms of military policy and practice, risk reduction strategies must go beyond targeting decisions and be included in all previous and follow-up phases. As well, she urged for better cooperation to understand the “true cost” of the use of EWIPA, specifically with regard to reverberating effects. She informed that UNIDIR is currently developing indicators to measure the impact of EWIPA across three Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the objective to bring a wider set of tools and perspectives to the issue of EWIPA.

Follow-up questions to the panel discussion included what key challenges there are to implementing the  global ceasefire, best practices for protecting civilians in urban warfare, and ways to include non-state actors in the protection of civilians.

Session 1: Framing and contextualising the issue

The first session of the webinar sought to frame and contextualise the issue of EWIPA. Speakers included Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi from the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs of Austria, Amanda Wall from the US Department of State, Helen Durham from the ICRC, and Richard Moyes from Article 36.

Ambassador Hajnoczi offered a broad overview over the issue, reiterating various points made by previous speakers, including the fact that more conflicts will be fought in urban areas in the future, and that the pandemic has accentuated the need for a political solution for EWIPA. He also recalled the grave humanitarian impacts, highlighting gendered impacts and psychological trauma caused in children, as well as reverberating effects. He noted that there is good momentum to address EWIPA: more states have addressed the issue in the UN Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians over the past years, along with support from the UNSG and the ICRC’s president for a PD. He noted that the objective of a PD is not to ban a particular type of weapon or to adopt a new legal instrument, but to ensure that IHL is better and more consistently implemented.

Amanda Wall of the US Department of State said that the United States is concerned with the framing of EWIPA and that due to the complexity of the causes of harm to civilians, the PD cannot be “reduced” to the use of explosive weapons. She further argued that it would be “impractical” to try and “stigmatise” the use of explosive weapons as such, as this could have negative impacts on efforts to protect civilians; and that a PD should not create new norms or renegotiate existing IHL obligations. Wall further asserted that civilian harm can be caused by a variety of factors, including the deliberate targeting of civilians, the use of human shields, and “incidental harm” as a result of lawful attacks. Wall asserted that “deliberate and careful” use might entail less incidental harm than combat involving non-explosive weapons. She explained that the US advocates for a positive approach focused on promoting good practices to prevent civilian harm in urban warfare, and expressed hope that the PD will initiate the sharing and strengthening of good practices.

Helen Durham of the ICRC recalled that there is clear evidence of the heinous and unacceptable pattern of civilian harm over time caused by the use of explosive weapons with WAE in populated areas. Durham cited a plethora of evidence of the pattern of civilian harm, including a 2018 study by the ICRC, which showed that urban offensives with heavy explosive weapons accounted for eight times more conflict-related civilian fatalities in Iraq and Syria. She also noted that the disruption or collapse of critical infrastructure is often hard to capture, and that more needs to be done to understand this issue. While Durham acknowledged that the use of EWIPA isn’t prohibited by IHL, she reminded participants of the basic principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in IHL. She stressed that based on these principles, the ICRC calls for an avoidance policy of explosive weapons with WAE in populated areas.

Richard Moyes of Article 36 discussed the issue from a humanitarian and public health perspective. He reiterated Durham’s point that the pattern associated with the use of EWIPA is distinct and consistent, and deserves attention on its own. He explained key features and characteristics of EWIPA, including those with wide area effects, and outlined the common pattern of harm that they cause. He summarised that the combination of the technology of explosive weapons, along with the context in which they are used create the specific patterns of harm. Moyes stressed the centrality of data, especially the data collected by the Action on Armed Violence, and how available data has offered a snapshot of consistent patterns over time. Moyes further asserted that even if harm to civilians can be permissible, states and others should work collectively to reduce harm altogether. He further noted that the PD should recognise reverberating effects, and to promote victim and survivor assistance.

Follow-up questions discussed the role of disaggregated data collection and availability in informing the drafting of the PD, and military policy and practice.

Session 2: Addressing the issue through political commitments

The second session featured Ambassador Frank Tressler Zamorano of the Permanent Mission of Chile in Geneva, Albrecht von Wittke from the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, Michaela Miller from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom (UK), Simon Bagshaw of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), and Sahr Muhammedally from the Centre for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC).

Ambassador Tressler Zamorano of Chile recalled the nine key points of the Santiago Communiqué on EWIPA, adopted by 23 Latin American and Caribbean states in December 2018, and reiterated Chile’s commitment to strengthen IHL to put people first to save lives and promote the rights of civilians.

Von Wittke of Germany also reiterated that it is crucial to strengthen respect of existing obligations under IHL. He pointed to a working paper on “best practices” from a military perspective submitted to the 2019 Meeting of High Contracting Parties of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. He regretted that Germany’s proposal to create an informal working group to address EWIPA within the CCW was blocked, and outlined other initiatives that Germany has undertaken to advance on the issue of EWIPA.

Von Wittke explained that Germany seeks to build bridges between different approaches to the PD, and stressed that it was important to keep as many countries as possible on board. He argued that the PD needs to have a clear operational value which could be reached through a follow-up process where military practices are exchanged.

Miller of the UK reflected on how the PD can have the “best chance of success.” She said that above all, the PD needs to be practical. She stressed that it’s key to ensure that use of lethal force in populated areas is governed by IHL, and to improve military practices to ensure compliance. She argued that the that understanding of the core principles of IHL, dialogue and exchange, training and mentoring of military forces are crucial to address through a PD.

Bagshaw of UNOCHA reiterated points made by Durham, Moyes, and others that the distinct pattern of harm associated with the use of EWIPA “deserves treatment on its own terms”. He echoed Moyes’ point that the result of the use of explosive weapons in terms of devastation and humanitarian impact is the same, regardless of their use being “lawful” or unlawful. He further stressed Dr. Dwan’s assessment that more research needs to be made into the reverberating effects of the use of EWIPA, including their impacts on development and human rights. Bagshaw picked up on the examples of Somalia and Afghanistan mentioned by Corbonnier, where restrictions were placed on the use of EWIPA without “undermining military objectives”. Bagshaw encouraged states to think of and promote tactical alternatives to the use of EWIPA, and for this to be reflected in the PD. He noted the importance of victim assistance, data gathering, and the establishment of a mechanism for civilian casualty tracking to be included in the PD.

Muhammedally stressed that political will is essential to implement existing policies and practices that aim to protect civilians in conflict. She underscored the importance of training military personnel to assess the risk for civilians, so to better foresee risks to civilians and to better plan military operations. She reiterated the importance of victim assistance, and stressed the point made by others that for the victims and survivors of the use of EWIPA, it doesn’t matter if the harm was incidental or a violation of IHL.

Questions to the last panel revolved around victim assistance and the role of non-state actors.

Closing messages

Amina Azimi, urban warfare survivor and victim advocate from the Afghan Landmine Survivors Organization gave testimony about how the use of explosive weapons has changed her life forever. She recounted her being hit by an explosive weapon as an eight-year old girl, and about the long-term consequences that followed the attack. She was hospitalised, couldn’t go to school, got depression, and lives with disabilities to this day. She said, “I wasn’t the target of the rocket but I was the victim.” She reminded states that the work they are doing “can save lives.”

In his closing remarks, Ambassador Gaffey noted that Ireland has received over 50 written submissions on the draft text of the PD, which has helped to refine remaining areas of divergence. He said that the revised version of the declaration will maintain the same broad structure as the existing draft, and reiterated that the underlying purpose is to promote actions to reduce humanitarian harm and enhance protection of civilians and to strengthen IHL. Ireland will not allow for written submissions for the second draft, but wait until an in-person consultation is possible again. Due to the current uncertainties, the Ambassador was unable to provide concrete information on timeline and next steps, but he reiterated Ireland’s determination to maintain an inclusive process.

See also INEW’s Twitter feed for live tweets from the event.