Bombed cities

Combining advocacy and humanitarian operational response to better protect civilians

14/10/2022. Mosul Iraq. General views of destroyed buildings around the Old City of Mosul on the west side of the city The area is being cleared by another operator than HI.

When it comes to protecting civilians, and against a backdrop of the growing power of actors who openly defy international law, obtaining new commitments from States represents a real advocacy challenge for NGOs. Focusing efforts on a specific issue and relying on a small group of convinced States: this is the strategy that led 83 States to adopt a new Political Declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas. Although the new text is non-binding, it is binding on the signatories, and deals with the main threat to civilians in contemporary conflicts. Beyond the changes it calls for in military practices, this instrument also represents a lever for improving humanitarian response in this type of context. Provided that humanitarian actors seize the opportunity…

Urban bombardment: the number 1 threat to civilians

Urban bombardment and shelling are the main threat to civilians in armed conflicts today. Action on Armed Violence has been collecting data on civilian victims of armed violence for over 10 years, and a consistent trend has emerged: when explosive weapons are used in urban or populated areas, 90% of victims are civilians.
This reality has been increasingly highlighted by the United Nations Secretary-General in recent years. A coalition of civil society actors [1] has been formed to document the issue and put pressure on States. The ICRC has also carried out in-depth work and maintained its position in the face of states which, while committed to the process, have above all advocated the status quo, arguing that their own military practices and policies are exemplary.
Every year, tens of thousands of civilians are killed or wounded. In 2022, 2,399 incidents involving explosive weapons in populated areas claimed 18,163 victims, 94% of whom were civilians. 17 countries were affected, but the majority of victims were recorded in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Somalia or Syria [2].

Fatehia is ten years old. She used to go to school every day with her sister and her friends when her school was hit in an airstrike in February 2019. Her best friend died next to her and Fatehia lost her leg. Her father run to the school to find his daughter and took her to the nearest hospital where doctors there immediately ensured her operation. HI provided her with psychosocial support sessions as she went through several depression and isolation phases. HI also provides her with a prosthesis and physical therapy exercises.

Changing military practices and policies to better respect international law

Of course, some of these strikes are clearly illegal under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), since they are intentionally directed against civilians. The grey area is where the targets are indeed military, but located in densely populated urban environments. In these contexts, respect for the principles of precaution and proportionality calls for a review of military policies and practices, even for states that consider themselves “virtuous” in terms of IHL. This concerns the choice of weapons, targeting methods and chains of command. It also means taking into account all the damage caused to civilians when gathering information and data, in particular indirect effects, or domino effects. The destruction of essential civilian infrastructures, such as water networks, power stations, gas stations, schools, health centers… has effects for civilians that extend far beyond the time and place of the attack.
Last November, a new International Political Declaration was adopted by 83 States, including some of the major military powers (USA, UK, France…) to limit and control the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and thus review military policies and practices in this direction.
The Declaration also contains a number of commitments on humanitarian access and victim assistance, both of which are essential for the protection of civilian populations. This dynamic opens up a window of opportunity to identify best practices, promote them to donors and raise awareness among the humanitarian community as a whole.
Indeed, this type of context presents particular challenges for humanitarian response, on the one hand because of the scale of the devastation caused, and on the other because of the specific difficulties of access and security for organizations.

Official ceremony of the Monument to the Unknown Civilian in the gardens of Dublin?s Castle on the 18th of November 2022. This Monument to the Unknown Civilian is erected to honour the civilian victims of contemporary conflicts and to denounce an intolerable practice: the bombing of populated areas. Here Nujeen syrian refugee. On the background MPs (Members of European Parliament) Baptiste Chapuis.

Large-scale devastation for civilians in cities…

The use of explosive weapons in urban areas, often designed for use in open battlefields, results in large-scale, long-term damage.
The urban environment further increases the vulnerability of human beings. Shock waves are multiplied in the enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces typical of cities. We are also highly vulnerable to multiple debris projections. Whole communities traumatized by life under the bombs suffer deep and lasting psychological wounds, in addition to the physical ones.
In addition, the use of such weapons leads to mass displacement, leaving entire regions contaminated by explosive remnants of war. This represents a short- and long-term danger to civilians, compounded by the urban setting. One of our demining experts described the city of Kobané as a millefeuille of explosives. We’re talking about 3D contamination, where the dangers lie beneath the rubble, on the surface, and hanging from the floors. The risk is extreme for anyone staying on the site or returning to it: residents returning to their homes to clear away the ruins, farmers wishing to cultivate their land, technicians repairing destroyed infrastructure…

…challenging the humanitarian response

All these factors make the organization of the humanitarian response particularly complex.
The challenge is to provide appropriate emergency medical care for a massive influx of injured people, in a context where health infrastructures may be impacted. The necessary follow-up of patients for rehabilitation care is complicated and limited by multiple displacements. The depth and severity of psychological trauma requires support from mental health professionals, on a scale and for a duration far beyond the capacity of humanitarian organizations and national health systems.
Difficulties of access, inherent to any conflict context, are sometimes insurmountable in contexts of massive urban bombardment. The need to evacuate civilians is fraught with difficulties, and setting up humanitarian corridors can prove to be a false idea, not least because some of the population will invariably be unable or unwilling to evacuate. More often than not, it is the elderly or disabled who find themselves in a dramatic situation, in an area subject to even more intense attacks and with even less access to humanitarian aid and protection.

The entire humanitarian response is hampered, delayed and complicated by the need to guarantee a minimum level of safety for teams and for the beneficiaries themselves in the face of the risks of bombardment and the resulting contamination. In Ukraine, the humanitarian response is governed by the rhythm of nights interrupted by alerts, suspended, modified or delayed movements and schedules due to the threat hanging over a given area, and the need to locate potential shelters.
These contexts require backers to fully integrate additional costs and demonstrate flexibility in the face of uncertainty and risk. Furthermore, the challenges of so-called “mine action” should be fully understood and integrated into humanitarian coordination bodies.

Anne Héry

After several years at the OECD, she joined the NGO Handicap International as a delegate in Paris, in charge of links with associative networks and public authorities. Between 2010 and 2013, she was Director of External Relations and Advocacy at Secours Islamique France. Today, she is Director of Advocacy and Institutional Relations for the Handicap International – Humanité & Inclusion Federation. As part of her work, she has traveled in the field in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to collect data and produce advocacy material. She has been involved in various networks and coalitions to advocate for disarmament and the protection of civilians, humanitarian action or disability-inclusive development policies.


[1] INEW (International Network on Explosive Weap)


[2] Report of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, May 2023.