Just as the world’s population has concentrated in towns and cities in recent decades, warfare has also become increasingly urban. In many of today’s ongoing conflicts — Gaza, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere — the front lines are city streets where crowds of people once shopped at open-air markets, drove to work or walked to school.
Today, many of these cityscapes are defined by the blasted-out, distorted skeletons of former apartment buildings and shopping areas that now loom above piles of rubble and twisted metal, through which those who remain must navigate to find their daily bread.
While the destruction evidenced in recent conflicts is shocking, the effect on people living among such devastation is even more severe. “These explosive weapons are designed for open battlefields, not built-up urban areas,” ICRC President Peter Maurer said before addressing the United Nations General Assembly on the matter in October.
“From the evidence of recent conflicts, we seriously question whether they can be used to target military objectives in populated areas with enough accuracy, or indeed whether their effects can be limited as required by international humanitarian law [IHL],” he added. “This is not about the weapons themselves — it’s about where and how they are used.”
A common feature
Massive destruction in major cities is nothing new to warfare. The 1937 bombing of Guernica, Spain, and later the bombardment of vast areas, including urban centres, during the Second World War, led to provisions in the 1949 Geneva Conventions (later strengthened by the Additional Protocols of 1977) that sought to limit civilian casualties and prohibit practices such as indiscriminate ‘area bombing’.
Meanwhile, Additional Protocol I, Article 51, prohibits attacks that “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”.
“The legal prohibition against disproportionate attacks and the related prohibition against ‘wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity’ are central to the law on the conduct of hostilities,” noted John Borrie and Maya Brehm, two experts in the field, writing for the International Review of the Red Cross in September 2011.
Meanwhile, recent conventions that ban other explosive weapons such as landmines and cluster munitions — including a protocol to the Conventional Weapons Convention that requires states to clean up the explosive remnants of war — have added moral weight to arguments against the use of indiscriminate explosive weapons in densely populated areas.
“Even though ‘area bombing’ is illegal today, and many states no longer consider the use of cluster munitions acceptable practice, the use of other explosive weapons — even in densely populated areas — remains a common feature of contemporary armed conflict,” the authors observed, citing numerous case studies from ongoing conflicts in 2011: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Somalia.
For its part, the ICRC acknowledges that war fighters often take up positions in residential areas and other places where civilians might be exposed. But it argues that, nonetheless, attacking forces “must take constant care to minimize the impact of their operations on civilians, including through their choice of means and methods of warfare. Alternative weapons and tactics should be considered.”
The civilian toll
Today, the conflicts in Syria and the fighting in Israel and Gaza, and the fighting in Ukraine are strong contemporary examples of what happens when explosive devices are used in civilian areas.
In Gaza, public infrastructure, medical and health facilities, and schools have sustained severe damage or been destroyed. More than 2,100 people were killed, nearly 11,000 injured and an estimated 108,000 people will not be able to return to their homes.
The water network and electrical installations have been severely damaged while the medical sector has been stretched to its limits and hospitals have been hit by shelling or other munitions.
“The destruction in the Gaza Strip is not limited to civilian objects and infrastructure,” says Younis Al Khatib, president of Palestine Red Crescent Society. “It has also had a significant impact on the health and livelihoods of Gaza’s citizens.”
Meanwhile, missiles fired from Gaza into residential and urban areas in Israel claimed at least five lives, including that of a volunteer for Magen David Adom (MDA), injured more than 800 civilians and forced between 5,000 and 10,000 from their homes.
In this context, the ICRC has repeated its calls (echoed by the IFRC and National Societies) to both sides in the conflict for civilian areas to be spared and for IHL to be respected. “The civilian casualty toll and the extent of destruction are worse than any the area has witnessed in recent years,” said Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s head of operations for the Middle East.
Humanitarians at risk
Today’s urban warfare also poses great risks for humanitarian workers, who remain active, mobile and visible as they evacuate wounded or bring essential services and supplies to civilian populations. Among the 38 Syrian Arab Red Crescent humanitarians and seven Palestinian Red Crescent workers killed during the Syrian conflict are several who were struck by indiscriminate explosive weaponry, while other critical infrastructure has also been hit.
In July 2014, two Palestine Red Crescent emergency medical workers were killed and three wounded, in the course of their duties. The ambulances that were hit were clearly marked with the Red Crescent emblem. And in August, a volunteer with the MDA in Israel was killed by a missile strike in the kibbutz where he lived.
“Due to the deterioration of the security situation, the safety of our staff has remained a great concern for us,” says Noam Yifrach, chairman of the MDA’s Executive Committee. “Particularly because, given the extended duration of this emergency phase, we have had to deploy additional volunteers and staff to operational areas.”
Meanwhile, as fighting continued in eastern Ukraine, civilians paid a heavy price as intermittent shelling of residential areas in eastern cities such as Lugansk endangered civilians and humanitarian actors alike.
In September, a shell that landed outside ICRC offices there took the life of ICRC delegate Laurent du Pasquier, a 38-year-old Swiss national who worked as an administrator and had completed missions in Egypt, Haiti, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Yemen.
“We are deeply shocked by this tragic loss,” said Dominik Stillhart, ICRC director of operations in a statement the following day. “Indiscriminate shelling of residential areas is unacceptable and violates international humanitarian law.”
The use of high-powered explosive weapons in urban areas often leaves surviving civilians digging through rubble to find the things they need to survive. Often, once thriving neighbourhoods are left without power, functioning water and sanitation systems, while the economy is effectively dismantled. The severe damage inflicted by these weapons means that those who have fled have nothing to return to and must remain displaced for years.
Photo: ©Teun Anthony Voeten/ICRC
“The civilian casualty toll and the extent of destruction are worse than any the area has witnessed in recent years.”
Robert Mardini, ICRC head of operations for the Middle East
As conflicts unfold, the Movement works in various ways to keep basic services functioning. Here, ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent water and habitat teams meet with local power authority officials in Damascus, Syria concerning repairs to critical power systems.
Photo: ©Syrian Arab Red Crescent