Protecting civilians in combat zones

Civilians continue to bear the brunt of conflict globally

Izumi Nakamitsu May 19, 2019
The writer is the United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs

Human suffering caused by war is not a new phenomenon. And while our highest priority remains the prevention of war, evolving patterns of armed violence are posing new and more difficult challenges that require action.

The number of people killed in armed conflict has risen tenfold since 2005. Conflict is migrating into villages, towns and cities, but governments and non-state actors are continuing to use weapons designed for open battlefields.

In recent conflicts, civilians have constituted more than 90 per cent of those killed or injured by explosive weapons used in populated areas. Eight civilians now die in conflict for every soldier killed, a reversal of the ratio that prevailed in the early part of the twentieth century.

In places like Afghanistan and Yemen, combatants continue to use weapons like improvised explosive devices and air-launched munitions, both of which harm people far beyond the user’s line of sight.

This devastating reality demands new measures to protect civilians. The need to protect people from war’s effects — called the “humanitarian imperative”— has driven decades of international efforts to regulate warfare.

In the 70 years since the adoption of the Geneva Conventions, which established the cornerstones of international humanitarian law, global-level prohibitions have entered into force for anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions as well as chemical and biological weapons.

Despite this progress, civilians continue to bear the brunt of conflict globally.

A number of responsible governments and armed forces have taken many steps to protect civilians from warfare, such as adjusting military doctrines, policies and rules of engagement, and some have enhanced training practices in these areas.

NATO and the African Union, for instance, have each enacted tactical directives and other policies aimed at placing limits on the use of certain heavy weapons.

The United Nations has compiled information on these practices that can serve as a basis for common standards to safeguard civilians. There needs to be a shared understanding that combatants should not use certain heavy weapons in densely populated areas as they are highly likely to cause indiscriminate harm. Affirming this understanding in a political declaration would be an important first step.

Other measures should be pursued in parallel.

Improving how we collect data on civilian casualties can further inform policy and practice. Authoritative information on the impact of these weapons will help governments meet their humanitarian commitments and weigh risks associated with arms exports.

In his agenda for disarmament issued in 2018, ‘Securing Our Common Future’, the Secretary-General calls for new efforts to protect civilians from the urbanisation of armed conflict, in particular from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. He stands ready to facilitate the development of a political declaration as well as appropriate limitations, common standards and operational policies, building on proven and existing practice.

Governments can also support these efforts by sharing more details on their practices, including through military-to-military dialogue.

Momentum for effective multilateral action is growing. In October 2018, 50 countries at the UN General Assembly jointly voiced their grave concern about the humanitarian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

This was a clear call to accelerate our efforts in the spirit of “disarmament that saves lives,” as the Secretary-General described these initiatives in his agenda for disarmament.

We need to seize this moment and act together to protect civilians from unacceptable harm caused by the urbanisation of warfare. The humanitarian imperative must drive us forward with urgency.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2019.

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