Last week the United Nations Secretary-General submitted his annual report to the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The language of the report represents something of a break-though of a sort that's pleasing to see from the editorial perspective of this blog. Hopefully now states will also begin to make their voices heard in supporting the Protection of Civilians report's content both in the Security Council chamber and in elsewhere.
The Secretary-General's report observed that the "choice of weapons is critical in minimizing and reducing the impacts of hostilities on civilians". While this might sound obvious, it's worth noting that heavy weapons such as artillery and rockets were nevertheless used in populated areas in conflicts in recent months such as Gaza and in Sri Lanka, something the report also commented on in its paragraph 36:
"As demonstrated by this year’s hostilities in Sri Lanka and Israel’s campaign in Gaza, the use in densely populated environments of explosive weapons that have so-called “area effect” inevitably has an indiscriminate and severe humanitarian impact. First, in terms of the risk to civilians caught in the blast radius or killed or injured by damaged and collapsed buildings. Secondly, in terms of damage to infrastructure vital to the wellbeing of the civilian population, such as water and sanitation systems."These are certainly issues that individually some Security Council members are taking very seriously. Only today, for instance, the New York Times reported that the new American military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, would sharply restrict the use of airstrikes there in an effort to reduce the civilian deaths he had concluded were undermining the American-led mission. In today's warfare, in which the lines between military objectives and civilian concentrations are usually blurred, those on the cutting edge of military thought are increasingly aware that the use of explosive violence in such areas can be counter-productive, as well as morally and legally unacceptable.
The Secretary-General further noted in last week's report that the Security Council "has a critical role in promoting systematic compliance with the law" including condemning violations "without exceptions", threatening and if necessary applying targeted measures against the leadership of parties violating their obligations to "respect" civilians and keeping track of violations and mandating commissions of inquiry "where concerns exist regarding serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law".
The British NGO Landmine Action issued a media release responding to the Secretary General's report, which
"welcomes the clear expression of concern from the UN Secretary-General regarding the humanitarian problems caused by explosive weapons. Landmine Action urges States, international organisations and civil society to further document the civilian harm caused by explosive weapons, work to prevent the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and support all efforts to minimise the post-conflict harm that explosive weapons cause."One of the key points underlined by multilateral processes representing 'disarmament as humanitarian action' such as the Ottawa process to prohibit anti-personnel mines and the Oslo process resulting in the Convention on Cluster Munitions is that the collection and analysis of empirical evidence is crucial in changing policy makers' minds and re-framing issues in ways that make them more tractable. Nevertheless, weapons-specific processes like these require a huge amount of effort that is difficult to sustain throughout treaty implementation, let alone repeat for other weapons.
And, a risk of weapon-specific multilateral processes in general is that governments opposed to stigmatising the use of explosive violence in populated areas will succeed in breaking up and subdividing issues around use of explosive weapons (as Richard Moyes at Landmine Action has pointed out) that muddy the waters, or denude relevant multilateral processes of real value.
There is a need for the international community to begin looking beyond just the weapon specific to highlight explosive weapons as a broad category of concern at time of use and post-conflict. This is something a few of us have already begun trying to do (Landmine Action's media release mentioned, for instance, Disarmament Insight's work at facilitating such discussion).
In light of the Protection of Civilians report, the Security Council could be one place for states and international organisations to take the new discourse forward. But it also needs to be a broader debate. The international community should do more to ensure civilians are protected, and that will necessarily entail some fresh thinking.
Image downloaded from Wikipedia: "A Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapon is prepared for testing at the Eglin Air Force Armament Center on March 11, 2003. The MOAB is a precision-guided munition weighing 21,500 pounds and will be dropped from a C-130 Hercules aircraft for the test. It will be the largest non-nuclear conventional weapon in existence."