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States commit to take political action on explosive weapons at Vienna conference

Mosul. Raqqa. Mariupol. Mogadishu. For many, these places resonate with images of human suffering as a result of urban warfare. News media share photos and stories of rubble and bloodied bodies, lives lost, forced migration, sexual violence, and stalled development. Urban violence and war-fighting, often with the use of with indiscriminate and explosive weapons, may tragically be considered the “new normal” in conflict. But with that comes a callous “globalisation of indifference,” in the words of the Holy See, in which we as a global community become numb to images and stories of suffering, or feel powerless to stop it.

The Vienna Conference on the Protection of Civilians in Urban Warfare is a turning point toward ending that indifference. It is the next step in a decade-long effort to generate stronger political commitments and cooperation around stopping the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). One-hundred and thirty-three states, several international organisations (IOs), and dozens of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) participated in the two-day conference from 1–2 October, signaling the extent and breadth of global concern over the humanitarian impacts of urban warfare.

The primary outcome of the meeting is a wide expression of support for developing a political declaration on EWIPA. This would build on a decade of advocacy from civil society, notably the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW); other stakeholders such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), UN Secretary-Generals, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), and governments. Many of these partners have supported developing a political declaration on EWIPA in order to reinforce existing commitments under international humanitarian law (IHL). Recent developments have re-energised these efforts, including regional communiqués from Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, a joint statement from 50 governments at the 2018 UN First Committee, and a joint appeal from the President of the ICRC and UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

“A rocket made me a victim but assistance made me a survivor”

The Vienna conference was organised around five thematic panels. In each, contributors delivered substantive, data-rich presentations and received questions and comments from conference participants. Prepared statements from the floor were discouraged, and while this was initially off-putting to some it ultimately prompted dialogue and exchange. There was also spontaneous sharing of personal experiences in urban warfare from both state delegations on the floor and panelists at different moments over the two days, that had a grounding effect and brought home the importance of the conference.

The summary below describes discussion and exchange within each session. The presentations are available on the conference and Reaching Critical Will websites. Conference attendees have been encouraged to send in statements or responses that could not be delivered. An official conference summary is forthcoming.

Day one
The opening high-level panel set the tone for the conference by reinforcing the scale of the problem and the necessity of taking urgent action. A particular highlight was a video message from Amina Azimi of Afghanistan who described her personal journey from victim to survivor, underscoring a point made by others about the necessity of strong victim assistance programmes. Video messages including from His Holiness Pope Francis Douglas supplemented the in-person statements from Austrian Minister Alexander Schallenberg; Izumi Nakamitsu, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs; and Gilles Carbonnier, ICRC Vice-President.

The direct impact of EWIPA was the focus of the first session. Presentations described the physical effects of explosive weapons on the human body as well as the gendered and age-related impacts and psychological harm. The questions from the floor in this first session were wide-ranging. France emphasised the emergence of non-state actors and armed groups as part of the problem and asked if there is a relationship between this and the fact that more than half of EWIPA victims are due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It also asked how many incidents are caused because of IHL violations. Ireland noted the challenges of data collection and wondered if the extent of the impacts may be even greater. Syria, on the other hand, questioned the sources and methods of data collection cited in some presentations, alleging that some sources are propaganda. The United States (US) said that explosive weapons can be used to protect civilians and it would be better to approach this issue by looking at good practice to reduce harm rather than stigmatising a type of weapon. Save the Children emphasised the impacts on children and young people. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) asked how to better lift up the gender dimensions of EWIPA and ensure a future declaration is gender sensitive.

Building on this, the second session focused on indirect effects, such as impacts on critical infrastructure, essential services, displacement, socioeconomic development, and on children. In the question period, the United Kingdom (UK) asked what are the potential unintended consequences of stopping “legal” and “carefully targeted” use of EWIPA, including when it is meant to protect infrastructure. Mexico and Iraq posed questions around specific practices and  the challenges of returning displaced persons particularly when there is no home to which to return. The US said that sometimes creating internally displaced persons (IDPs) is a way to protect civilians by getting them out of the way ahead of an attack and suggested that in conflict, the territorial state with control over and knowledge of local populations is better suited to put protective measures in place. The Netherlands said that armed conflict, rather than explosive weapons, is at the root of these tragedies. The European Union (EU) asked about lessons learned from the process of the Safe Schools Declaration. Guatemala raised the issue of missing persons. Norwegian People’s Aid referenced environmental impacts of EWIPA.

The third panel highlighted the characteristics of explosive weapons and wide-area effects. Presenters also discussed the role of indirect fire, risk mitigation, target-matching, military considerations, and engaging with non-state actors. The US again asserted that there are “positive” outcomes from using EWIPA, such as “liberating” cities. It noted that often belligerents deliberately choose urban areas for fighting, and do not observe IHL. France wondered if states are doing everything possible to improve weapons accuracy and precision. Chile and Kenya asked panelists to elaborate on practices for dealing with non-state actors (NSAs), including to enforce IHL. New Zealand asked which mitigation strategies are most effective.

Day two
Day two of the conference opened with a panel on international law. Presentations sparked an active question and answer period, much of which centred on the IHL “compliance gap” between state practice and legal obligations. Norway referenced the success of the Safe Schools Declaration but asked how to have a dialogue that will lead to common understandings and practical measures leading to the full implementation of IHL. Argentina echoed this. The UK asked if civilian and indiscriminate harm are being conflated and felt that the panel was slanted more toward illustrating humanitarian concerns under international law, rather than those relating to military utility. Togo suggested there is value in adding women into armed forces, specifically the G5 Sahel Counterterrorism Force, so as to better engage with female civilians. The US asked about the experiences of legal advisors in facilitating good judgement among military operators. France expressed some concern that the concept proposed by the ICRC to avoid use of EWIPA may introduce a concept that is not legally clear and might lead to the creation of “sanctuary” or “haven” cities. It also wondered if there is an issue of compliance and or capacity to implement IHL effectively. Sweden asked how to define a “populated area” under law, noting it gets used interchangeably with similar terms. The Sustainable Peace and Development Organisation wanted to know if there are relevant legal frameworks in which victims of explosive weapons can get justice and hold states accountable for their actions; Mines Advisory Group (MAG) said it would like to see more discussion on reparation and compensation as pertains to urban warfare. The UN Office of the High Commissions for Human Rights highlighted the complexity and tension between protecting human rights in a besieged city and adhering to IHL, such as in Mosul. SEHLAC Network and Project Ploughshares noted the value of political commitments in a time when states are reticent to develop new law.

The fifth and final substantive panel was focused on military practice and policy. Panelists brought experience from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia as well as working within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and implementing the Protection of Civilians (PoC) agenda. It also sparked an active question session that stressed generally how to build on lessons learned from these country contexts, and the importance of sharing good practice and training for conflict in urban environments. Airwars and Every Casualty Worldwide picked up on points from the presenters to elaborate on the differences between casualty recording and tracking, and how this is being used to inform military strategy. Brazil asked how developing countries can better comply with IHL and the challenges of operating in urban environments. Article 36 stressed the importance of collective efforts in this area and wondered if a political declaration process could create space for an open-ended dialogue with many stakeholders. The UN Institute for Disarmament Research asked about how states and militaries determine what partners they work with. Norway urged ensuring that examples of good policy and practice do not just remain “mission specific anecdotes” but become standard procedures to reduce harm. Bhutan asked what specific training can be provided to militaries. Italy noted that no one spoke about the importance of removing civilian populations.

“It’s time to take it to the next level”

The conference’s final session struck a proactive tone from the start, not least from encouraging remarks from UN High Representative for Disarmament, Izumi Nakamitsu, in urging states to take this issue to the next level through a declaration. A second presentation, from Bonnie Docherty of Harvard Law School and Human Rights Watch, illustrated the value of political declarations in this field, and identified key components of a declaration on EWIPA.

Ambassador Pedro Comissário of Mozambique and Pamela Moraga, Head of Disarmament for  Chile described the Maputo and Santiago Communiqués, both of which include a call for developing a political declaration. The Maputo Communiqué has been endorsed by 19 states and the Santiago Communiqué by 23 states. Zahid Rastam of Malaysia provided a regional view from Asia along with national perspectives. All three of these speakers stressed the value of collective action, importance of practical actions, and how a declaration can reinforce IHL.

Orlaith Fitzmaurice, Director for Disarmament and Non-proliferation of Ireland, was the final speaker. She announced that Ireland will convene states in Geneva on 18 November 2019 for the first of a series on open consultations toward developing the text of a new international political declaration, with a view to finalising it in spring of 2020. Ahead of that, a new joint statement will be presented at the 2019 First Committee.

Following the panel, around 40 delegations took the floor to outline their views on the way forward. Support for a political declaration process was overwhelmingly strong. States that announced support for a political declaration for the first time include Belgium, Lesotho, Nicaragua, and the Philippines.

Several put forward suggestions for what a declaration should include or how to orient it toward existing legal commitments.

Germany, which has in past hosted a series of “EWIPA talks,” said it is ready to be involved in a political declaration process and urged it to focus on mitigating various forms of harm in compliance with IHL. Argentina and Sweden highlighted that a declaration should demonstrate respect for IHL. Sweden warned against it being formulated in a way that indicates IHL is insufficient.

Germany, the Philippines, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Costa Rica, and INEW among others, encouraged that the declaration provide for exchange of practices. INEW highlighted that a declaration could be a way to build a community of practice, including through regular meetings to discuss the issue and progress towards reducing harm.

Multiple delegations including Germany, Austria, Norway, the Philippines, Switzerland, Bangladesh, and INEW emphasised that a declaration should comprise practical measures and procedures. Norway noted that the Safe Schools Declaration process was a good approach in that practical guidelines were created before the declaration.

Libya stressed the importance of an implementation mechanism. Switzerland highlighted that a declaration could call on states to establish facts in cases of alleged IHL violations, in relation to explosive weapons use.

Switzerland, Costa Rica, Austria, and INEW encouraged that the political declaration be a way to improve data collection.

Costa Rica suggested that the declaration refer to avoiding use of EWIPA within the frameworks of IHL and law more generally, and elaborate efficient measures to prevent attacks. Austria said a declaration should be based on preventing and minimising civilian harm. The ICRC shared that it has prepared a two-pager outlining its views on what to include in a political declaration.

Mexico encouraged as many participants as possible to participate in the drafting process, and said the declaration should not undermine or reduce methods already in use.

Argentina and Uruguay urged complementarity with the Santiago Communiqué. Argentina also highlighted data collection and “concrete measures” to stop the use of explosive weapons. 

Guatemala said the declaration could be a way to bring human rights to life. Lesotho urged this forum to call for a “conceptual shift away from just protecting civilians to completely doing away with war.”

Luxembourg and INEW highlighted the importance of victim assistance. Honduras suggested that the declaration refer to gender-based violence; the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development (WINAD) called for recognition of women’s leadership.

Bangladesh said that in principle it agrees to participation in negotiating a political declaration and believes the points from the ICRC could be a basis, complemented by practical approaches. It suggested a meeting of the Friends of Responsibility to Protect to gather in advance of the November consultation. 

Of course, differences in opinion exist and some states have reservations about this process.

France acknowledged that it has not been in favour of working on a political declaration but sees that there is potential for it as a “good vehicle” but not a means or end in itself. It also emphasised the necessity of consensus, which it said it is ready to work towards, and to avoid recreating the Geneva Conventions.

Syria questioned the possibility of implementing the objectives of a declaration when there are threats from non-state actors that are recognised as terrorist groups by UN Security Council resolutions. It would like to see the capabilities of these groups be curtailed.

The US said that it would be prepared to share the military practices that it has found to be effective and has a paper to contribute in that regard. It stated that a “meaningful” declaration must be broader than just focusing on specific weapons, or else it risks giving the false impression that the way forward on civilian protection has been adequately addressed.

Other states were cautiously supportive. Japan asked if the issue of IEDs could be addressed by a political declaration. It said it would like to actively participate in the discussions, largely because the focus so far has been on militaries and military use.

Canada expressed general support and referenced the potential for a declaration to include the impact on women. It warned against creating distinctions within IHL between categories of weapons, noting that that this should be about “all militaries, all weapons, all the time”. Similarly, Netherlands felt that additional norms are not necessary and would like to reinforce issues of compliance and universalisation of IHL norms, and those stemming from treaties on landmines and cluster munitions. Finland said it would support negotiations of a declaration that would re-commit states to existing IHL but does not see the need for new obligations in a situation where existing obligations are being poorly implemented.

Brazil noted that it has endorsed the Santiago Communiqué and the 2018 First Committee joint statement. It would commit to an exchange on practices and mitigating measures but argued that existing legal frameworks are sufficient to deal with EWIPA.

“Charting out together the way to a safer future for civilians”

This is how Austrian Disarmament Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi referred to the way ahead in his closing remarks. Agreement to start a process for a declaration is a big commitment, but now discussion will shift from if to how. Discussions will become substantive but also political. There are varying ideas on the role a declaration should serve and what to cover. Rather than getting caught up in differences, states must build on where there is clear commonality: developing operational policies and procedures; sharing experience and developing common understandings; improving data collection and casualty recording; and ensuring compliance with international law.

But above all, states must commit to end the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and to stop arms transfers that facilitate this violence. We are past the time for expressions of concern. We need real action to save lives.