On 1 and 2 October 2019, the Federal Ministry of Austria for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs organised an international conference on Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare. By bringing together a variety of States, International Organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations, the objective was to improve the international community’s understanding and practices in the protection of civilians in urban settings.
Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu offered her opening remarks and contributed to a panel discussion on the way forward toward the elaborating of a political declaration drawing upon the measures called for by the Secretary-General in his Agenda for Disarmament.
Due to the shifting nature of conflicts and their move into densely populated environments, there is a need for enhanced efforts to protect civilians who are increasingly caught in the crossfire. The high vulnerability of civilians in those contexts has dramatically increased the number of casualties over the last decades.
In response, both the UN Secretary-General and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross have jointly appealed to parties to armed conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. During the conference, a specific emphasis was put on reducing the reliance on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).
UN Messenger for Peace Michael Douglas addressed the audience through a video message, reiterating that States need to take decisive political action to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
The Executive Director of the NGO Action on Armed Violence, Mr. Ian Overton, presented a highly compelling argument as to why this issue demands immediate comprehensive action. Over a period of eight years, his organization’s research indicates that 91% of the casualties of explosive weapons in urban settings are civilians. In addition to the direct physical harm caused by such weapons, several speakers highlighted the long-term consequences on infrastructure, mental health and the delivery of basic services. The interruption of crucial services such as access to medical resources or water sanitation can have devastating humanitarian consequences.
Other themes mentioned during the conference included the characteristics of explosive weapons, international legal frameworks, military practices, and the prospect of a political declaration. Recent events in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine or Libya, to name but a few, testify to the urgent need for international cooperation.
During her remarks, HR Nakamitsu called on all parties to ensure that every precautionary measure is taken to limit the threats to civilian populations. She encouraged states to make use of the disarmament toolbox included within the Secretary-General’s disarmament agenda.
She further expressed her support for the elaboration of a political declaration which would provide momentum and a framework for countries to mitigate risks for civilian populations. Furthermore, HR Nakamitsu emphasised her desire to see gender dimensions further integrated within disarmament discussions to provide more sustainable and effective results.