UN Security Council Open Debate on Urban Warfare: “War in cities: protection of civilians in urban settings”

On 25 January 2022, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held an open debate on “War in cities: protection of civilians in urban settings”. Convened by Norway and chaired by its Prime Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, this debate on urban warfare aimed to deepen dialogue on protection of civilians in the context of war in cities, highlighting the devastating impacts of urban warfare on civilians and civilian infrastructure as well as identifying ways to mitigate civilian harm.

The UN Secretary-General (UNSG), António Guterres, the ICRC President, Peter Maurer, and the chairperson and co-founder of the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, Radhya al-Mutawakel, were invited to take the floor for the opening briefing to the council, after which some 50 state representatives submitted their perspectives and suggestions on the issue.

Opening the discussion, the UN Secretary-General began by reminding the audience that civilians continue to bear the brunt of armed conflicts, highlighting that “today more than 50 million people are affected by conflict in urban areas”. He continued by drawing attention to the use of explosive weapons and their tremendous, direct, indirect, and reverberating impacts on civilian populations when used in urban areas, explaining that “when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, around 90 per cent of those killed and injured are civilians”, according to AOAV’s data.

Nearly all states recalled the importance of complying with international humanitarian law (IHL) for the protection of civilians, and several statements were made by states raising concerns over the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, in line with the UNSG’s remarks and recognising this issue as a central humanitarian theme. Some states, however, took advantage of the Security Council’s open discussion to touch on disputes with other states.

Most participants, including Ireland, Austria, and Albania, expressed their concern over the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and highlighted the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in urban areas. Gabon and Mexico, among others, expressed doubt over the likelihood of using explosive weapons in populated areas whilst still respecting IHL norms.

Some states went further, including Italy, condemning the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, which he flagged as provoking “unbearable human suffering”. From his side, the UNSG urged member states to “commit themselves to avoiding the use of wide area explosive weapons in populated areas” – a call echoed later on by Malta and Albania.

In general, most participants called on states and parties to conflicts to fully comply with IHL norms. Switzerland also highlighted the importance of disseminating IHL and engaging armed groups on this matter. The necessity to consistently investigate alleged breaches of IHL and to hold perpetrators of grave violations of IHL norms accountable has been reaffirmed by many states, decrying impunity, and restating their support to existing international and ad hoc mechanisms.

In this regard, the Security Council’s ability to ensure accountability for violations of IHL and more generally, to fulfil its mandate of ensuring peace and security has been questioned. Several state representatives submitted strong statements on this matter, including Kenya and Albania, the latter expressing concerns over political differences which undermine “collective action to protect civilians”. In line with this, Canada indicated that member states should put in place measures to ensure respect of IHL by all parties to a conflict, adding: “We have the means to do so; the question is, do we have the will?”.

It is in this context that several states reiterated their support and welcomed the efforts led by Ireland to draft a political declaration seeking to regulate the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Some of them, including Brazil and Slovakia, mentioned on that occasion the need of strengthening data collection and documenting civilian harm as well as facilitating and ensuring unimpeded humanitarian assistance to victims, features that INEW has often reiterated and still consider as being essential for the political declaration to be effective and successful.

See also:

Norway concept note

Reaching Critical Will report on The UN Security Council debate on war in cities and the protection of civilians

War in cities: protection of civilians in urban settings,” speech by ICRC President Peter Maurer at UN Security Council Open Debate, 25 January 2022

Original article

Photo: The UN Security Council in open debate on urban warfare, 25 January 2022. Source: UN Web TV.