UN Security Council: Protection of civilians in urban conflicts

This article is a brief report of the Security Council’s debate on the protection of civilians in urban warfare

On 25 January, the representatives of the UN Member States met during the UN Security Council in New York to hold the open debate "War in cities - protection of civilians in urban settings”, chaired by the Prime Minister of Norway, Jonas Gahr Støre. This high-level open debate aimed at deepening dialogue on the issue of the protection of civilians in urban warfare, drawing attention to the devastating humanitarian effects and identifying steps that may be taken by various actors to alleviate and minimize those consequences. 

The meeting was opened by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who drew the general world trend of urban warfare and its effects on populations. Armed conflicts like in Syria, Yemen, Gaza and Afghanistan are increasingly being fought in urban areas, with devastating and unacceptable humanitarian consequences, with the vast majority of casualties being civilians. There has been a resurgence of urban warfare in recent decades, fuelled by also the rapid rate of urbanization, which affected around 50 million civilians around the world. He stated that “during fighting in more densely populated areas, civilians face a higher risk of being injured or killed […], in some cases, they are mistaken for combatants and targeted”. Moreover, he went on by illustrating the destroying and long-lasting impact of the use of explosive weapons on civilian population during urban fighting. When they are engaged, around 90% of those killed or injured by explosive weapons are civilians; those surviving still carry out the burden of the aftermath or long-term effects, such as disabilities and psychological trauma. Moreover, the use of explosives in urban areas, particularly those with wide-area effects, carries a high risk of indiscriminate impact not only on civilians, but also on essential infrastructures, like schools and hospitals, which hampers their access to health and safety. Guterres cited the increasing number of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees as another tragic consequence, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and environmental disasters.

After the Secretary-General’s speech, Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), and Radhya Al-Mutawakel, Chairperson and co-founder of the Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights in Yemen, made their statements. Maurer, acknowledging the amounting evidence of violence in urban areas and the challenge of massive urbanization of conflict, draw attention on the importance of guaranteeing continuity of local facilities’ functioning and post-conflict reconstruction: he stressed the need to prevent disruption of primary services like health, education and food chain, to ensure humanitarian personal’s work without obstacles, to invest in reconstruction as soon as the opportunities arise and to provide shelter and assistance to IDPs. Al-Mutawakel aligned herself with Maurer’s words and, as a Yemenite civil society representative, witnessed the endless suffering of Yemenite civilian population, caused by the continuous explosions in the most populated areas and the disruption of resources available for everyone’s life. 

The floor was then given to the 49 participants to the Council, which highlighted various concerns regarding the consequences of urban warfare. Mostly, they called for spreading awareness  among parties of conflict, through training and capacity-building, to comply with international humanitarian law (IHL), developing mechanisms of accountability for perpetrators of crimes and zero tolerance for impunity. In this respect, the Ambassador of Italy to the UN, Maurizio Massari, underlined the necessity to refer to the all available international justice and ad hoc mechanisms, reiterating Italy‘s support for the work and the independent role of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Some States reflected also on the dramatic unbalanced consequences of urban warfare on women and girls, which are more and more subjected to sexual exploitation and gender-based violence (GBV); for this reason, they launched the appeal to promote as well equal inclusion of men and women participation in efforts of protection and reconstruction, in order to foster greater attention for women. 

Moreover, a great concern was expressed for the threat that urban conflicts represent for education. Attacks on schools and universities not only compromise educational possibilities for youth, but they also contribute to the increasing phenomenon of early marriage and recruitment of children. For this purpose, the Ambassador Olof Skoog, Head of the Delegation of EU to UN, particularly recalled Security Council’s Resolution 2601 on the protection of education in conflict as a powerful statement to address this challenge. Italy aligned with this position, by recalling the Safe Schools Declaration as a reference document to protect education and  to restrict the use of schools for military purposes. These themes will also be discussed in-depth in the upcoming European Humanitarian Forum.

Given the increasing scale of warfare, the call to the international community is thus to redouble efforts to protect civilians and their infrastructures which are vital for their survival. Guterres added that the best solution to be utopically achieved is to prevent “the urban warfare to exist at all”.


Author: Jasmina Saric

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