It is time to stop the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of urban areas
When dynamite was invented in 1867, Alfred Nobel was reportedly acutely aware of its horrendous potential. Bertha von Suttner, his personal friend and Austrian Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1905, relates how Nobel anticipated that his invention would lead to weapons so powerful “that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second”.
Nobel had hoped that “all civilised nations [would] surely recoil with horror and disband their troops” at the prospect. Sadly, military forces around the world have been using explosive weapons eagerly ever since.
The second world war demonstrated in full measure the destructive force of explosive weapons. For the first time in history they were delivered to populated areas, far behind the front lines, on a massive scale, with a devastating toll on civilian populations.
In the aftermath states agreed that it was necessary to protect civilians in and from armed conflict. This universal consensus was formalised in international humanitarian law. Article 51 of to the Geneva Conventions specifically states that “the civilian population ... as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence, the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population, are prohibited.”
But today armed conflict, in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, continues to be fought in the midst of civilian populations. In a world that is becoming ever more centred in urban agglomerations, warfare in cities and towns has become commonplace. Violations under international humanitarian law occur frequently. In most cases they are linked to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. While not per se illegal it is clear that the practice does pose a significant challenge for compliance with the law.
Recent estimates by the non-governmental organisation speak about tens of thousands of civilians killed or injured by explosive weapons in populated areas around the globe every year. Nine out of ten victims are civilians. In addition to death and injury inflicted upon men, and particularly women and children, the practice causes massive damage to livelihoods and vital civilian infrastructure. With transport, energy, and water supplies destroyed, survival becomes precarious, even if there were no next attack to be feared.
The existential hardship and terror brought about by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas drives desperate civilians from their war-ridden home regions. In more than 80% of the refugees were forced to leave due to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. With thousands of refugees arriving by the day, Europe is increasingly becoming aware that it is not immune to the humanitarian impact of explosive violence happening beyond its borders. The killing of children and women in urban areas by bombs, grenades and artillery shells affects us all.
We commend Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general for having repeatedly drawn the attention of the international community to the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. As a longstanding promoter of the cause of protection of civilians, Austria shares the secretary-general’s conviction that it is high time for states to jointly look for more effective ways to prevent civilian harm.
On 21-22 September Austria, together with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, assembled in Vienna representatives from 16 interested states, the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations entities, as well as civil society organisations to look into possible paths towards a response by the international community. Three distinct avenues for international action were identified. First, participants agreed on the importance of continued research, data collection and exchange, and advocacy. Second, the collection and dissemination of good practice and policy concerning the use of explosive weapons in populated areas was highlighted.
Finally, states should together build multilateral political commitment. In the form of a political declaration, they should recognise the urgent humanitarian problem associated with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and commit to take concrete steps to address it.
Every year explosive weapons kill and maim tens of thousands of civilians, destroying their houses and vital infrastructure so that there is no other option left than seeking refuge elsewhere. As we all agree that the only sustainable solution to the refugee influx to Europe is to make sure that civilians are safe in their countries of origin, we need to act to better protect them from indiscriminate bombing and shelling.
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