Rules of war 'need urgent review' as civilian deaths hit record high

The record number of civilians killed or injured by explosive weapons in worldwide conflicts last year has prompted calls for UN member states to conduct an urgent review of military rules of engagement.

Germany and Austria have urged states to prevent and reduce the “devastating harm” to civilians from airstrikes and bombs in urban areas.

Austria is leading efforts for an international political declaration to address the increasingly asymmetric warfare of recent conflicts.

More than 32,000 civilian deaths or injuries were caused by explosive weapons in 2016, which represents 70% of all deaths and injuries, according to a paper submitted by Germany to the UN’s convention on certain conventional weapons(CWW). Attacks carried out by militias using improvised explosive devices account for half of all civilian deaths and injuries in civil conflict between 2011 and 2016.

The paper also highlighted concerns about the number of civilian casualties caused by air-launched weapons fired by government forces, which rose from 18% to 31% in 2016.

Data from the charity Action on Armed Violence shows that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, more than 90% of those killed and injured are civilians.

In May, António Guterres, the UN secretary general, called on countries to avoid the use of explosive weapons “with wide-area effect” in populated areas and underlined the damage they cause. He also urged countries to engage in Austria-led efforts for a political declaration to address the humanitarian impact of such weapons.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has issued similar warnings to stop the use of heavy explosive weapons in urban areas.

The CCW is due to discuss the harm caused by explosives in populated areas for the first time.

However, early discussions between states gave an indication of the difficulty in getting a consensus.

The issue has already been relegated to “other matters” at the CWW meetings after objections from Turkey, one of the five countries Austria cites as having the highest number of civilian deaths and injuries. Also listed were Syria, Iran, Yemen and Afghanistan.

In a tweet, on Wednesday, the Austrian ambassador, Thomas Hajnoczi said: “I really regret that #CCWUN cannot even discuss #EWIPA [use of explosive weapons in populated areas] under the item ‘Emerging issues of relevance’ due to Turkey’s resistance. #EWIPA too important for ‘Other matters.’”

The International Network on Explosive Weapons, a partnership of human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, Save the Children and Action on Armed Violence, is calling on states to endorse the secretary general and ICRC recommendation to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and to support an international declaration.

“We are not looking for a ban on such weapons but a political declaration as a way to change policy and practice in how states conduct themselves in operations,” said the organisation’s coordinator Laura Boillot.

About 70 states have publicly backed calls to recognise the harm resulting from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, including some that have called for international political action.

Speaking to the Guardian ahead of Friday’s meeting, Hajnoczi said: “We are still at an awareness phase. In the framework of the CCW, for the first time it is being discussed. Only under any other business. There are not many countries that say, ‘Yes, we have to do it.’

“You cannot forbid explosive weapons, or forbid countries to bomb military targets. That is legal. But the problem is when you bomb military targets in civilian areas.”

Hajnoczi said that while agreement between states is a long way off, the problem of civilian deaths in urban areas is set to increase.

“More than half of humanity lives in cities and the population is growing, so the problem is going to get worse and worse.

“Personally, I think if we can save the life of a single child it would be worth it.

Simon Bagshaw, policy adviser for the protection of civilians at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said: “The problem is it’s not just civilians being killed or injured, but the long-term impact. They might have struck a target that they were aiming at, but they might also have hit an electrical sub-station pumping out water that affects 10,000 people. It is these effects where the law is less clear. When a commander launches an attack, there are so many grey areas that we want to get people discussing.”

Research by Action on Armed Violence has shown that the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan fell dramatically after Nato changed the rules governing airstrikes.

In 2008, Nato airstrikes were responsible for 28% of all violent civilian deaths in Afghanistan, according to the UN political mission there; by 2013, the figure had fallen to just 4%.

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN