Countering 5 misconceptions about a political declaration on EWIPA

Ploughshares Conventional Weapons, Current Publication, Featured

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The use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA), by both state and nonstate actors, has become a top humanitarian concern, given the devastating impact it has on civilian lives and livelihoods.

When explosive weapons are detonated in populated areas, a staggering proportion of casualties are civilians. Critical civilian infrastructure is damaged and essential services are impacted. Such a degraded environment results in psychological trauma, hampers relief efforts, and forces people from their homes.

In October 2019, the Government of Austria hosted the multilateral conference “Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare.” The key outcome was the announced continuation of the process, begun at this conference, to develop a political declaration against the use of EWIPA. The Government of Ireland later convened a series of multilateral consultations on the possible contents of such a declaration. The final text could be adopted in Dublin as soon as June 2020.

Some stakeholders still have misconceptions about the rationale for, and intent of, the political declaration.

Here are responses to FIVE of them.

Misconception #1 A political declaration is not needed. Better compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) can fully address the use and  consequences of EWIPA.

REALITY Anyone who asserts that there is an urgent need for better implementation of International Humanitarian Law—including adherence to key precepts of distinction, precaution, and proportionality—is absolutely right. Seventy years after the Geneva Conventions, the rate of compliance remains disconcertingly poor.

However, better compliance with IHL is an insufficient response to EWIPA. The nature, methods, and sites of armed conflict have changed dramatically since the emergence of IHL in the second half of the 20th century. Not only is armed conflict increasingly waged in urban settings, where civilian populations and infrastructure are especially vulnerable, but the damage done by explosive weapons to critical infrastructure and essential services persists long after hostilities have ended and IHL no longer applies.

The development of robust new standards that protect civilian populations and infrastructure, and provide for victim assistance and remedy must be both a policy priority and a humanitarian imperative. The realities of 21st-Century armed conflict require strict adherence to IHL, coupled with policy measures that enhance its effectiveness.

Misconception #2 A commitment that is not legally binding will have little impact.

REALITY While political orthodoxy seems to favour legal treaties, both declarations and treaties are high-level, political commitments that rely on good-faith implementation. Neither guarantees compliance. Indeed, the effectiveness of certain legal regimes is routinely questioned, with some states acting in ways that are blatantly contrary to the obligations of treaties they are party to.

Nevertheless, recent history has shown us that political commitments can result in real and rapid progress. Consider the politically binding Safe Schools Declaration, which aims to reduce threats to education during conflict, including the military targeting of pupils, teachers, and their schools. Since its launch in 2015, it has been endorsed by more than 100 states and global attacks on education have been reduced by half.

Political declarations can have measurable effects on the behaviour of belligerents during conflict and help to clarify and refine the interpretation of existing normative regimes.

Misconception #3 Advocates of a political declaration on EWIPA are pushing for a ban on explosive weapons.

REALITY No, they are not. A political declaration on EWIPA does not aim to ban explosives—or any category of weapons. The process leading to the political declaration is not a disarmament one, but is essentially a humanitarian one, rooted in the prevention of human suffering. It is more about conduct than hardware.

The framework, guidelines, and regime established by the declaration are intended to limit the context in which explosives are employed during urban conflict, inform military doctrine and rules of engagement, advance humanitarian objectives, and codify parameters of acceptable behaviour.

Misconception #4 A political declaration will be ineffective because it will not include nonstate actors.

REALITY There is no precedent for states to allow nonstate parties to set the standards of acceptable behaviour. Moreover, the absence of nonstate actors would not be unique to a political declaration on EWIPA. All treaties are among states.

The rationale for multilateral commitments remains valid, whatever the position of outlier states and nonstate actors. Concerted, meaningful action—political or legal—by states stigmatizes the targeted behaviour and can bring about change. For example, since the passing of the Mine Ban Treaty, the number of countries in which landmines are used has decreased from a peak of 19 in 2001 to six in 2019. This decline has occurred even though the treaty has not been signed by more than 30 states or by any nonstate actors.

A political declaration on EWIPA advances and redefines expectations concerning the conduct of armed conflict. Even if nonstate armed groups are not parties to it, they will ultimately be held to similar benchmarks.

Misconception #5 The precision of modern weapons systems makes political action unnecessary.

REALITY Precision weapons do not constitute an adequate response to the devastating humanitarian consequences caused by EWIPA, or to the collective inability of the international community to protect civilians. Today’s guided weapons systems are more advanced than ever before, yet their use continues to present a clear threat to civilians and the built environment. Airstrikes—which utilize some of the most sophisticated munitions and targeting methods—were the leading cause of EWIPA-related civilian casualty events in 2017.

Increasingly precise weaponry is being used in addition to, not in place of, conventional weapons such as heavy artillery. They add to, not subtract from, the total number of casualties. Civilians account for more than nine in 10 EWIPA casualties, and the overall number of casualties remains alarmingly and consistently high.


Raqqa, Syria—More artillery shells have reportedly been launched at Raqqa than any other city since the end of the war in Vietnam. Between 2011 and 2018, explosive violence in the city killed and injured 3,326 civilians. Sixty-five percent of civilian buildings have been destroyed, including 88% of healthcare facilities, with disproportionately negative outcomes for women and girls. UN experts say that it will take between 40 and 50 years to completely remove all unexploded remnants of war from Raqqa.

Gaza, Palestine—During the 2014 bombardment of Gaza, 1,523 civilians were killed, including 519 children. One-third of the strip’s 1.8 million inhabitants suffered damage to their homes; an estimated 20,000 housing units were destroyed. In the aftermath of overt hostilities, UNICEF estimated that at least 373,000 children were in need of psychosocial support.

Eastern Ukraine—In 2014 and 2015, multi-barreled rocket launchers killed an average of 14 civilians per use. By the end of 2015, 145 healthcare facilities had been damaged or destroyed; 164 schools had been damaged or destroyed in the Donetsk region alone. Between 2014 and 2016, ground-launched explosive weapons caused 2,127 civilian casualties in the Donbass region.

Mosul, Iraq—During anti-ISIS coalition efforts in Mosul, thousands of civilians were killed and injured; the western half of the city was effectively destroyed. A single airstrike on a residential building killed at least 105 civilians and injured hundreds more. Explosive weapons have been a chief driver of displacement, with half a million Mosulites currently in camps. Unexploded remnants of war present an obstacle to their return.

Sana’a, Yemen—Air-launched munitions have been used frequently against cultural sites and have destroyed Sana’a’s Old City, a UNESCO heritage site. Airstrikes on water infrastructure, in conjunction with the blockade of the port of Hodeidah, were largely responsible for the cholera epidemic that now affects more than 1.2 million Yemenis. When explosive weapons are used in populated areas in Yemen, more than 95% of casualties are civilians.

Sources: BBC, Humanity and Inclusion – Canada, USA Today, Action on Armed Violence, United Nations, Reuters, OCHA, PAX, UNICEF, Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.

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