APPG Chair Participates in the Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas Political Declaration Negotiations
In contemporary conflict, urban areas are frequently targeted, including with explosive weapons. In these circumstances, civilians and civilian infrastructures are increasingly at risk. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has disastrous effects on civilians such as death, injury, displacement, and destruction of essential infrastructure among other impacts. Consequently, a consultation for a political declaration to minimise the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in populated areas (known as EWIPA) has taken place under Ireland’s leadership from 6-8 April 2022. Seventy representatives of States, UN agencies, international organisations and civil society came together to negotiate the text of the international agreement to end the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas.
In attendance at last week’s negotiations was APPG Chair Stewart McDonald MP, in conjunction with APPG partners Airwars and Humanity and Inclusion. Comments made by Stewart McDonald MP illustrated how the UK needs to strengthen its protection of civilians, stating that the Scottish leadership had taken actions to “develop policy on civilian protection” but Westminster was still neglecting this issue. Furthermore, our APPG partners, Humanity and Inclusion and Airwars made key concluding points, highlighting how states will have failed if the final agreement ends up “simply restating that existing laws will reduce civilian harm”, as far more actions and a concerted policy are needed to reduce that harm in the first place.
During the final day of negotiations, valuable and active discussions continued in the areas where positions among delegations differed. Ireland encouraged participants to continue talks with each other, working on key elements whilst reviewing proposals for compromised language. Broad agreement amongst states was made clear when every delegate who spoke referred to the Ukrainian conflict, with many emphasising the horrific violence against Ukrainian civilians and urging states to act more effectively to prevent civilian harm. For example, the New Zealand delegation noted that “we need only look to the appalling impacts of explosive weapons use on civilians in Ukraine following Russia’s illegal invasion.”
However, disagreements emerged as states including the US, UK, France, and Israel opposed certain sections of the declarations. For instance, the UK seeks amendments specifically to section 2.1 (which suggests improvements for the framework that regulates armed conflicts) claiming that under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), Westminster does not have to “hold accountable those responsible for violations […] beyond the responsibility for a state’s own forces and within its own jurisdiction.” Therefore, these states have the intention of ensuring that EWIPA does not become too restricting to military operations currently permitted within IHL.
By contrast, other States including Finland, Sweden, Belgium and most civil society organisations in attendance, wished to amend the declaration to use even stronger language to increase the protection of civilians. This underscores the key divide between the minority of militarily powerful states concerned that too strong a statement might hinder their own operations; and the majority opinion of civil society and less militarily active states pushing for more robust language to be used within the declaration. The fundamental disagreement between these two groups is whether there should be any carve out to allow for civilian harm during legitimate military operations that do not use explosive weapons indiscriminately. As it stands, under IHL only the use of indiscriminate explosive weaponry is illegal. Ultimately these attempts by the UK, US, France and Israel to confine the provisions of the declaration in this way would unfortunately result in a relatively toothless declaration that merely reaffirms the status quo.
The final meeting of delegates is currently scheduled for June 2022 with the aim of concluding the text of the agreement before its adoption by the delegation later in the year. In the run-up to this, the UK government should review its position in negotiations and cease attempts to weaken provisions within the declaration. Specifically, the government should reconsider its opposition to the use of strong language in regard to avoiding the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. Instead, the UK should support a robust declaration and heed civil society calls for the strengthening of the declaration to condemn any use of explosive weaponry within civilian areas.
Whilst commitments made within the political declaration will not impose any new legal requirements under IHL, it is clear that current laws which prohibit the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons are insufficient to prevent civilian harm. This, therefore, makes it vital that the UK back a strong declaration that goes beyond current IHL to productively contribute to the protection of civilians in conflict areas and save innocent lives.