“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.