World’s first political declaration to protect civilians from explosive weapons in populated areas nears completion
“Stop Bombing Civilians” agreement: Who will adopt? How will they implement? What will it change for civilians in conflict?
Silver Spring, June 13, 2022—The closing consultation for an international agreement to better protect civilians from explosive weapons in populated areas will happen June 17, 2022, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
The meeting gathers more than 60 State delegations, including the U.S., as well as representatives of international and civil society organizations. It features the presentation of the final version of the international agreement. This consultation concludes a two-year diplomatic process. A Humanity & Inclusion delegation will continue its dialogue with States to ensure that the final text effectively improves civilians’ chances to survive active conflict, elevating experience from the organization’s work with conflict survivors from countries such Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Libya and Iraq.
The final agreement will be submitted to States for adoption at a conference to be held later this year, in a location not yet announced.
In April, State representatives gathered in Geneva, reaching broad consensus on the urgent need to commit to preventing the civilian harm that explosive weapons used in populated areas causes. Several States appeared ready to exclude use of the heaviest explosive weapons from populated areas by including a presumption of non-use of explosive weapons with wide areas effects in populated areas. Many States declared themselves willing to share good practices on their use of explosive weapons in order to better protect civilians from these weapons.
Two months later, the final version of the international agreement takes good steps, but in other places doesn’t go far enough. It provides clarity on the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons, including their reverberating effects. And the text contains strong language on victim assistance, clearance and teaching civilians to mitigate risk through education about living amid explosive ordnance. However, the agreement is less ambitious than expected when it comes to limiting the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
“In two years of diplomatic process, we have come a long way,” says Jeff Meer, U.S. Executive Director. “From denial on the part of States with respect to the humanitarian consequences of explosive weapons, we have moved to their full acknowledgment of patterns of harm caused to civilians by these weapons. But this international agreement is only the beginning of a long process to achieve tangible improvements to the protection of civilians. The next step will be its endorsement by States—and the big question is: which ones will do so? Humanity & Inclusion will do everything in our power to obtain the most endorsements possible, including from militarily active States like the United States, United Kingdom, and France. And then we look forward to seeing real implementation steps to create a safer world for all.”
The international agreement’s impact will depend on States’ political will to fully commit to protecting civilians. Delegates will be closely watching the reaction of affected States as well as States that are actively participating in military operations. If they endorse the agreement, then Humanity & Inclusion believes that the agreement can provide a starting point for States to change military policies and practices to ensure better protection of civilians and civilian objects from explosive weapons.
This diplomatic process began two years ago at the Vienna conference in October 2019. The goal? To draw up an international agreement that will reinforce the protection of civilians in war zones. Humanity & Inclusion has tirelessly discussed with States the need for an agreement that should effectively end to the suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
“The international agreement could be a breakthrough for the protection of civilians in war zone,” notes Alma Al Osta, Humanity & Inclusion's Disarmament and Protection of Civilians Advocacy Manager. “Will States join the agreement when it is put forward for adoption? Will they have the political will to implement it? We will be watching the measures and policies they implement very closely. With the Explosive Weapons Monitor that we co-created in 2022, we will monitor military policies and practices to ensure better protection of civilian from explosive weapons.”
Devastating humanitarian consequences
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. Indeed, 90% of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians, according to Action on Armed Violence. Those injured are at risk of lifelong disabilities and severe psychological trauma.
Cities in Ukraine offer a devastating illustration. They are currently enduring massive bombings, which regularly sees banned weapons such as cluster munitions in play. At least 8,000 civilians have been killed or injured since the beginning of the war on February 24, but the actual figures are certainly much higher. According to the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, “most of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide-area effect, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes.”
Bombings have destroyed vital infrastructure, including hospitals, houses, and water supplies. Twelve million people have already fled to neighboring countries or other parts of Ukraine. This massive and systematic bombing of populated areas has triggered the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.
“Let’s be clear: the most destructive weapons should not be used in cities and towns, and other places where civilians live,” Meer adds. “Bombing and shelling in populated areas robbed 240,000 people of their lives between 2011 and 2020. Almost all casualties of bombing in urban areas are people like you and me who were never involved in the fighting, who did all they could to protect themselves from explosive violence. It is an unacceptable evolution of modern conflict that civilians are now by far the principal victims. Today, weapons such as 500-kg bombs, designed for use in open battlefields and with an impact radius of several hundred feet, are dropped from planes on crowded cities. Such weapons show no mercy for civilians. At Humanity & Inclusion, we will be relentless in denouncing the harm caused to civilians by urban bombing and call for better protection of civilians.”
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres seems to agree. In his annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict on May 18, 2022, he recognizes the ‘urgent need’ for parties to conflict to ‘avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas’. Secretary Guterres also acknowledges the ‘reverberating effects on essential services such as water, sanitation, electricity and health care’ caused by bombing and shelling in populated area. In his report, Secretary Guterres expresses his support for ‘continuing efforts towards a political declaration to address this problem’: ‘Such a declaration should include a clear commitment by States to avoid the use of wide-area effect explosive weapons in populated areas’.
Chronology of the diplomatic process
- October 2019: The Vienna Conference launches the political process for an international agreement against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This conference was attended by 133 States. A majority of States 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 the in-person consultation process was suspended
- 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 Defence Commission of the Belgian Federal Parliament adopted an historic parliamentarian resolution on the protection of civilians from bombing and shelling in populated areas.
- May 2021: Parliamentarians from five 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, more than 250 parliamentarians from Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland and the European Union have 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
- Date to be determined, hopefully in 2022: Political declaration opens for endorsement.
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.
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 in urban areas affected more than 50 million people in 2020, according to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres' annual report on the protection of civilians, released in May 2021.
- 90% of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians, according to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). Those injured are at risk of lifelong disabilities and severe psychological trauma.
“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]
War in Ukraine shows devastating impact of heavy bombing on civilians
Statement: Humanity & Inclusion is deeply concerned about the continuous escalation of armed violence that indiscriminately affects Ukrainian civilians since February 24, 2022, after 8 years of conflict in the Donbass.
We are extremely worried about the extensive harm caused to civilians by the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, as well as internationally banned weapons such as cluster munitions.
As documented in recent conflicts, the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in towns and cities results in a foreseeable pattern of harm. Research has shown a constant proportion of civilians among victims: when explosive weapons are used in populated areas 90% of those affected are civilians. Because of the huge blast effects of these weapons, their inaccuracy or dispersion of multiple elements, their impact covers large areas. The devastation they cause is aggravated by urban environment, closed space, collapsing walls and buildings.
Explosive weapons kill and/or cause complex injuries. They are the cause of massive forced displacement. Entire communities suffer extensive psychological trauma, with particularly acute consequences on children.
Bombing and shelling in cities also generates reverberating effects: damaging and destroying civilian infrastructures, such as houses, hospitals, schools, water, electricity and sanitation facilities or communication networks. Access to essential services is disrupted. Explosive remnants of war contaminate the land and impact communities long after the war has ended.
This nightmarish scenario is unfolding in Ukraine where cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Marioupol, Kherson, Tchernihiv and others are impacted by explosive weapons. One week after the beginning of the conflict, hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured, and the death toll is expected to continue rising. Most of the harm is caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide area impact, including airstrikes and shelling from heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems. Bombing occurring on the site of the Zaporijia nuclear plant is adding an even more terrifying perspective to the consequences of the impacts observed on residential buildings and public infrastructure.
Reports also show that cluster munitions have also been used in Russian attacks, impacting civilian buildings—including a hospital and preschool—and generating civilian casualties. Those weapons are internationally banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions since 2010. Indiscriminate by design, they predominantly kill and injure civilians.
A high level of additional contamination by explosive remnants of wars will be generated by the ongoing offensive, in a country already heavily contaminated by landmines, especially in East Ukraine where the former front was located in 2014.
The humanitarian consequences of what is unfolding are likely to be devastating. According to OCHA’s appeal, 18 million people are projected to become affected by the crisis, and 12 million people are expected to need humanitarian assistance. Reports of civilians trapped in towns and cities under shelling continue. Severe essential health supplies, fuel and cash shortages are reported in the country, with heightened insecurity affecting access to basic services. The escalation of armed violence is forcing people to flee. One week after the beginning of the large-scale military conflict, 1 million refugees have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries. The number of internally displaced is expected to reach 6.7 million people in the period to come. The numbers are raising by the hour. Humanity & Inclusion is particularly concerned by the situation of people with disabilities, older people and vulnerable persons, who are facing great obstacles to meeting basic needs like seeking shelter and accessing food. They are trapped and left behind. They need accessible information, access to safe evacuation pathways, shelters, lifesaving medical supplies.
Humanity & Inclusion strongly condemns the use of illegal weapons such as cluster munitions. We call for an immediate ceasefire and for respect of International Humanitarian Law, including unimpeded access to humanitarian assistance. Stopping the use of explosive weapons is mandatory to protect civilian lives.
The international community must do everything in their power to prevent this from happening again. The situation in Ukraine demonstrates the urgency to adopt the political declaration against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Humanity & Inclusion calls on states to join this historical process and participate to the ongoing negotiations to strengthen the protection of civilian.
For media inquiries, please contact Mica Bevington at [email protected].
Syria | Hashim’s life-changing artificial legs
When he was 18, Hashim Mohamed Barawi was hit by a mortar in Syria. Doctors had to amputate both of his legs. Now living in Jordan, Hashim shares his story:
I used to work as a barber. In September 2012, a series of attacks lasting for a couple of hours occurred in my neighborhood. It was around 5 p.m., and a random mortar hit my shop. This incident was a landmark moment in my life. I had injuries all over my body. For months, I was in shock.
Just after the blast, I was unconscious. I was transferred to the nearest hospital, along with many others who were injured by the bombing. I stayed in the hospital for around 11 days, and when I woke up, the doctors told me they had to amputate both of my legs. I was shocked, and I was really in a lot of pain. Throughout this time, my mother was my pillar of strength and a constant source of support.
After I left the hospital, I used a wheelchair at all times. We soon decided to move in with relatives in a safer part of Syria, as the situation in my neighborhood worsened. The situation throughout all of Syria had deteriorated. Getting food and basic items became more and more difficult as prices rose. Ultimately, we decided to flee the country in April 2014, to travel to Jordan. We experienced several obstacles along the way, including unmarked borders and rough roadways.
After arriving in Jordan, I read about Humanity & Inclusion’s efforts to provide people with prosthetic limbs, and I contacted them. With the help of Humanity & Inclusion’s team, I completed rehabilitation sessions and followed a program. They provided me with artificial limbs, a mobility chair, crutches, and a bed to facilitate movement throughout the process.
The artificial limbs really changed my life. It was a bit challenging at first, and I had to fight through it. I used a wheelchair for almost a year before receiving my first artificial legs; learning how to walk with them and climb stairs was particularly difficult. I faced these difficulties for almost a year and a half. I exercised hard to maintain balance by walking with two crutches at first, then only one, until I was confident enough to walk without crutches. Eventually, I was able to stand on my own for the first time in two years!
Building a new life
In 2021, I secured a job in a plastics plant with support from Humanity & Inclusion’s livelihood team. It was another turning point in my life. I felt like things were falling back into place. Now, my family is enjoying stability and bonding. We are settling into our new surroundings and have formed friendships. Today, I am thinking about traveling abroad again to start a new, brighter chapter.
I miss my previous life in Syria, my friends, my evenings out, and my favorite places, but now I store all these memories in my mind and heart. There is no hope of returning to Syria. The circumstances will not allow it, and the situation has not changed.
Yemen | ‘I am shocked by the diversity of the contamination’
After seven years of war, Yemen is heavily contaminated by mines, remnants of bombs, and other explosive weapons. Humanity & Inclusion is raising awareness about the dangers they pose.
Douglas Kilama, Humanity & Inclusion risk education coordinator, explains how explosive weapons impact Yemen and the civilians living there.
What is the extent of the contamination in Yemen?
It is impossible to have a precise idea or even an estimate of the contamination due to the current fighting and the impossibility to collect data. But Yemen is believed to be one of the most heavily contaminated countries in the world.
I am shocked by the diversity of the contamination here: mines, improvised mines, abandoned explosive ordnances, unexploded ordnances, improvised explosive devices cluster munitions, etc. The extent of the contamination by improvised mines is unbelievable. Analysis of some 2,400 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) since 2017 found that 70% of them are mines of improvised nature: meaning they are detonated by the presence, proximity, or contact of a person or a vehicle.
Contamination is especially high along Yemen’s west coast, near the strategic port of Hodeida, Taiz governorate and more recently around Marib, a focus of intense fighting in 2020. These mines are used in a traditional fashion: in order to slow down or block the progress of enemy forces or protect a strategic point. We also got reports on marine mines and marine improvised mines in Mocha and Hodeida. Civilians are always the first victims of this contamination.
How these IEDs are produced?
There are large stocks of explosive ordnance which are either unexploded or abandoned in Yemen. They can be used as raw material to produce IEDs. After aerial bombings, remnants of exploded bombs can also be used as raw material to produce improvised explosive devices. But parties to armed conflicts are not the only one to use mines. Recent UN experts indicate the rising use of improvised devices by criminal groups.
Where and how do mine-related incidents occur?
The UN Humanitarian Needs Overview for Yemen reported 1,300 civilians “affected in landmine or explosive remnants related incidents” in 2020. Most of the accidents occur during people’s daily activities: going to a well to fetch water, farming crops or tending livestock, using public infrastructures such as roads, buildings, education and health facilities. Accidents occur in urban areas as well as in rural areas. For the vast majority of the population, the presence of this contamination is new, and they do not know how to deal with it. They have no knowledge on the danger. Risk education programs are urgently needed to avoid accident and protect the population.
What action is Humanity & Inclusion taking against this contamination?
We will start awareness campaigns in Mocha and Al-Khokha districts of Taiz and Al-Hodeida governorates respectively as well as Hajjah, Sanaa and Aden governorates in March. We will have eight teams of two Risk Education Agents each to conduct awareness sessions in hospitals, schools, and public infrastructures. We also plan door-to-door sessions in the south, and with internally displaced people at camps as there are still large movements of population to and from Hodeida and Taiz.
The messages are very simple: First, we present images of explosive devices for the audience to recognize the threats. Stop, do not approach or touch, warn others nearby not to approach or touch it, remember the place by putting a warning sign from a safe distance, return the way that you came from and seek a safe route. Report the location of the object to authority.
The audience are also made aware of common places where these items are most likely to be found by teaching them how to identify warning signs and clues indicating possible presence of explosive ordnance in their areas and how to avoid them.
Douglas Felix Kilama is the Risk Education Coordinator for Humanity & Inclusion in Yemen. He is based in Sanaa.
Douglas has 20 years of experience in humanitarian work with specialization in explosive ordnance risk education, victim assistance and protection of children associated with armed forces or groups. In addition to Yemen, he has worked in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jordan, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Uganda.
He holds a M.A in Diplomacy & International Studies from Uganda Martyrs University and B.A in Literature and Political Science from Makerere University.
NGO Letter to US Secretary of Defense Demands Accountability and Reform After 20 Years of Civilian Harm
On December 1, 2021, Humanity & Inclusion and 20 other organizations sent a letter to United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urging him to account for and reckon with the civilian harm of the last twenty years and finally implement structural changes to prioritize civilian protection and accountability for civilian harm.
December 1, 2021
Lloyd J. Austin III
Secretary of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301
Re: Defense Department Civilian Harm Policies and Practices
Dear Secretary Austin,
We write to express our grave concerns about the Department of Defense’s civilian harm policies and practices and their impact, as evidenced most recently by the August 29 drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children; the Air Force Inspector General’s investigation into that strike; and a New York Times report in November that the U.S. military hid the effects of a 2019 airstrike in Baghuz, Syria that killed dozens of civilians and was flagged as a possible war crime by at least one Defense Department lawyer.1 These strikes, and the Defense Department’s record of civilian harm over the past twenty years, illustrate an unacceptable failure to prioritize civilian protection in the use of lethal force; meaningfully investigate, acknowledge, and provide amends when harm occurs; and provide accountability in the event of wrongdoing. For too long, the United States has failed to live up to its legal and moral commitments to the protection of civilians, as well as its own stated policies. This needs to change.
Twenty Years of Civilian Harm
The strikes in Kabul and Baghuz, and the devastating civilian harm that resulted from them, were emblematic of twenty years of U.S. operations that have killed tens of thousands of civilians in multiple countries.23 Contrary to the Defense Department’s assertions that strikes like those in Kabul and Baghuz are unfortunate anomalies, the experiences of our organizations, many of which work directly with conflict-affected civilians and survivors of U.S. lethal strikes, show that this is simply untrue. Instead, these strikes illustrate the Defense Department’s own repeated failure to prioritize civilian protection when it plans to use force; investigate and acknowledge civilian harm when it does occur; learn from and apply lessons from past grave errors; and deliver accountability for civilian harm that has devastated families and communities.
Over twenty years, the Department of Defense has failed to adopt solutions well within its grasp; learn and implement identified lessons; exercise meaningful leadership on civilian protection issues; or assign adequate resources to address civilian harm.4 Indeed, the recommendations outlined in the Air Force Inspector General’s public summary of his investigation into the Kabul strike — to address confirmation bias, improve situational awareness, and review pre-strike procedures to assess the presence of civilians — have been issued countless times by civil society groups and in the U.S. military’s own studies, yet never implemented. A 2013 Joint Staff study, for example, identified misidentification of a target as the “primary cause of [civilian casualties] in Afghanistan,” particularly due to “perceived hostile intent” from individuals who were later revealed to be civilians.5 Understood in this context, the airstrikes in Kabul and Baghuz are not unique tragedies, but the latest in a long pattern of apparent negligence and consistent disregard for civilians’ lives, predominantly those in countries where the populations are majority Muslim, Brown, and/or Black.
Failures of Response and Accountability
The Kabul and Baghuz strikes also illustrate long-standing problems with the U.S. military’s interpretations of its international humanitarian law obligations and its response to civilian harm, including failures to investigate, publicly acknowledge, and offer amends for harm, and ensure accountability in the event of wrongdoing.
For example, The New York Times reported a series of secretive Special Operations strikes that apparently circumvented legal and policy civilian protection safeguards and raised alarm among Defense Department and CIA personnel, as well as U.S. military officials’ attempts to conceal a possible war crime at Baghuz.6 If true, this report raises grave concerns about the U.S. military’s commitment to accountability and adherence to international humanitarian law, including the duty to investigate potential war crimes and hold responsible individuals to account.7
Further, the U.S. military has consistently failed to ensure that in case of doubt about the status of a target, a person is presumed to be a civilian, as set out in Additional Protocol I and customary international humanitarian law. This appears to be the case with the Baghuz strikes8 as well as other civilian deaths over the last twenty years, including: justifying targeting of individuals based on demographics through so-called “signature strikes”; refusing to admit credible civilian casualties due to the vague possibility that women or children could be combatants;9 and most recently, the killing of civilian aid worker Zemari Ahmadi, along with his family members, based apparently on supposition and confirmation bias.10
The Defense Department’s response to the Kabul and Baghuz strikes also underscores the Department’s repeated failure to adequately investigate alleged civilian harm — including possible war crimes, as required under international law — and provide compensation or amends. For example, in an email obtained by The New York Times, an official from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations suggested that the Office’s agents would likely not investigate the possible war crime committed during the Baghuz strike because the office typically investigated civilian casualty reports only when there was “potential for high media attention, concern with outcry from local community/government, concern sensitive images may get out.” Our groups’ experience has shown that this unwillingness to thoroughly investigate and acknowledge civilian harm is often the reality across the Department of Defense. The Pentagon’s acknowledgment of civilian deaths and apology for the August 29 strike in Kabul was welcome, but unfortunately an anomaly, and came only after high-profile media reporting and investigation of the drone strike. For twenty years before that strike, independent rights groups, family members, and others have documented and submitted numerous credible reports of civilian harm from U.S. operations around the world; the vast majority have been under-investigated, unacknowledged, and without compensation or amends.1112
We urge you to robustly account for and reckon with the civilian harm of the last twenty years, and commit to finally implementing structural changes to prioritize civilian protection and accountability for civilian harm. These efforts need to incorporate civil society, and, wherever possible, communities impacted by U.S. military operations and lethal strikes.13 We specifically urge you to:
- Ensure the full and transparent investigation of civilian casualties in the Baghuz strike and August 29 Kabul strike, including an assessment of possible violations of international humanitarian law; publicly release all investigations into and relevant reports on these strikes (with minimal redactions only for legitimately classified information); provide amends for confirmed civilian casualties in accordance with survivors’ preferences and needs, including evacuation and compensation as requested by civilian survivors of the Kabul strike;14 and ensure appropriate accountability for any wrongdoing that resulted in these strikes;
- Commit to transparency around U.S. use of force and civilian harm by, as a start, publicly releasing relevant Department of Defense Inspector General reports15 and RAND Corporation studies16; publishing daily strike data17; and publishing all civilian harm assessments and investigations, including relevant AR 15-6s.
- Revise the Department of Defense Law of War Manual to reflect the presumption of civilian status, as reflected in Additional Protocol I and customary international law;
- Review the forthcoming Department of Defense Instruction on Civilian Harm, in consultation with civil society groups, to ensure that the new policy adequately addresses longstanding failures in civilian harm prevention, investigation, and amends; and
- Publicly commit to a plan, with detailed steps, to direct the Defense Department to respond to the systemic concerns raised by civil society groups in this letter and over the last two decades.
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International USA
Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)
Center for Victims of Torture
Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)
Government Information Watch
Humanity & Inclusion
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
Life for Relief and Development
Norwegian Refugee Council USA
Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Saferworld (Washington Office)
September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows
Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC)
Win Without War
1 Dave Philipps and Eric Schmitt, “How the U.S. Hid an Airstrike That Killed Dozens of Civilians in Syria,” The New York Times, November 13, 2021. [link]
2 Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke, “Tens of thousands of civilians likely killed by US in ‘Forever Wars’,” Airwars, September 6, 2021. [link]
3 This letter is limited to civilian harm resulting from U.S. use of force in the 20 years following the September 11th attacks.
4 See Larry Lewis, “Hidden Negligence: Aug. 29 Drone Strike is Just the Tip of the Iceberg,” Just Security, November 9, 2021. [link]
5 Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA), “Reducing and Mitigating Civilian Casualties: Enduring Lessons,” April 12, 2013. [link]
6 According to the Times, U.S. military officials falsified strike log entries to conceal the facts of the Baghuz strike, destroyed evidence by bulldozing the blast site, and stalled efforts to investigate the possible war crime.
7 While the Defense Department’s recent announcement of a high-level investigation into these strikes is a step towards potential accountability, the investigation will have to meet standards of thoroughness and transparency we have yet to see from prior efforts.
8 The New York Times article reports that the Special Operations Task Force made the opposite presumption, based on what appears to be mere speculation. U.S. Central Command later justified the strike by stating that the many women and children killed could potentially have been combatants because “women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms.” This does not comport with international law.
9 See, for example, Mwatana for Human Rights, “Death Falling from the Sky,” March 2021, and response letter from Staff Judge Advocate Thomas F. Leary in April 2021. [link]
10 Matthieu Aikins, et al., “Times Investigation: In U.S. Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb,” The New York Times, September 10, 2021. [link]
11 For example, the Baghuz strike was part of the U.S.-led campaign in Deir Ezzor, Syria; in the final six months of that campaign, analysis shows that local civil society alleged as many as 1,780 civilian deaths from U.S.-led actions. Yet, U.S. Central Command admitted just 23 civilian fatalities. This points to profound systemic failure.
12 For example, despite repeated authorizations from Congress and the large number of officially confirmed civilian casualty cases in which survivors’ identities are known and they are reachable, ex gratia payments have been rare; in 2020, the Department made zero ex gratia payments despite $3 million in authorized funding.
13 Many of our organizations have also called for the Biden administration to end the program of lethal strikes outside areas of recognized armed conflict in recognition of the appalling toll of such lethal strikes on civilian communities around the world. [link]
14 American Civil Liberties Union, “Food Aid Organization Asks Pentagon to Help Family Members, Staff, and Survivors of Kabul Drone Strike,” October 15, 2021. [link]
15 Department of Defense Inspector General reports on Evaluation of Targeting Operations and Civilian Casualties in OIR (DODIG-2019-074) and Kinetic Targeting in the USCENTCOM Area of Responsibility (DODIG-2021-084)
16 RAND Corporation study on civilian harm practices broadly, required by Section 1721 of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act; and on civilian casualties in Raqqa, Syria.
17 Including, as a start, publishing daily strike data, locations, targets, and outcomes for all U.S. and coalition actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria since 2017, a commitment that was rescinded by the Trump administration.
Sharp increase of cluster munitions casualties
Silver Spring, MD – Released today, the 2021 Cluster Munition Monitor reports the number of cluster munition casualties has increased by 30% in three years to at least 360 casualties in 2020, up from 277 in 2018. This increase is mainly due to new attacks using cluster munitions during the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in October 2020. The conference of State Parties to the Oslo Convention, which bans the use of cluster munitions, takes place September 20-21.
Humanity & Inclusion is calling on states to enforce international law and for States, including the United States of America, to join the Convention.
The 2021 Cluster Munition Monitor report assesses the implementation of the Oslo Convention*, which bans the use, production, transfer and storage of cluster munitions. The report focuses on the calendar year for 2020, with information included up to August 2021 where possible.
Read the full report here.
Among the key findings for 2020:
- There are at least 360 new cluster munition casualties in 2020 globally – 142 casualties from attacks using these weapons and 218 as a result of cluster munition
- This figure represents a 30% increase in three years (317 casualties in 2019, 277 in 2018). The main cause for this is the use of cluster munitions in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in October 2020. At least 107 people were killed or injured during these attacks.
- Half of all casualties in 2020 (182) were recorded in Syria.
- A total of 107 people were killed and 242 others were injured. The survival status for 11 casualties remains unknown.
- Civilians accounted for all casualties whose status was recorded in 2020. Children accounted for 44% of all casualties.
“In the last three years, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of victims of cluster munitions, we must never tolerate atrocity,” says Perrine Benoist, Humanity & Inclusion’s Armed Violence Reduction Specialist. “We must constantly remind States and armed groups that the use of these weapons is banned and that international law must be enforced.”
Of the 360 total casualties in 2020, 218 were casualties from cluster munitions remnants. Casualties from cluster munitions remnants were reported in 7 countries including Syria (147 casualties), Iraq (31) and South Sudan (16). Up to 40% of the sub-munitions do not explode on impact and leave remnants that pose a threat to the local population.
“The impact of cluster munitions is horrific especially when they are used in areas with a high population density,” says Gary Toombs, Humanity & Inclusion’s Global EOD Specialist. “Civilians are killed. Cluster munitions kill and maim people at the moment of use, but unexploded cluster munitions will continue to pose a lethal threat to civilian lives for years to come.”
Cluster munitions attacks were also reported in Syria, resulting in 35 casualties. Syria is the only country to experience continued use of these weapons since 2012.
Progress to date
Since the Convention came into force on August 1, 2010, 36 State Parties have destroyed 1.5 million cluster munition stockpiles, totaling 178 million sub-munitions. This represents 99% of all cluster munitions declared by State Parties. Overall, 26 states and three regions remain contaminated by sub-munition remnants worldwide.
“The Oslo Convention has made great strides in protecting civilians against the scourge of cluster munitions,” Benoist adds. “Every year, existing stockpiles are destroyed and significant areas of contaminated land are cleared, while these weapons are increasingly stigmatized. But that is still not enough.”
- Cluster bombs are weapons containing several hundred mini-bombs called cluster munitions. Designed to be scattered over large areas, they inevitably fall in civilian neighborhoods. Up to 40% do not explode on impact. Like anti-personnel mines, they can be triggered by the slightest contact, killing and maiming people during and after conflicts. As they make no distinction between civilians, civilian property and military targets, cluster bombs violate the rules of international humanitarian law.
- *The Oslo Convention (known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions) which bans the use, storage, transfer, production and sale of cluster munitions, was opened for signatures in December 2008. Currently, 123 countries are signatories to this convention.
Humanity & Inclusion’s experts available for interview:
- Gary Toombs, Global EOD Specialist
- Perrine Benoist, Armed Violence Reduction Specialist
- Marion Guillaumont, Armed Violence Reduction Advocacy
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 39 years. Working alongside people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups, 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, Humanity & Inclusion (formerly Handicap International) has set up development programs in more than 60 countries and intervenes in numerous emergency situations. There are eight national associations within the network (Germany, Belgium, Canada, United States, France, Luxembourg, United Kingdom and Switzerland), working tirelessly to mobilize resources, co-manage projects and 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), co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize and winner of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2011. HI takes action and campaigns in places where “living in dignity” is no easy task.
Press contact: Mica Bevington | +1 202-290-9264 | [email protected]
Explosive Weapons | Members of parliaments in Europe against bombing of civilians
More than 170 members of four national parliaments call on governments to make a firm and concrete commitment to the fight against the use of bombing in populated areas. The call follows a May 27 online conference organized by Humanity & Inclusion and attended by 80 participants to mobilize States against the bombing of civilians.
39 members of parliaments from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom along with a total of 80 participants attended the interparliamentary conference to mobilize the support of their States for an ambitious international agreement to address the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
At the end of the conference, 172 parliamentarians signed a joint statement to call their government to “support the development of an international political declaration to strengthen the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and to strengthen assistance to victims of such practices.” The statement is further opened for signatures.
“More than 170 parliamentarians signed the joint statement calling their governments to commit to the current diplomatic process to negotiate a strong political declaration against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. We are pleased by the strong commitment of so many lawmakers. European governments should not shy away from their responsibilities: In armed conflicts, nine victims in 10 of explosive violence in urban areas are civilians. It is unacceptable. States have a historic opportunity to make a change.” - Alma Taslidžan Al-Osta, Disarmament Advocacy Manager
An international agreement
The draft of an international agreement against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is at its final negotiation stage between states, UN agencies, international organizations and civil society. A final round of negotiations will be held in the Fall. Then, the international agreement is expected to be finalized by the end of 2021.
This diplomatic process started in October 2019. So far, more than 70 States have been involved.
The Secretary General of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, called States to avoid any use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. This would create a presumption against the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas.
This solution is opposed by some States like France and the United Kingdom. Humanity & Inclusion is calling on reluctant governments to change their position on the wording of the declaration and to make a contribution that will have a concrete impact in the field and ensure the effective protection of civilians.
Stop bombing civilians
Bombing continues to destroy the lives of thousands of civilians in Syria, Yemen and more recently in Palestine and Israel. Between 2011 and 2020, 91% of victims of explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians. The use of explosive weapons in urban areas has systematic humanitarian consequences for civilian populations.
Explosive weapons kill and injure civilians, cause severe psychological trauma, destroy vital infrastructure such as schools, health centers and roads, and force people to flee their homes. Bombing also leaves behind explosive remnants of war that threaten the lives of civilians long after fighting is over. It is more vital than ever to adopt a strong political declaration to protect civilians.
Gaza | Grappling with trauma, destroyed infrastructure, explosive remnants
Gaza continues to grapple with the impact of an 11-day conflict with Israel in May.
256 people in Gaza and 13 people in Israel were killed during the bombing from May 10-21. Almost 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza were injured. In the West Bank and Gaza, an estimated 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Amal, who works for Humanity & Inclusion in Gaza, shares her hopes and experiences for the humanitarian challenges to come:
Q: What is it like in Gaza today?
Life seems to have resumed its course: stores have reopened; people are returning to work. On the day that the ceasefire was announced, a lot of people went to the beach in Gaza to celebrate the end of the violence. It was a very impressive sight. Once the ceasefire was declared, I found myself crying and crying, and I couldn’t stop. That was the first time I had cried about the war, and actually as I am writing this, I want to cry again. In the following days, we were able to go out and see what had happened. We saw all of the destruction and the losses and started to check on people. It brought us back to the reality of the situation and the incredible horror that we will have to live through in the coming period. It may take years just to rebuild what has been destroyed and make up for what we have lost, knowing that the loss of lives cannot be compensated.
The Humanity & Inclusion teams have resumed work and activated the emergency response to help people. It has taken a lot of energy and enormous efforts because our mental and physical state is not well. Knowing that many people in our community are struggling and in need of support gave us the courage to collect ourselves and return to our duties providing support to the most vulnerable people.
Some people stayed under rubble for days after the end of the war. The idea of this was unbearable as we walked through these areas on our way to work and saw the rescuing teams making all efforts to bring them back to life.
Q: How are people doing?
Many people are still scarred. In the days following the announcement of the ceasefire, people were both psychologically and physically exhausted. It was 11 days of uninterrupted bombing; there was no break. More than 100,000 people had to flee, sometimes several times before finding a safe place. Just going out to buy food could put your life in danger. There is still a lot of anxiety among the population: how long will the peace last? What will become of us? Children are still the most affected, with insomnia and nightmares.
Recently, raids hit Gaza again, breaking the ceasefire. I was afraid that the war could restart in the morning. When I received the security communication that the office was open as there were no complication, I was relieved. I cannot bare to live through that experience again.
Q: What is the humanitarian situation like after the crisis?
The material damage is impressive. The bombing produced 40 impact craters on the roads. Nearly 500 buildings were damaged or destroyed. There were also over 1,000 impact craters in fields or vacant lots. We still experience power outages and the sewage system is damaged, which has a serious impact on access to clean water. Humanitarian needs are diverse. Among others, there is a great need for reconstruction, especially for housing.
Many areas are contaminated by explosive remnants because a percentage of bombs did not explode on impact and continue to pose a threat to people. Remnants of exploded bombs can also be dangerous hidden beneath the rubble. For this reason, it is important to conduct awareness campaigns among the population to inform them of these dangers.
Due to the current blockade, Gaza lacks everything, including medical goods and equipment. There are still nearly 9,000 people displaced and sheltered mainly in schools. They need everything: even food and fuel. Many businesses had to stop because goods are not able to enter Gaza, and many merchants are struggling to pay extra for the goods stored in ports. All of these additional financial obligations add to the burden of the poverty-stricken population.
Q: How has HI staff helped?
We have assisted in evacuating people with disabilities during the escalation, and we conducted risk education sessions soon after. We have been distributing vouchers for food assistance to 300 families and medical first aid kits to 500 families.
HI’s future emergency response
Humanity & inclusion is currently in discussion with donors regarding funding for possible future actions to assist people in Gaza including:
- Conduct risk education sessions for children so they can learn to recognize and avoid dangerous unexploded ordnances or explosive remnants.
- Organize recreational activities to improve the psychological well-being of approximately 2,000 children.
- Continue distributing non-food items—hygiene kits, menstrual products, kitchen essentials, diapers and assistive devices—for displaced families and families hosting displaced people.
- Contribute to repair and improvement of 100 partially damaged homes, giving priority to single mothers, elderly people and people with disabilities. Some homes will need to be adapted for people with disabilities or people who may develop permanent disabilities due to injuries sustained in recent violence.
- Coordinate with other humanitarian aid organizations and relevant actors to avoid duplication and ensure inclusive response.
Header Image: Two Humanity & Inclusion staff members on the mobile emergency team walk past a group of children after conflict in Gaza in 2018. Copyright: Hardy Skills/HI
Inline image: Portrait of Amal
Stop Bombing Civilians | U.S. and Russia among main perpetrators of civilian harm caused by airstrikes
As U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepare to meet on June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland, Humanity & Inclusion recognizes the two countries are among the main perpetrators of civilian harm caused by airstrikes.
According to Action on Armed Violence, the United States-led coalition, the Saudi-led coalition, Syria and Russia are key perpetrators of civilian harm from airstrikes since 2011.
“US-led and NATO airstrikes have been the deadliest this decade," explains Anne Héry, Humanity & Inclusion's Advocacy Director. "Combined, their airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen had 7,391 civilian casualties—with an extremely high fatality rate of 71%.
"In Syria, many airstrikes were conducted by Russian forces or with the support of Russian forces: Russia is responsible for at least 3,968 civilian casualties in Syria, according to AOAV.”
Bombing in populated areas: A major humanitarian issue
The use of explosive weapons in urban areas, including airstrikes, has systematic humanitarian consequences for civilian populations. Between 2011 and 2020, 91% of victims of explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians.
Explosive weapons kill and injure civilians, cause severe psychological trauma, destroy vital infrastructure such as schools, health centers and roads, and force people to flee their homes. Bombing also leaves behind explosive remnants of war that threaten the lives of civilians long after fighting is over. It is more vital than ever to adopt a strong political declaration to protect civilians.
Final stage of a diplomatic process
The draft of an international agreement against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is at its final negotiation stage between states, UN agencies, international organizations—including Humanity & Inclusion—and civil society. A final round of negotiations will be held in the Fall. Then, the international agreement is expected to be finalized by the end of 2021.
So far, more than 70 States have participated in this diplomatic process that began in October 2019.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, called States to avoid any use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, creating a presumption against the use of heavy explosive weapons.
“Both Russia and the United States must be more supportive and together with other states develop a strong political declaration. This political declaration must change policies and practices of all militaries to better protect civilians from explosive weapons in populated areas.” —Anne Héry, HI Advocacy Director