On 18 November 2022, states and other stakeholders will convene in Dublin, Ireland, for a conference to endorse the new Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas. The declaration marks the culmination of work by the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) and other civil society organizations, in partnership with the United Nations (UN), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and, states for more than a decade, to address the widespread harm to civilians resulting from the use of explosive weapons in towns, cities and other populated areas.

The declaration is a landmark achievement that has potential to significantly strengthen the protection of civilians. Its success will largely depend on the widespread endorsement of the declaration and its effective implementation by states.

A milestone moment for the protection of civilians in armed conflict

The political declaration is the first formal international recognition that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has severe humanitarian consequences and that these must be addressed urgently. The declaration also recognises that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas poses unacceptable risks to civilians, particularly when the weapons have wide area effects. It promotes stronger standards for the protection of civilians and commits states which sign on to the declaration to implement these standards through changes to their national policy and practice. The declaration can also provide a basis for stigmatising harmful actions, such as use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

Ahead of the Dublin conference, more than 60 states from all regions of the world have already indicated their intention to endorse the declaration, including some major users of explosive weapons and states affected by their use.

The declaration should be seen as a starting point—not an end point. A key area will be changing military practice away from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. There is much more that needs to be done to strengthen the protection of civilians and build stronger standards. Driving forward significant changes takes time. To start, all states should endorse the declaration. Endorsement is a recognition of the harms experienced by others and a commitment to work in good faith to prevent and address future harms.

Acting in ‘good faith’ to take necessary steps towards implementation

A new Article 36 policy briefing, Implementing the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas:  Key Areas and Implementing Actions, recognizes that endorsement of the political declaration is an act of recognition of the harms experienced by civilians as a result of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, an expression of solidarity with those impacted, as well as a promise to work to prevent and address future harms. It notes that while the declaration is not an international treaty giving rise to legal obligations for those states that join it, states that sign and endorse the declaration are committing to act in good faith and take the necessary steps to implement the commitments they have voluntarily consented to.

Giving ‘practical effect’ to the declaration’s commitments

The declaration’s full and effective implementation will require endorsing states to take appropriate actions, including the revision of existing or development of new policy and practices. The policy briefing recommends that states should seek to:

  • Avoid civilian harm by restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
  • Protect civilians from the foreseeable direct and indirect or reverberating effects of military operations.
  • Improve understanding of the impact of explosive weapons use on civilians and inform operational changes and effective responses through the collection and sharing of data.
  • Ensure prompt and effective assistance to the victims of explosive weapons, their families and communities affected by armed conflict.
  • Ensure an effective follow-up process to review and further the implementation and widespread adoption of the declaration.

States must take quick action to begin the process of implementation so that a broad expectation and culture of implementation develops from the outset. A key area of work will be developing policies to operationalise the declaration at the national level which bring about changes in practice in line with its aim and commitments. This will be particularly important when it comes to changing military policy and practice, and more broadly to implement it effectively and in ways that will prevent harm to civilians and make a difference on the ground.

Participating in the follow-on process of work

The political declaration was established on the basis that there is an urgent need to protect civilians, and the finalised declaration now provides a framework and platform for this ongoing work. The declaration recognises the importance of building an inclusive community of practice, which brings together representatives of militaries, humanitarian organisations, governments and others to work together towards the shared goal of reducing civilian harm and establishing stronger standards to protect civilians from explosive weapons. It commits states to hold regular meetings to review implementation of the declaration and to share examples of good policies and practice, and further intergovernmental work including military-to-military exchanges, and to promote the declaration to pursue its adoption and effective implementation by the greatest number of States possible.

The day before the Dublin conference, INEW and Dóchas (the Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations) are organising a Civil Society Forum that will bring together states, international organisations and civil society  to promote the declaration and set a vision and expectation for the joint work ahead.

Taking further action on the issue

All states should endorse the declaration. This is important for those states whose armed forces possess and/or use explosive weapons. However, the declaration will greatly benefit from the participation of a broad and diverse group of states.

In addition to signing the political declaration, which is the immediate next step and priority, states can take action on this issue at both national and international levels:

  • At a national level – States should review their policies and practices regarding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas – in particular, those with wide-area effects – and develop operating policies and practices that will reduce civilian harm. States can also review their national policy in other areas relating to the commitments in the political declaration, as well as establishing mechanisms to assist victims and facilitate humanitarian access, collect data and track civilian harm in military operations, among other things.
  • At the international level – States can continue to speak out on this issue. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has broad impacts, making it relevant to international policy discussions on a number of themes, including but not limited to the protection of civilians in armed conflict, children and armed conflict, displacement, the impact of conflict on the environment, victim assistance and people with disabilities, humanitarian access, gendered impacts of armed conflict, unexploded ordnance and risk education.

Taking these actions without delay will help ensure that the political declaration fulfils its potential to strengthen the protection of civilians.

Article 36 Provides coordination for the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) and hosts the Explosive Weapons Monitor (EWM).