Countries reach agreement curbing use of explosive weapons in cities

Streets of Gaza during a bombing by Israel, May 2021 (Credit: NPA Palestine/Mohammed Zaanoun)

A political declaration on explosive weapons finalised in Geneva on Friday marks the culmination of three years of talks by governments, the UN and campaigning by civil society groups.

Talks on a new international agreement restricting the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities wrapped up in Geneva on Friday, as nations voiced their support for the final text.

The political declaration, which aims to protect civilians from harm caused by explosive weapons such as air-dropped bombs, rockets, and missiles, will be adopted by states at an international conference in Dublin in the autumn.

Although the agreement is still not binding, the Friday meeting gave an indication already of which countries will likely sign the declaration, with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, Germany and Switzerland among those that stated their support. More than 65 states have been involved in the negotiations.

Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland, which has been leading the process, said the text marked a “major step forward” in recognising the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in urban areas.

“The engagement shown is a reflection of the importance the international community now attaches to this issue,” he told delegates at the opening of Friday’s session. Gaffey added that the intense fighting and heavy shelling in Ukraine had also given further impetus to talks.

Explosiveweaponsconsultations (1).jpg
Delegates meet at the Palais des Nations in Geneva to discuss the final draft of the agreement on explosive weapons, 17 June 2020. (Credit: Kasmira Jefford)

Civilians account for 91 per cent of people killed or injured by bombing campaigns in urban areas, analysis by Action on Armed Violence shows.

Read also: Ukraine adds urgency to stalled explosive weapons talks in Geneva

The declaration would commit states that sign up “to adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to help avoid civilian harm” including curbing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Though not legally binding, the agreement is seen as a major milestone in states recognising the humanitarian consequences of explosive weapons, especially as conflicts increasingly take place in urban areas.

The text also builds on International Humanitarian Law, which doesn’t specifically prohibit the use of explosive weapons in populated areas but does commit countries to protecting people from harm in conflict.

“Overall it is a good text. However, its success will come down to its implementation,” Laura Boillot, coordinator of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a pressure group, told Geneva Solutions.

“We had hoped that the text had been more explicit in limiting the use of explosive weapons when they have wide area effects in populated areas. Despite this, it continues to provide us with a platform to engage with states…and does put the emphasis on states having to change their national security policies,” she added.

Under the agreement, states will have to meet on a regular basis and exchange with civil society groups to discuss how they are implementing the declaration.

“Today, some 50 million people are estimated to be living in situations of urban conflict or the threat of urban conflict and are exposed to the acute risks and dangers posed by these weapons,” Dominique Gassauer, humanitarian affairs officer at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told journalists on Thursday.

“So, the political declaration on explosive weapons… is going to be a key to stepping up on the protection of civilians in these contexts.”