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April 12, 2022

Bombing & Shelling | 'States must commit to stopping the harm caused to civilians' in populated areas

Silver Spring, Maryland—The final negotiations for a political declaration to address the humanitarian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas were held from April 6-8, 2022, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Representatives of international and civil society organizations and more than 65 State delegations, including the United States, participated in discussions that resulted in some real progress.  

The States reached broad consensus on the urgent need to commit to preventing the harm caused to civilians by explosive weapons in populated areas. Many appeared willing to exclude the use of the heaviest explosive weapons from populated areas. Many States also declared that they were ready to share good practices on their use of explosive weapons in populated areas during hostilities. Humanity & Inclusion will continue to talk with States to ensure that the text will effectively change the situation of civilians living in conflict areas.

The nearly final text of this international agreement (political declaration) to end the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas will be shared in a final one-day consultation meeting in June. It will then be submitted to governments for adoption in the following months.  

During last week’s discussions, State representatives reached broad consensus on the urgent need to commit to preventing the harm caused to civilians by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Several States now appear ready to exclude the heaviest explosive weapons from populated areas by including a presumption of non-use of explosive weapons with wide areas effects in populated areas. 

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Where the U.S. stands

As in former rounds of negotiations, the U.S. claimed interest in a political declaration. Nevertheless, their interventions and suggested edits aimed more at weakening the ambition of the draft text. Once again, the U.S. delegation reiterated the importance of not introducing new standards of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), camping on their position that the current IHL is sufficient to protect civilians from the use of EWIPA. On a more positive note, the only commitment they would agree on is to work on policies and practices that could extend beyond IHL. 

The U.S. did not acknowledge the systematic humanitarian consequences and civilian harm resulting from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, despite the numerous data and reports that UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and civil society have provided. As a result, the U.S. delegation also tried to water down the commitment on victim assistance. This commitment aims at providing, facilitating and supporting victims including by ensuring their basic needs are met as well as the provision of emergency medical care, physical rehabilitation, psychosocial support and socio-economic inclusion. The U.S. also stood strong against any commitment to meaningfully limit the use of the heaviest explosive weapons on populated areas.  

Finally, Humanity & Inclusion is concerned about the U.S. position on the follow-up mechanism that should be only military-to-military, according to the U.S. representative. Other international agreements, such as the Convention on Cluster Munitions or the Mine Ban Treaty, have shown that their good implementation depends also on the involvement of civil society in the follow-up mechanism.  

The U.S. representative said they “want to be in a position to join the political declaration.”  

Humanity & Inclusion cannot agree more. The current contexts in Ukraine, Yemen, or Syria must push all States, including the U.S., to adopt a much more ambitious stance on a text that will effectively protect civilians from bombing and shelling in towns and cities. 

“Excluding heavy explosive weapons from populated areas must become the norm,” says Anne Hery, Humanity & Inclusion’s Advocacy Director, and leader of the Humanity & Inclusion delegation. “Almost all States recognize now that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has an unacceptable humanitarian impact on civilians and that there is an urgent need to better protect them from this practice. In early June, we will be able to conclude a final text. We must ensure that the declaration will be strong and will have a real impact on the protection of civilians in conflict.” 

Many States expressed their willingness to share good practices on their use of explosive weapons in order to better protect civilians from explosive weapons in populated areas. They also recognized that the international agreement is only the beginning of a long process to improve the protection of civilians from explosive weapons in populated areas by working for the full implementation and ongoing monitoring of this international agreement 

Devastating humanitarian consequences 

An international agreement of this nature is urgently needed. Massive and repeated use of these weapons in populated areas is one of the main causes of long-term humanitarian crises, and civilians are the principal victims. 

The massive and systematic bombing of populated areas in Ukraine has triggered the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II. At least 1,700 civilians have been killed and more than 2,400 injured since the beginning of the war on February 24, but the real figures are certainly much higher. United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine reports that “most of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes.” 

Already, 12 million people have fled to neighboring countries or other parts of Ukraine, as they watch indiscriminate bombings ruin their country’s vital infrastructure as places like hospitals, homes, water supplies, and schools are attacked. 

Conflict’s toll 

“Urban bombing, no matter how precisely targeted against combatants, inevitably leaves a legacy of trauma,” says Jeff Meer, U.S. Executive Director of Humanity & Inclusion. “For civilians, these weapons can leave long-lasting physical and psychological damages from which they may never fully recover as well as destroy infrastructure they need to survive. It is the responsibility of States to prevent the terrible and unacceptable human suffering caused by indiscriminate bombing and shelling in populated areas.” 

French parliamentarian Julien-Hubert de Laferriere, Belgium parliamentarian Samuel Cogolati and British parliamentarian Stewart McDonald participated in the discussions, representing the 300 parliamentarians in Europe who signed a joint statement urging their governments to take a stance against urban bombing. They drew attention to the "systemic" pattern of harm caused by explosive weapons in populated areas and stressed the need for a strong international agreement.

Chronology of the diplomatic process  

  • October 2019: the political process for an international agreement against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas was launched at the Vienna conference. This conference was attended by 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: First round of consultations on the text of the political declaration;  
  • February 2020: Second round of consultations with 70 states in attendance 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 on the protection of civilians from bombing and shelling in populated areas.
  • May 2021: Parliamentarians from five 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.
  • April 2022: Final round of consultations to negotiate the final text of the international agreement against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
  • June 2022: Final version of the text to be shared and concluded.  

About Humanity & Inclusion

Humanity & Inclusion is an independent international aid organization. It has been working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict, and disaster for 40 years. Working alongside people with disabilities and people experiencing situations of extreme vulnerability, our action and testimony are focused on responding to their essential needs, improving their living conditions, and promoting respect for their dignity and basic rights. Since it was founded in 1982, HI has set up development programs in more than 60 countries and intervenes in numerous emergency situations. The network of eight national associations (Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States) works constantly to mobilize resources, jointly manage projects, and to increase the impact of the organization’s principles and actions. HI is one of six founding organizations of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 and the winner of the Conrad N. Hilton Award in 2011. HI takes action and campaigns in places where “living in dignity” is no easy task.

Media contact: Mica Bevington, [email protected]