It is an unacceptable evolution of modern conflict that civilians are by far its main victims.
The era when wars were fought primarily between soldiers on battlefields is long gone. For decades now, the bombing and shelling of civilians in cities has become a normal feature of warfare, not an exception. The people of Mariupol, Mosul, Aleppo, Sana'a and Dessie are just the latest victims of this brutal practice.
In all these places, the consequences are the same – civilians killed or permanently disabled, infrastructure destroyed, families left homeless and people deeply traumatised. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The blasting of explosive weapons with wide-area effects into towns or cities is always the result of an active decision that someone has made, weighing up the intended military advantage against the legal, moral and reputational consequences of doing so much harm.
Indiscriminate attacks are clearly prohibited in international law, but warring parties habitually hide behind legalistic arguments, asserting that their attacks are proportionate and that they’ve taken all appropriate precautions to avoid harming civilians. They say this even when it’s abundantly clear that they’ve killed or maimed innocent people and caused massive destruction to the basic building blocks of society. All the evidence shows that, when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of the victims are civilians.
Nada was injured in a bombing in Mosul in April 2017, when she was 10 years old. Her left leg was amputated and she had serious wounds to her chest and face | © Peter Biro/HI
A new approach
That’s why a new approach is needed to the way that states conduct military operations: a basic presumption against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.
Some people say that putting constraints on armed conflict is idealistic, but this is demonstrably not true. To take an obvious example, there has been no use of nuclear weapons since 1945 because the norm against their use is so strong. Chemical and biological weapons are subject to similar stigma, and have been used relatively rarely as a result. And, although landmines and cluster munitions continue to be used by a small number of armed actors – as in Ukraine right now – globally, the impact of these indiscriminate weapons has been hugely reduced by the treaties banning them.
International norms on warfare are important. For civilians in conflict zones, they can be the difference between life or death. That is why I, along with many others, have been campaigning for over a decade for a new international political declaration to limit the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
Trustees and staff from Humanity & Inclusion UK hand in the Stop Bombing Civilians petition at 10 Downing Street | © T. Shelton / HI
Last week, I had the honour of delivering an amazing 216,719 signatures from people all around the UK in support of our Stop Bombing Civilians petition. Globally, more than 600,000 people have signed. This proves that the bombing of civilians is something that ordinary people feel incredibly strongly about, and – importantly – they believe that something can be done.
On Friday, in Dublin, the international Political Declaration we have been calling for will finally be launched. Over 70 states have already signalled their intention to endorse it. And, excitingly, this includes the UK, the US, France and other major military powers – governments that for many years have resisted any new constraints being placed on their military practices.
By endorsing this Declaration, these countries are committing to implement national policies to restrict and refrain from using explosive weapons in populated areas.
They are recognising the extensive nature of the damage caused by this practice and are committing to share data on its direct and indirect consequences.
They are also committing to assist victims and communities, facilitate humanitarian access and ensure the clearance or destruction of explosive remnants of war as soon as feasible after the end of active hostilities.
Destruction in the city of Kobané, Syria, contaminated by explosive remnants of war. | © P. Houliat/HI
A milestone moment
While the Declaration won’t stop certain governments and non-state fighters from committing atrocities, it will raise the bar for what is considered acceptable in our world. In the long run, it can help end the era of “collateral damage”, in which civilian casualties, humanitarian harm and massive destruction have been considered somehow inevitable and impossible to prevent.
The UK Government has a vital role to play. Britain helps set standards for conduct in warfare, through its international reputation, its alliances and its training programmes. So how the Government acts on its new commitments is vitally important.
The Declaration must now be promoted across Whitehall and the Armed Forces, and fully incorporated into training programmes and military doctrine. It also needs to feature strongly in UK foreign policy, with Britain encouraging its international partners to follow its lead in championing the new approach.
The Declaration is a huge milestone but, in many ways, the most important work is just beginning. Humanity & Inclusion (HI) and our partners in the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) will be actively working to hold governments to account for their commitments by monitoring military policies and practices to ensure there are meaningful changes made to protect civilians from explosive weapons.
We aim to ensure that this landmark international agreement brings about real changes for ordinary people affected by war. To do this, we will continue to count on the support of the hundreds of thousands of citizens around the world who believe that civilians should be protected in war zones.
Chief Executive, Humanity & Inclusion UK