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Parties to Conflict Must Minimize Incidental Harm to Civilians, Secretary-General Tells Security Council during Debate on War in Cities

SG/SM/21118

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council open debate on War in Cities: Protection of Civilians in Urban Settings, today:

I thank Norway and Prime Minister for convening this open debate. I am pleased that Peter Maurer, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has been able to join us.

Today more than 50 million people are affected by conflict in urban areas. They face a number of distinct dangers. When hostilities take place in cities, civilians face a much higher risk of being killed or injured. In some cases, they may be mistaken for combatants. In others, harm to civilians is often entirely foreseeable, but parties to conflict do not take measures to avoid and minimize it. When explosive weapons are used in populated areas, around 90 per cent of those killed and injured are civilians.

The use of explosive weapons in urban areas, particularly those with wide-area effects, carries a high risk of indiscriminate impact. Civilians can suffer devastating harm both in the immediate aftermath and in the long-term. Many victims face lifelong disabilities and grave psychological trauma. Water, electricity and sanitation infrastructure are often damaged. Health-care services are severely disrupted.

To mention some examples: scores of schools and health-care facilities were damaged during fighting in Gaza last year. Nearly 800,000 people were left without access to piped water, increasing the risk of diseases and further hampering health care. In Afghanistan, an explosive attack outside a Kabul high school last May killed 90 students, mainly girls, and left another 240 people injured.

Beyond the immediate pain and suffering, the indirect effects of damage to schools range from disruption to education to increased likelihood of early marriage and recruitment into armed groups. And a 2020 study in Yemen showed that the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas disrupted every resource and system in the country. From Afghanistan to Libya, Syria, Yemen and beyond, the risk of harm to civilians rises when combatants move among them and put military facilities and equipment near civilian infrastructure.

Conflict in urban areas goes far beyond its immediate impact on civilians. It also puts people at risk of sieges and blockades, which have had a horrific impact on civilians, up to and including starvation. Urban warfare forces millions of people from their homes, contributing to record numbers of refugees and internally displaced people. Four years after the destruction of 80 per cent of housing in Mosul, Iraq, an estimated 300,000 people were still displaced.

Warfare in cities creates millions of tons of debris that poses risks to both the environment and to people’s health. Unexploded ordnance makes it too dangerous for people to return home. And mass destruction in urban areas sets development back by decades, undermining progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

The frightening human cost of waging war in cities is not inevitable; it is a choice. I would like to outline some of the measures that prevent and mitigate its horrific impact.

First, all parties must fully respect international humanitarian law. Recent years have seen increasing concern over compliance with these laws. Attacks against civilians or civilian infrastructure, indiscriminate attacks, and the use of civilians as a human shield are prohibited. Parties to conflict must take steps to minimize incidental civilian harm. Respect for these rules is all the more critical when armed conflict is waged in urban areas.

Moreover, accountability for serious violations is essential. Member States must demonstrate the political will to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes to the maximum extent, whenever they occur. We owe that to the victims and their loved ones — and it is also crucial to serve as a powerful deterrent.

Second, parties to conflict have options. They should adapt their choice of weapons and tactics when they wage war in cities, recognizing that they cannot fight in populated areas the way they would in open battlefields. Even when explosive weapons are used in compliance with the laws of war, they can cause devastating harm to civilians.

The facts on the ground underline the need for warring parties to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. I urge States to follow good practices to reduce the humanitarian impact of such weapons. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has published a compilation of military policy and practice in this regard. And I welcome efforts towards a political declaration to address the harm arising from their use. I urge all Member States to commit themselves to avoiding the use of wide-area explosive weapons in populated areas.

Third, effective protection of civilians in urban warfare requires additional good policies and practices that go beyond this commitment. Parties to conflict should track and learn from allegations of harm to civilians and civilian homes, markets and infrastructure, in order to gauge the impact of their operations and find ways to minimize harm.

Such analysis can also inform a more responsible approach to arms sales. Recording casualties can help clarify the fate of missing people, inform ways to minimize civilian harm, and help to ensure accountability, recovery and reconciliation. Those involved in conflict should ensure their armed forces are trained to follow these and other good policies and practices. And all States should develop national policy frameworks for the protection of civilians that build upon these policies and practices.

Finally, I urge all Member States to use their influence over their partners and allies to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and the adoption of good practices. The Security Council has a vital role to play in this regard. I count on all Council members to acknowledge the challenges of urban warfare, to call for specific protective measures, and to use all the tools at their disposal to end tragic and preventable harm to civilians. And of course, the best solution would be not to have urban warfare.

For information media. Not an official record.