Ukraine adds urgency to stalled explosive weapons talks in Geneva

Market place destroyed by shelling in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine (Credit: Dirk-Jan Visser for PAX and UNOCHA)

Talks around an international agreement restricting the use of heavy bombs in towns and cities will resume in Geneva today after a two-year delay due to the Covid pandemic. Civil society groups involved say that the Ukraine war will make the unresolved issue difficult for states to ignore.

Governments, the UN, international organisations and civil society will meet until Friday at the Palais des Nations to thrash out the final draft of a political declaration to protect civilians from harm caused by explosive weapons such as air-dropped bombs, rockets, and missiles.

Why it’s important. Every year tens of thousands of civilians are killed and injured by bombing and shelling in towns, cities and other populated areas.

In 2021, there were at least 11,000 civilian casualties in 64 countries and territories, from Afghanistan to Syria, Libya to Yemen, according to Action on Armed Violence’s latest monitor published on Tuesday.

Explosive weapons have been used extensively in the war in Ukraine, with the organisation counting 1,771 casualties since Russia’s invasion began on 24 February.

“ In conflict after conflict, explosive weapons with wide area effects continue to tear through cities, towns and villages….They are turning neighbourhoods into absolute wreckage,” Richard Weir, of Human Rights Watch told journalists on Tuesday at a briefing organised by the association of UN correspondents (ACANU) in Geneva.

Speaking from Kyiv, Weir said HRW had visited neighbourhoods where explosive weapons had torn buildings and streets apart, injuring people standing in line to withdraw cash. "The effects of these weapons are devastating, which is why these negotiations are important and why states need to commit now."

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A legacy of trauma. The effects of heavy bombings are not limited to the area of impact and long outlast the attack itself. For civilians that have survived an attack, these weapons can leave long-last physical and psychological damage that they may never fully recover from, Alma Taslidžan, disarmament and protection of civilians advocacy manager at Handicap International said.

An NHS study in 2016 among Syrian refugees in Jordan and found that 80 per cent of people that were injured by explosive weapons expressed signs of high psychological distress, as a result of which 66 per cent were unable to carry out essential daily activities because of their feelings of fear, anger, fatigue, or hopelessness, she added.

They can also have widespread and economic effects. In 2015, warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition hit Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeida through which the country imported nearly 90 per cent of its necessary goods including food, medicine and fuel before the conflict.

The use of such weapons is also a primary driver of forced displacement, as illustrated in Ukraine where over seven million people have been internally displaced as a result of the war, according the latest figures from the International Organization of Migration (IOM).

“Whether by airstrikes, rockets or artillery, civilians are bearing the brunt and parties to a conflict must recognise they cannot fight in populated areas, as they would fight open battlefields….they're using the same technology and that is putting civilians at the high indiscriminate risk,” Taslidžan said.

Reaching a final agreement. This week's negotiations, led by Ireland, mark the fifth round of consultations on drafting a political declaration, with the pandemic further delaying the process.

The most contentious part of the declaration is the core commitment by states to restrict or avoid using of explosive weapons where they have wide area effects in populated areas, which several states fear would limit their military operations.

But with a strong turnout of some 70 states due to take part in discussions this week, observers are hopeful that signals concern around the use of such weapons and the will to reach an agreement. Some countries, namely Russia, have been conspicuously absent from discussions to date.

"We're hoping that states will agree much of the text, but we understand that final meeting to conclude the negotiations will take place again in Geneva in May or June," said Laura Boillot, coordinator of International Network on Explosive Weapons, an international network of civil society organisations working to protect civilians from explosive weapons.

The war in Ukraine has also add a renewed sense of urgency, she added. “As we were negotiating the ban on Cluster Munitions in 2008, there was huge use of cluster munitions in Lebanon by Israel. And this really helped to provide very clear impetus and momentum for these negotiations.”

“I'm hoping that this [the situation in Ukraine] will be a similar illustration of the problem that we're talking about that will make states turn up and find it difficult to ignore,” Boillot said.