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January 04, 2022

Stop Bombing Civilians: Final negotiations scheduled in historic international political declaration

Governments gather one final time in February to iron out the final text of a political declaration designed to save civilian lives

Silver Spring, Maryland—The political declaration against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas will have its final edit February 2-4, 2022 at the Palais des Nations, Geneva. This declaration will be historic. If strong enough, the international agreement stands to give civilians a fighting chance to avoid the injuries, deaths, loss of homes and livelihoods caused when explosive weapons are used in populated areas.    

The upcoming negotiations gather representatives of States, UN agencies, international organizations and civil society to finalize an international agreement to prohibit the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. This will be the third and final round of in-person consultations, after preliminary discussions in November 2019 and February 2020, in which around 70 states participated.  
 
The exclusion of heavy explosive weapons from populated areas must become an international norm,” says Alma Al Osta, Humanity & Inclusion’s Disarmament and Protection of Civilians Advocacy Manager. “We call States to unconditionally support an end to the use of the most destructive weapons in cities.” 

“Some States are trying to water-down the text. The United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and China, among others, have strongly opposed any meaningful limitation of explosive weapons in populated areas, some even mentioning that they did not want to “stigmatize’ explosive weapons. On the contrary, Humanity & Inclusion praises the early mobilization of African and Latin American States in favor of a strong declaration,” says Al Osta.   
 
Led by Ireland, this diplomatic process began in October 2019 but was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, a high number of civilians have continued to be killed and injured by explosive weapons, making the resumption of talks even more pressing. The political declaration text will be submitted to States for signature later in 2022.  

Devastating humanitarian consequences  

Massive and repetitive use of these weapons in populated areas is one of the main causes of long-term humanitarian crises, and civilians are the main victims.  

Conflict affected more than 50 million people in urban areas in 2020, according to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres' annual report on the protection of civilians in war zones, released in May 2021. And 90% of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians (AOAV). Those who are injured risk developing lifelong disabilities and severe psychological trauma.

“These negotiations offer our best hope for a successful conclusion of the diplomatic process, to which many humanitarian organizations including Humanity & Inclusion, have contributed,” Al Osta adds. “We must ensure that the text of the declaration is strong and will have a real impact on the protection of civilians in conflict situations. For this, the international agreement should impose a presumption against the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas.”

Explosive weapons have devastating long-term effects. They destroy infrastructure that provides essential services such as health, water, electricity, and sanitation, which civilians heavily rely on, particularly in times of conflict. In Syria, for example, after 10 years of war, at least a third of homes are damaged or destroyed. Major cities such as Raqqa, Aleppo and Homs have been largely destroyed by the massive and intense use of explosive weapons. 80% of the city of Raqqa was destroyed in 2017 (United Nations). 

Many heavy explosive weapons used in urban warfare today were originally designed for open battlefields. Their use in such an inappropriate context puts entire neighborhoods at risk. Multi-rocket systems fire simultaneously over a wide area and munitions cause large explosions and fragmentation. Many states already recognize the damage these weapons inflict and have expressed their concern and support for immediate action. Accordingly, 19 African countries through the Maputo Communiqué and 23 Latin American and Caribbean states through the Santiago Communiqué  have issued strong commitments to address this urgent humanitarian problem. 

In 2019, the UN Secretary General and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for warring parties to refrain from using heavy explosive weapons in populated areas because of their devastating consequences for civilians.

Parliamentarians in European countries, such as France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, have brought the topic to discussion at their national parliaments and demanded that their states contribute to the diplomatic process - with strong demands to strengthen the protection of civilians from explosive weapons. However, the U.S, the UK, the Netherlands, France and China, among others, have strongly opposed any meaningful limitations on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, even arguing that they do not want to ‘stigmatize’ this type of weaponry.  

Chronology of the diplomatic process   

  • October 2019: the Vienna conference launched the political process for an international agreement against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This conference brought together 133 states. A majority of them announced their willingness to work on a political declaration to end the human suffering caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas 
  • November 2019: The first round of consultations on the text of the political declaration 
  • February 2020: The second round of consultations, engaging more than 70 states to discuss the political declaration 
  • March 2020: Restrictive measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic began and suspended the in-person consultation process 
  • September 2020: Ireland organized a high-level panel, followed by a webinar to address the challenges of urban warfare and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas 
  • March 2021: Informal online consultations 
  • April 2021: The National Defense Commission of the Belgian Federal Parliament adopted a historic parliamentarian resolution regarding the protection of civilians from bombing and shelling in populated areas  
  • May 2021: Parliamentarians from 5 different countries participated in the European Inter-Parliamentarian Conference on the future political declaration to protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Since then, over 250 parliamentarians from Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland and the European Union, signed the European Inter-Parliamentarian Joint Statement  
  • February 2022: The final round of consultations to negotiate the final text of the international agreement against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas 
  • TBD 2022: Political declaration is opened for signature by States  

Notes