People's Stories Peace

The need for negotiations to stop the war in Ukraine could not be more urgent
by UN News, ICRC, UNICEF, MSF, agencies
25 Apr. 2022 (OCHA)
The war in Ukraine, which began on 24 February, has caused death and suffering on a dramatic scale and left at least 15.7 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection.
By 21 April, at least 2,345 civilians had been killed, including 177 children, according to the latest estimates by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
However, the actual death toll is likely to be much higher. In Mariupol alone, local authorities estimate that tens of thousands of people have been killed, while the recent revelations of mass graves in Bucha, Irpin and other areas surrounding Kyiv highlight the likelihood of many more deaths that have not been counted.
The war has seen the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in urban settings, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes. The presence of landmines and unexploded explosive ordnance is also a major concern. Even before this war, eastern Ukraine was one of the most mine-contaminated regions in the world.
The conflict has caused the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis since World War II, with nearly 13 million people uprooted in less than two months. Over a quarter of Ukraine’s population have fled their homes, including more than 7.7 million people now estimated to be internally displaced and over 5.2 million people who have crossed borders to seek security and safety in other countries, most of them women and children.
Nearly two-thirds of the children in Ukraine have been displaced.
Massive devastation in urban centres, and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, have made life unbearable for millions of people and severely disrupted critical services, especially healthcare.
In besieged areas, people have lived for weeks without access to food, water and heat, while under the constant threat of bombardment. More than half of all attacks against healthcare facilities in the world this year—119 out of 182 by 11 April—have occurred in Ukraine.
These attacks have decimated access to healthcare at a time when people need it most—women have been forced to deliver babies in basements, injured people have had no access to care and ill children have lost access to life-saving treatments.
Roughly 300 health facilities are in conflict areas and 1,000 health facilities are in areas that have changed control. Nearly 50 per cent of Ukraine’s pharmacies are presumed to be closed and many health workers are either displaced or unable to work.
Other civilian infrastructure has also been severely impacted: more than 869 educational facilities have been damaged and 88 destroyed, according to the Ministry of Education, although these figures are not verified.
Millions of people—including women and small children—have been left without access to safe water or sanitation, drastically heightening the risk of waterborne disease as well as dehydration. Due to attacks on water system infrastructure and power outages an estimated 1.4 million people in eastern Ukraine do not have access to water, and another 4.6 million people across the country have only limited access.
There are mounting allegations of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls during the war. The threat of gender-based violence—including conflict-related sexual violence, sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) and human trafficking—has risen exponentially since the war began. Women from groups in vulnerable situations are being left behind and disproportionately affected by disruptions caused by war.
The armed conflict may prevent farmers from accessing their fields, harvesting, and marketing current crops, planting new crops, or sustaining livestock production. Between 20 and 30 per cent of areas under winter cereal, maize and sunflower production will remain unharvested in July/August, or not be planted this spring, according to the Government and FAO. About half of winter wheat and a third of rye due to be harvested in July–August 2022 are currently in war-affected areas. There are also concerns over damage to standing crops and risk of mines and unexploded ordnance impacting the ability to harvest in the period ahead.
The war has also devastated Ukraine’s economy. The Prime Minister of Ukraine, Denys Shmyhal, has said that economic losses due to the ongoing military offensive may exceed $1 trillion, while some 53 per cent of employed Ukrainians have lost their jobs since the war began, according to a nation-wide survey conducted by the Rating Group in March.
8 Apr. 2022
International NGO statement on the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure
We, the undersigned humanitarian organizations, are shocked and disturbed by the level of humanitarian needs and mass civilian deaths, casualties, and sexual violence against women and girls witnessed in different regions across Ukraine.
Targeting densely populated areas and collectively depriving civilians of their right to access basic needs, essential services, humanitarian assistance, protection, and safe evacuation - as well as targeting civilian objects such as hospitals, learning institutions and residential buildings are blatant violations of International Humanitarian Law.
As humanitarian organizations following the principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality, we are seriously concerned about the ongoing hostilities and the international community's unsuccessful efforts at negotiating and securing a ceasefire. The cessation of hostilities is urgently needed to stop the killing of civilians and the suffering of people in Ukraine. We are closely monitoring the ongoing UN-led high-level negotiations and demand that they have a positive outcome on the humanitarian situation on the ground.
Nothing can justify the ongoing suffering of civilians, particularly children and women, older women and men, and people with disability in Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, Borodianka, Mariupol, and in other Ukrainian regions. All parties to the conflict must uphold their international obligations, including not targeting civilians and vital public infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, and water and electricity supplies. All parties to the conflict must not tolerate in their ranks sexual violence. Such serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in armed conflicts could amount to war crimes.
"I will never forget the day I tried to get out of Irpin. I was outside when my neighbor's car was shelled. The father died, and the mother and her child were wounded. It is difficult to accept this and impossible to understand. I desperately want this war to come to an end," - Olha, a senior from Irpin, currently displaced in western Ukraine.
We call for a serious political agreement for the protection of civilians, including safe and voluntary passage to people who want to leave high-risk areas across Ukraine. At the same time their right to determine their destination of choice for evacuation must be respected in line with the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Parties to the conflict must urgently facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access allowing relief workers and volunteers to urgently deliver life-saving assistance and medical support to people in need. Under the IV Geneva Convention and the UN Security Council Resolution 2286, health personnel and health facilities, such as hospitals and other facilities that have been set up for medical purposes, must be respected and protected in all circumstances. Medical units may not be attacked and access to them may not be limited.
The international community, including the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, must take sterner measures to bring hostilities to an end, and reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights and conditions under which respect for the obligations from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.
We add to and reiterate our demands from March 4, 2022:
An immediate cessation of hostilities and targeting of civilians, civilian objects and infrastructure;
All parties to the conflict must abide by International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Attacks targeting civilians and public infrastructure, including facilities that are indispensable for the survival of the civilians are prohibited under IHL. At no time should hostilities jeopardize the rights, well-being and safety of civilians or civilian objects such as schools, health centers, markets or farmlands, among others;
Safe and unhindered humanitarian access, including across conflict lines for humanitarian assistance to reach all those in need, particularly those in vulnerable situations, with respect to the independence and neutrality of humanitarian agencies and the protection of humanitarian personnel and volunteers;
All children have the right to enjoy provisions under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which urges all persons to consider the best interests of the child. During armed conflict, IHL provides general protection for children as persons not taking part in hostilities and special protection as particularly vulnerable persons. Protocol I, Article 77: "Children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against all forms of indecent assault. The parties to the conflict shall provide them with such care and assistance as they may require, whether on account of their age or for any other reason";
All parties must abide by their obligations under Security Council resolutions on Children and Armed Conflict, and prevent the killing and maiming, recruitment, use, sexual exploitation and sexual violence against girls, boys and adolescents who are at risk of suffering the six grave violations against children in conflict;
All parties to the conflict must recall the fundamental Principle of Distinction and the Safe Schools Declaration to ensure the protection of all children and facilities including schools, kindergartens and hospitals where children are present. The full range of duty bearers and armed actors must ensure that children and their caregivers remain safe, regardless of the prevailing circumstances;
The United Nations Security Council to uphold their mandate, ensure the protection of civilians and maintain international peace and security away from political disputes;
A serious political agreement for the protection of every civilian trapped in high-risk areas anywhere in Ukraine, including safe and voluntary passage to people who want to leave, humanitarian access, and protection. At the same time their right to determine their destination of choice for evacuation must be respected in line with the Fourth Geneva Convention;
Ensure full cooperation with the United Nations and the ICRC to facilitate the implementation and monitoring of safe and systematic passages enabling the swift passage of humanitarian cargos and convoys including the safe passage of all civilians and relief workers;
All countries to equally welcome all foreign nationals and stateless persons fleeing Ukraine regardless of their nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, country of origin, religious background, race or ethnicity;
All funds to alleviate the suffering, and for people affected by the conflict in Ukraine must be additional and flexible, or new funding streams adapted to local actors. They must not be diverted from other under-funded humanitarian crises taking place globally.
11 Mar. 2022 (UN News)
With the war in Ukraine now in its third week, UN political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo warned the UN Security Council on Friday that direct attacks against civilians and civilian objects are prohibited under international law, and may amount to war crimes.
Ms. DiCarlo said Russian armed forces are pursuing laying siege to several cities in the south, east and north of the country.
The situation is particularly alarming in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv, she said, where shelling of residential areas and civilian infrastructure has resulted in an increasing number of civilians killed and injured.
“The utter devastation being visited on these cities is horrific,” she stressed.
Civilians ‘inexcusably’ targeted
As of 11 March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded 1,546 civilian casualties - including 564 killed and 982 injured - since the start of the Russian invasion.
The real casualty figures are likely “considerably higher”. Most have been caused by explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including heavy artillery, multi-launch rocket systems and air strikes.
Further, she said OHCHR has received credible reports of Russian forces using cluster munitions in populated areas - indiscriminate attacks, which are prohibited under international humanitarian law.
As of 10 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) verified 26 attacks on health facilities, health workers and ambulances, causing 12 deaths and 34 injuries. This includes the bombing of the Mariupol maternity hospital on 9 March, which she condemned.
Ms. Di Carlo went on to describe the targeting of civilians, residential buildings, hospitals, schools and kindergartens as “inexcusable and intolerable”, emphasizing that all alleged violations of international humanitarian law must be investigated, and perpetrators held accountable.
Millions in dire need of aid
Ms. Di Carlo said humanitarian aid is being scaled up in areas where security permits and has reached more than 500,000 people. The UN and partners have developed operational plans to meet humanitarian needs where they are most acute, she said, appealing to donors who pledged over $1.5 billion to the appeal last week, to release the funding quickly.
Evacuations must continue
It is critical to achieve a ceasefire to allow for the safe passage of civilians from besieged areas, she told ambassadors. On 9 March, more than 51,000 people were reportedly evacuated through five out of six agreed-upon safe passages. These evacuations must continue.
The number of refugees fleeing the violence has reached 2.5 million – all of whom, including third country nationals, need access to safety and protection, in line with the principle of non-refoulement, and without discrimination.
‘Logic of dialogue’ must prevail
“The need for negotiations to stop the war in Ukraine could not be more urgent”, she said, noting that three rounds of talks held thus far between Ukrainian and Russian delegations must be intensified – notably to secure humanitarian and ceasefire arrangements as a matter of priority. “The logic of dialogue and diplomacy must prevail over the logic of war.”
Perhaps most alarming are the risks the violence poses to the global framework for peace and security, she said, adding that: “We must do everything we can to find a solution and put an end to this war; we must do it now.”
* OCHA Humanitarian updates:
Mar. 2022
Humanitarian Impact Situation Report (4 March 2022: OCHA)
Urban areas across certain parts of Ukraine have been facing more than a week of relentless shelling that continues to damage and disrupt the functioning of critical civilian infrastructure, leaving thousands without water, heating, or electricity. Shelling and overall violence are also creating critical shortages of food and medicine and preventing the delivery of life-saving supplies and the evacuation of the most vulnerable.
As the geographic reach of the conflict continues to expand every day, new areas outside the traditional hotbeds in eastern Ukraine and major urban centres are increasingly being affected, a worrying trend that could contribute to a significant expansion in the scope and scale of the humanitarian crisis.
The number of civilian causalities continues to mount with each passing hour. Between 24 February and 3 March, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reports at least 1,006 civilian casualties, including 331 killed, a figure that is likely much higher as civilian deaths and injuries continue to be verified.
The UN and its humanitarian partners continue to scale up their operations and are preparing to respond to the increased level of humanitarian needs. Several international humanitarian organizations have already been able to deliver assistance either to neighbouring countries or inside Ukraine. The level of humanitarian response is expected to continue growing in the coming days and weeks.
On 3 March, the latest talks between the Russian Federation and Ukraine reportedly resulted in a "joint commitment" to establish humanitarian corridors for the safe passage of civilians from and humanitarian relief supplies to the worst affected areas (yet to be realised in substance). This is potentially a key development in the ongoing humanitarian response across Ukraine, as a growing number of Ukrainian cities come under a relentless siege that is driving an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the country.
The most urgent needs are reported in Dnipro (central), Donetsk (east), Kharkiv (east), Kherson (south), Kyiv (capital), Luhansk (east) and Mariupol (south-east) – home to more than 7.3 million people combined.
Many cities across certain parts of Ukraine have been facing a week of persistent shelling that continues to damage or disrupt functioning of civilian infrastructure, leaving thousands without water, heating or electricity, creating critical shortages of food and medicine.
This is also preventing the delivery of life-saving supplies and the evacuation of the most vulnerable, including children, women, the elderly and people living with disabilities, as roads and bridges as well as trains and railway stations have been significantly damaged or destroyed.
The number of civilian causalities continues to mount with each passing hour. As the geographic reach of the conflict continues to expand every day, new areas are increasingly being affected, a worrying trend that could contribute to a significant expansion in the scope and scale of the crisis.
On 3 March, the northern city of Cherniv – home to around 285,000 inhabitants – more than two dozen people were reportedly killed and nearly 20 others injured after strikes hit a civilian apartment complex.
In the early hours of 4 March, reports emerged of a fire had broken out at a training centre at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest of its kind in the country – located in south-eastern Ukraine as clashes in the surrounding area of Enerhodar raged on. The fire has since been extinguished and preliminary reports suggest that the plant has not sustained any critical damage to essential equipment, with the IAEA saying that there has not been a change in the radiation levels at the power plant, which is home to six of the country’s 15 nuclear energy reactors.
The incident served as an ominous reminder of the potential environmental health catastrophe that the ongoing conflict could produce, potentially releasing large amounts of radioactivity in the worst-case scenario.
Amid escalating violence, internal and cross-border displacement continues unabated across certain parts of Ukraine, driving a corresponding growth in humanitarian needs that has already reached crisis levels after just over a week.
While the scale and scope of displacement are not yet clear, it is estimated that more than 10 million people could potentially flee their homes amid the current crisis, including a staggering 4 million people who may cross international borders, a figure that has already surpassed one million since 24 February.
25 Feb. 2022
Ukraine crisis: Terrified families seek shelter underground in capital. (UN News)
Amid reported deadly missile attacks from Russia’s military invasion in Ukraine, including the capital Kiev and other cities, terrified families have been forced to seek shelter underground, the UN said on Friday.
“There have been major attacks in Kiev that have created greater fear and panic among the population, with families really scared, moving alongside their children into subways and shelters, and this is clearly a terrifying moment for children across the country,” said Afshan Khan, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Regional Director, Europe and Central Asia, speaking in Geneva.
The development follows renewed condemnation for the Russian invasion by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who on Thursday appealed for peace and allocated $20 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to meet urgent needs.
The use of force by one country against another is “the repudiation of the principles that every country has committed to uphold,” which applied to the military offensive in Ukraine, Mr. Guterres insisted. “It is wrong. It is against the Charter. It is unacceptable. But it is not irreversible.”
The Secretary-General called on soldiers in Russia’s war on Ukraine to “return to their barracks”... “We must never give up. We must give peace another chance,” he said.
UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths warned that the military escalation will have a high impact on civilian lives, and he reiterated the UN Secretary-General’s call for an immediate ceasefire.
Two days since Russia launched military operations inside Ukraine, the UN rights office, OHCHR, confirmed that confirmed that many civilians have already been killed and injured.
Communities are already in need of aid relief.
“When we look at shortages, we’re talking about fuel, which has been well reported in the media, we’re talking about cash, because often in humanitarian situations, cash assistance would be our first support to families, so obviously there’s been a drawdown on banks,” said UNICEF’s Ms. Khan.
Echoing that message and in an appeal for guaranteed humanitarian access to the most vulnerable individuals, the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted concerns that medical teams face being overwhelmed.
“We don’t have reports yet from the hospitals, when we look to particular injuries and the details of medical needs,” said Jarno Habicht, WHO Representative in Ukraine. “Where our focus has been now, is that the prepositioned medical kits. We will run out of them soon, so what is important how to ensure new supplies to come and...that there are humanitarian corridors from the neighbouring countries available.”
UN agencies have been active in Ukraine for many years, particularly since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – a move in large part rejected by the international community.
Immediate priorities include assessing what already vulnerable communities need in eastern regions of Donetsk, Luhansk and other oblasts.
“We are still trying to monitor what the situation is vis-à-vis civilian infrastructure,” said UNICEF’s Ms. Khan.
“As you know, there has been hits of critical infrastructure in the east, particularly in Donbass for some years and they have been cut off, hence the UNICEF water trucking operations. In the current scenario we are still trying to see which civilian infrastructure has been hit and where.”
Announcing the emergency funding allocation for the Ukraine crisis, Mr. Guterres underscored that the UN and its humanitarian partners are “committed to staying and delivering, to support people in Ukraine in their time of need.”
Forced mass displacement has also begun, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) confirmed.
“There are more than 100,000 who we estimate have lost their homes and are displaced inside the country and we are also aware of several thousand who have crossed international borders in the region, and we’ve seen those really just happening since the onset of the situation,” said UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo.
“We’re seeing these reports and we’ve seen for instance yesterday that there were about 5,000 refugee arrivals in Moldova already, but the other movements are being reported in Poland, Romania, Slovakia and the Russian Federation.”
24 February 2022 (OHCHR)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was deeply alarmed about the Russian Federation’s military attack against Ukraine.
“Civilians in various parts of Ukraine were awoken by sounds of heavy bombardment and are terrified of further escalation, with many fleeing their homes,” Bachelet said. “This military action clearly violates international law and puts at risk countless civilian lives. It must be immediately halted.”
“States that fail to take all reasonable measures to settle their international disputes by peaceful means fall short of complying with their obligation to protect the right to life,” Bachelet stressed.
Reports have emerged of military strikes near major cities with significant populations, including Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Odesa, Mariupol and the capital, Kyiv.
“The protection of the civilian population must be a priority. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas should – at all costs – be avoided,” Bachelet said.
The High Commissioner called for full respect for international humanitarian law, in particular the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their first additional protocol of 1977, as well as international human rights law.
In the conduct of hostilities, the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions must be fully respected, in particular by taking all required measures to protect the civilian population and civilian objects from the effects of the hostilities.
The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission remains in the country and will continue to closely monitor and report on the situation.
“An information war is also under way and it is particularly crucial at this time that we continue to closely monitor and attempt to verify reports of human rights violations, including civilian casualties, damage to civilian objects, including critical infrastructure, and other impact on human rights on the ground,” Bachelet said.
The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) underlined that Ukraine’s people were “terrified of further escalation of the conflict".
Protests have taken place around the world (including in Russia) calling for an immediate end to fighting in Ukraine.
24 Feb. 2022
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Peter Maurer on the situation in Ukraine:
The intensification and spread of the conflict risk a scale of death and destruction that are frightening to contemplate, given the immense military capacities involved.
We already see the immediate consequences for civilians, with the latest intensification triggering new displacement. Residents in Donbas and elsewhere have already endured eight years of conflict. Now I fear increased suffering, with the potential of massive casualty numbers and extensive destruction of civilian objects like water and electricity plants, as well as mass displacement, trauma, family separation, and missing persons.
It is ICRC's long experience that miscalculations, a lack of understanding and faulty assumptions to assess potential civilian impacts of major combat operations can have terrible effects.
We call for those involved in that fighting to take into account that:
Parties to the conflict in Ukraine must adhere to international humanitarian law, including the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and its First Additional Protocol from 1977, as well as ensure the protection of the civilian populations. They must refrain from attacks that violate the rules of the conduct of hostilities or prohibitions on means and methods of warfare. The use of weapons with wide area effects should most certainly be avoided in populated areas.
Attacks must not be directed against civilian objects. Essential infrastructure must be spared, including water, gas and electrical systems that, for instance, provide civilian homes, schools and medical facilities with vital water and electricity supplies. Attacks carried out with new technologies and cyber means must also respect international humanitarian law.
Space for neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action must be protected so that aid actors like the Ukrainian Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the wider Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement can maintain access to civilians.
The ICRC's priority is to assist those in need. The security situation permitting, our teams now in Ukraine will continue their work to repair vital infrastructure, support health facilities with medicines and equipment, and support families with food and hygiene items. We will also continue our bilateral and confidential dialogue with the parties to the conflict to protect those affected by the fighting.
We call for all states to do everything in their power and influence to avoid escalating a conflict whose cost and consequences for civilian populations outpaces the capacity to protect and assist them.
The ICRC has seen many conflicts start and escalate in recent years, but too few of them end, and in each one it is the civilian populations that bear the consequences.
24 Feb. 2022
Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell on children in Ukraine:
“UNICEF is deeply concerned that intensifying hostilities in Ukraine pose an immediate threat to the lives and wellbeing of the country’s 7.5 million children. Heavy weapons fire along the line of contact has already damaged critical water infrastructure and education facilities in recent days. Unless the fighting subsides, tens of thousands of families could be displaced, dramatically escalating humanitarian needs.
“UNICEF is working across eastern Ukraine to scale up life-saving programmes for children. This includes trucking safe water to conflict-affected areas; prepositioning health, hygiene and emergency education supplies as close as possible to communities near the line of contact; and working with municipalities to ensure there is immediate help for children and families in need. UNICEF-supported mobile teams are also providing care to children traumatized by the chronic insecurity.
“The past eight years of conflict have inflicted profound and lasting damage to children on both sides of the line of contact. The children of Ukraine need peace, desperately, now.
“UNICEF echoes the appeal of the Secretary-General for an immediate cease-fire and calls on all parties to respect their international obligations to protect children from harm, and to ensure that humanitarian actors can safely and quickly reach children in need. UNICEF also calls on all parties to refrain from attacking civilian infrastructure on which children depend - including water and sanitation systems, health facilities and schools.”


Explosive weapons: Civilians in populated areas must be protected
by International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Feb. 2022
Explosive weapons: Civilians in populated areas must be protected. (ICRC)
As the world urbanizes, so too do conflicts. It is estimated that some 50 million people now suffer the horrific consequences of urban warfare – a trend that is likely to continue as more and more people concentrate in towns and cities.
Many of these conflicts are fought using weapons designed to deliver large explosive force from a distance and over wide areas. Many, if not all, of these weapons are ill-adapted for use in urban and other population centres.
Their impact is devastating. They destroy lives, livelihoods, vital infrastructure and people's futures. Their use should be avoided at all costs, says the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a new report.
The report – Explosive Weapons with Wide Area Effects: A Deadly Choice in Populated Areas – analyses the main issues surrounding the use of such weapons. It is based on first-hand evidence from recent and ongoing armed conflicts, including in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Libya, the Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Yemen.
The report calls for a change of mindset and provides a range of recommendations to prevent or mitigate the impact of these weapons and better protect the civilian population.
"The civilian toll of bombing and shelling is unacceptable. There is an urgent need for States and all parties to armed conflict to review and adapt their military policy and practice, and to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas. These weapons should not be used in populated areas unless sufficient mitigation measures can be taken to limit their wide-area effects and the consequent risk of civilian harm." — ICRC President Peter Maurer
There is no general prohibition under international humanitarian law against using heavy explosive weapons in populated areas; however, such use must comply with all the rules governing the conduct of hostilities, notably the prohibitions against indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks and the obligation to take all feasible precautions in attack.
Evidence gathered by the ICRC shows a pattern of extensive suffering among civilians – especially women and children – when military objectives located in populated areas are attacked with explosive weapons that are inaccurate or otherwise prone to wide-area effects.
These include artillery (guns and rockets), most mortars, multi-barrel rocket launchers, air-delivered general-purpose bombs, and large improvised explosive devices.
Given the density of civilians and civilian structures, the use of these weapons in populated areas is very likely to have indiscriminate effects or to violate the principle of proportionality.
But irrespective of its legality, the report shows that the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas causes:
High numbers of civilian deaths and injuries; Mental and psychosocial harm; Significant damage to and destruction of civilian property and critical infrastructure; Disruption of services essential to the survival of the civilian population, including water, electricity, sanitation and health care; Contamination by unexploded ordnance; Degradation of the natural environment; Displacement of the civilian population; Long-term consequences for development
Examples of the grim reality facing civilians in populated areas include:
In Iraq, in 2016, the ICRC documented 42 incidents involving the use of heavy explosive weapons in Fallujah, 37 of which were described as indirect fire consisting mainly of mortars and rockets. These 42 incidents left at least 115 civilians dead and 150 injured.
In Syria, it was estimated that 15.5 million people needed water, sanitation and hygiene services in 2019, partly because of heavy infrastructural damage sustained during the armed conflict, including from the use of heavy explosive weapons.
In Yemen, the destruction of Hayden Hospital in Sa'ada by air strikes, in 2015, left 200,000 people with no access to lifesaving medical care.
In Libya, between April and July 2019, the ICRC recorded the displacement of over 120,000 civilians mainly as a result of the continuous use of heavy explosive weapons in residential areas of Tripoli.
During the 2009 military operation in Gaza, children reportedly accounted for a third of all civilian casualties; of the 353 children who died, 82% were killed by heavy explosive weapons.
In Afghanistan, over 2,000 civilian casualties were recorded from indirect fire, including mortars, artillery and rockets, in 2020.
"The extent of civilian suffering and destruction in today's armed conflicts makes it urgently necessary for States and all parties to armed conflicts to reassess and adapt their choice of weapons when conducting hostilities in populated areas." — Cordula Droege, the ICRC's chief legal officer
The report issues several key recommendations to political authorities and armed forces on preventive and mitigation measures. They include:
The use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas to be avoided, i.e. that these weapons should not be used unless sufficient mitigation measures are taken to limit their wide-area effects and the consequent risk of civilian harm.
The protection of civilians to be explicitly identified as a strategic objective at the highest level, prior to military operations, and to be integrated into all military orders.
Armed forces to be equipped with and trained in the proper use of weapons and means and methods of warfare that are appropriate for use in urban and other populated areas.
Ensure critical civilian infrastructure is identified and mapped, and that this information is communicated to frontline military commanders.
"This report demonstrates that a political commitment to take action and change the unacceptable status quo is both urgently needed and possible: the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas should be avoided, and such an avoidance policy needs to be incorporated in military doctrine, education and training, and reflected in equipment and military decision-making processes," added Cordula Droege.

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