The political declaration on explosive weapons – a milestone achievement
By Laura Boillot
The agreement of the Political Declaration in June this year marks a milestone achievement and culmination of work undertaken by states and international and civil society organisations in close partnership for well over a decade.
The aim of the political declaration, since the outset of the political process, has been to strengthen the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
It is clear why it is needed: bombing and shelling in cities, towns, and other populated areas is the leading cause of harm to civilians in armed conflicts today. Each year, tens of thousands of civilians are killed and injured from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas – a pattern of harm experienced in towns and cities across the world, including Mosul, Aleppo, Raqqa, Mariupol, and Sana’a, to name just a few examples. Beyond those killed and injured, yet more civilians suffer psychological trauma, the loss of family members, and the long-lasting impacts from damage and destruction to critical civilian infrastructure and access to vital services, including those who are forced to flee their homes.
Despite this widespread and severe problem, the political declaration is the first formal international recognition of the grave harm caused to civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and that this harm must be addressed directly.
Reaching such agreement is a significant accomplishment, not only because it is a positive example of multilateralism in these challenging times, but also because the issue has been contentious and highly contested in diplomatic discussions. Many militarised states have refused to recognise that explosive weapons present distinct problems – and some still do. But for many, the pattern of civilian harm and the humanitarian consequences could not be ignored and, and they have worked together to achieve this outcome.
There is of course much more that needs to be done to turn the potential that the political declaration holds into concrete actions that will make a real and meaningful difference to people’s lives. The agreement of the text is an important first step in this ongoing process of work that will require states, their military forces, and international and civil society organisations to collaborate and work together to strengthen the protection of civilians.
What does the political declaration say, and what does it commit states to do?
The “Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences arising from the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas” recognises and describes the humanitarian problems from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in its preambular section, and commits states to undertake a range of actions to address the issue in its two operative sections.
The preambular section of the declaration brings attention to the widespread harm to civilians resulting from the increasing urbanisation of conflicts and the broad range of effects this has on individuals, cities, and societies, including the direct risk of death and injury to civilians as well as psychological harm. It describes the severe and long-lasting reverberating effects (also known as indirect effects) that result from damage and destruction to infrastructure which is often interconnected, such as power networks and water and sanitation systems, and harm caused by damage to housing, schools and hospitals. It also explains that explosive weapon use often results in displacement, unexploded ordnance, interruptions to the provision of humanitarian access, and negative environmental consequences through contamination.
The text also describes the particular risk of harm to civilians that increases as a result of the explosive power of the weapon and the accuracy and number of munitions used, in essence describing the heightened risk of harm when explosive weapons have wide area effects. This is an issue that has been a key focus of civil society, including Article 36, as well as the ICRC, UN and others, but received significant push-back from militarily active states and, as a result, was not explicitly referenced in the commitments of the declaration.
Importantly, however, the preamble emphasises that it is through the development of good policies and practices that armed forces can understand the anticipated effects of explosive weapons on the intended target, the surrounding areas, and the risk of harm to civilians – placing important emphasis here again on the area effects of weapons as a key risk factor and issue of concern. It further proposes that civilian harm tracking and data collection can inform policies to avoid civilian harm and aid efforts to investigate harm to civilians. This, in turn, enables the tracking of civilian casualties in real-time, allowing states and military forces to make timely adjustments in the course of their operations that may also inform future operations and policies.
The commitments and obligations of states are laid out in two operational sections, one focussed on actions in the area of military policy and practice, and the other on humanitarian measures and future work on the issue and the declaration.
Some of the key areas for actions, include:
Changes to military policy and practice
The declaration requires states to adopt and implement policies and practices to restrict and refrain from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas to avoid civilian harm. To some degree, it defers decisions on how this is done to individual states at the national level. Article 36 has published a paper with recommendations on how states might make these decisions while implementing declaration provisions. But of central importance here is that states and their military forces assess and understand the scale of area effects of different explosive weapons and impose clear limits that require states to refrain from using explosive weapons when they have wide area effects in populated areas because they cannot be aimed at a specific target and expose civilians to unacceptable risks.
It also requires states to take into account direct and indirect effects on civilians and civilian objects which can be reasonably be foreseen, which places an emphasis on building a better understanding of the impacts of military operations and explosive weapon use on civilian infrastructure in order to avoid long-term reverberating or indirect effects. This will require states and military forces to assess and understand the urban context and how this influences weapon effects and the potential for harm to civilians and damage to civilian objects, in both generic understandings and specific operational contexts.
The declaration requires states to collect, share and make publicly available disaggregated data on the direct and indirect effects on civilians and civilian objects of operations involving the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Data on both use and impacts of explosive weapons has been, and will continue to be, of vital importance in understanding the problem. States should establish mechanisms to record and share information on the use of explosive weapons (including the different types and quantities used and locations of use), as well as areas where there may be unexploded ordnance. States should also record civilian casualties (including, but not limited to, civilian harm tracking during military operations), and damage and destruction to key infrastructure in operations.
Another key area of the political declaration is the commitment to provide, facilitate and assist victims, including those injured, survivors, family members of people killed and/or injured, and affected communities. This should be applied in a holistic and non-discriminatory manner and, in practice, mean that states develop policies and practices that ensure that basic needs are met, civilians have safe and timely access to emergency medical care, physical rehabilitation, psychosocial support and socio-economic inclusion, as well as support towards the full realisation of the rights and full participation of victims in societies. This is a broad area of work that will require further discussions on how this commitment can be effectively implemented.
The follow-on process of work under the structure of the political declaration will be important to ensure its effective implementation and uptake by states. The declaration commits states to meet on a regular basis (it does not stipulate how regularly, but the Safe Schools Declaration provides a useful example by which states have tended to meet every two years). It proposes that meetings are used to review implementation of the declaration and share examples of good policies and practices, while also encouraging further work conducted through intergovernmental and military-to-military exchanges. It also encourages the promotion of the declaration so that it may be adopted and implemented by the greatest possible number of states.
The most immediate next step and key milestone will be the signing conference, anticipated to take place in October or November this year in Dublin, Ireland. This will be the first formal opportunity for states to sign the political declaration, and by doing this they will be recognising this major humanitarian problem and committing to take action on it.
At the final consultation meeting in June, a number of states already expressed their support for the text and their intention to sign it – including militarily active states such as the United States and United Kingdom, among others. A priority for INEW will be to encourage a broad range of regionally diverse states to sign the declaration in Dublin, a which will be the main occasion to mobilise support for it.
Beyond Dublin, the focus will continue to be on universalisation and getting more states to sign the text, but additionally and of crucial importance – implementation.
There is a lot more that needs to be done to adopt standards and rules that better protect civilians, as required under the political declaration to and as necessary to operationalise its commitments at the national level. This will be of particular importance in reviewing and developing new military policies that change military practice. Building movement away from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas will be a long-term undertaking but setting the expectation that signing the declaration means getting to work on its implementation right away is important to establishing a culture of work under this agreement.
Much of the value of the declarations lies in its potential to set up a structure for future work and its ability to bring states, armed forces, and international and civil society organisations together to have conversations and work collaboratively and constructively towards better protection of civilians.