WILPF statement on the final draft political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas

The fifth and final consultation on the political declaration on EWIPA took place in Geneva, on 17 June 2023. WILPF delivered the following statement.

 Thank you to the mission of Ireland for taking the initiative on this declaration, and for inviting civil society to participate in this process. WILPF commends you for all your efforts to hold inclusive consultations and to ensure transparency throughout. We also welcome the constructive contributions from states, international organisations, and civil society, including affected communities, which have tirelessly contributed these past years to build this declaration and strengthen the protection of civilians against the harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

For over a decade, we have been working together to address the unconscionable levels of death and harm caused by bombing towns, cities, and villages. The pattern of civilian harm deriving from the use of these weapons has been well documented by civil society and humanitarian agencies. For countless times during these negotiations, different actors have highlighted that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, over 90 per cent of casualties are civilians. The data available demonstrates that the use of explosive weapons leads to devastating and long-lasting physical, social, psychological, environmental, and economic harm.

After years of expressing those concerns and calling for the adoption of stronger rules to protect civilian lives, WILPF recognises the overall contribution of the declaration. The clear statement that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas harms civilians undoubtedly contributes to the acknowledgement of the unacceptability of these weapons. Additionally, the measures relating to humanitarian assistance will have a direct impact on those affected by the use of such weapons, and hopefully will contribute to efforts on the ground to address the long-lasting impacts experienced by communities.

We welcome the recognition of gendered harms caused by explosive weapon use and the call for further research in this area. We encourage states to also consider differential impacts based on disability, race, and other factors, and to take these impacts into account during the provision of assistance.

Despite the positive aspects of the declaration, we believe states could and should have been more ambitious on the commitments adopted in this instrument. In this regard, we regret the wording chosen in the commitment laid out in 3.3, adding the expression “as appropriate” after the commitment to restrain or refrain from using explosive weapons in populated areas. There is a possibility that this paragraph could be interpreted as contradicting one of the critical and stated goals of the declaration, which is to provide clearer parameters for implementing international humanitarian law. A misinterpretation would ultimately undermine the implementation of the declaration.

The intention in 3.3 is eminently clear as a matter of construction. Positioning “as appropriate” after reference to the commitment to restrain or refrain from the use of EWIPA indicates that states should decide which is appropriate in specific circumstances, i.e. whether they restrain use or refrain from it altogether. In either case, the commitment itself

is not subject to the qualification. To read it otherwise is to render the intention void. The goal of the political declaration is to promote a presumption against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and that is the manner in which this paragraph must be applied.

The same understanding must be applied to paragraph 4.2. The reference to “where feasible and appropriate” in terms of data sharing is problematic, because data should always be shared in order to help prevent civilian harm. This is relevant not only because it can inform understandings of the impacts of the use of EWIPA and the responses, but also to make arms transfer assessments as mandated by the Arms Trade Treaty and other relevant instruments.

Given the powerful interventions by states and civil society throughout the consultation process in favour of strong commitments that will make a meaningful difference in civilian lives, it is clear that this declaration is categorically opposed to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and must be interpreted and implemented as such. International humanitarian law and international human rights law are clear that the practice of bombing towns, cities, and villages is unacceptable and must end. And read as a whole, the declaration stands as an important contribution to ending this horrific practice.

The commitments taken in this declaration must have a direct impact on the lives of those living in conflict. Bombing is going on all around us. People are dying, living in fear, being separated from their families, struggling to survive conflict and its aftermath. The decision to use explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas is a political, military, and economic choice made by governments. This declaration must facilitate the choice to save lives.

WILPF will defend the interpretation and implementation of this declaration as an instrument that sets a strong normative framing against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. We see this declaration as a recognition from states that the power to avoid civilian harm lies in their hands, and that the best way to do that is to end the use of these weapons in populated areas. Civilians can no longer be the ones who bear the burden of suffering from actions caused by states that are pursuing political and economic agendas. This declaration makes it clear that the protection of civilian lives must be prioritised, and we will hold states accountable to that.

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