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When wars are fought in cities, nobody wins

Posted By on May 24, 2023 @ 12:45

On 29 April 2023, Sudan’s Federal Ministry of Health reported [1] that the death toll from clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces had risen to 528, with thousands injured.

The consequences of this intense violence have been felt most acutely in the streets of Khartoum, where fighting in densely populated areas has endangered [2] civilians. As well as the immediate effects of airstrikes, artillery and small arms fire, potable water and food have become scarce, electricity has been cut, and hospitals have been forced to operate with limited staff and supplies.

‘Cities simply aren’t designed to withstand conflict,’ International Committee of the Red Cross water and habitat engineer Michael Talhami explains. ‘City infrastructure is interconnected and fragile. A single water treatment plant, hospital or electricity production plant may service hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. Whole systems buckle when a single point fails.’

In exchange for the opportunities that a city affords, its inhabitants forgo a degree of self-reliance. Their survival depends on goods and services—including [3] water, sanitation, food and health care—provided by the state or third parties. This vulnerability, together with population density and the interdependency of urban subsystems, means that fighting in cities tends to have particularly severe humanitarian consequences.

International humanitarian law, the law of armed conflict, is the first line of protection for civilians. In conflict, it applies everywhere—in cities and towns, in rural environments, and even in outer space [4].

In practice, however, the characteristics of urban environments affect the law’s application. Fighters tend to mingle with civilians, infrastructure is used for both military and civilian purposes, and heavy explosive weapons often have indiscriminate effects.

Still, it is possible to comply with the law in densely populated areas. This is first a peacetime task—the more that can be done to keep civilians far from future combat, the better. Planning is key [5]. The law requires states to avoid placing military bases within or near densely populated areas, for example.

The use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas is one of the major causes [6] of civilian harm in today’s armed conflicts. That’s why governments, including Australia, have endorsed the political declaration [7] on strengthening the protection of civilians from the humanitarian consequences arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This is a collective achievement with the potential to improve the situation of hundreds of thousands of people affected by armed conflict.

But there’s plenty more that can be done, including by militaries [8]. Doctrines highlighting protection of civilians as a key element of urban operations, specific training for urban warfare, and planning that considers the human terrain and infrastructure are all feasible measures for mitigating harm to civilians.

Humanitarian actors must also refine their responses to the exigencies of war in cities. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for instance, has been responding to war in cities for 160 years, alongside the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

In 2022, recognising the higher humanitarian stakes in cities [9], the ICRC recommended that humanitarian actors take into account the distinct nature of the humanitarian needs in cities.

In recent years, the ICRC has developed [3] its work in densely populated areas. Its approach values dialogue with political authorities and weapon-bearers, measures to ensure the continued functioning of essential services, efforts to prevent and address urban displacement, activities to reduce the impact of mines and unexploded and abandoned ordnance, and more.

This builds on an ICRC report [10] on urban services in protracted armed conflict, which considered how humanitarian agencies could better ensure that their assistance ‘takes account of the longer-term realities and needs’ of people in urban environments.

This, in turn, requires donors’ support for flexible multi-year funding mechanisms to prevent the collapse of essential services and strengthen resilience in the longer term, while reinforcing short-term emergency response.

By 2050 almost 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. The devastating harm that warfare causes in urban areas has been showcased from Aleppo, Mosul, Sana’a and Gaza to Marawi, Mogadishu, Mariupol and Khartoum. When fighting comes to cities, hundreds of civilians are killed or injured, with many left with permanent disabilities and grave mental trauma.

The best precaution against the humanitarian consequences of war in cities is to avoid it altogether. While states can employ [5] strategies that take combat outside of populated areas, historical and current events show that this is not always possible.

There’s an urgent need for a shift in mindset by belligerents to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and strengthen the protection of civilians when fighting in urban environments. States and other actors should also take steps towards better planning, protect essential services, and mitigate the humanitarian consequences of urban warfare to prevent hunger, disease and displacement in cities.

On 31 May 2023, the International Committee of the Red Cross will open an exhibition titled ‘War in Cities’ at the Gorman Arts Centre in Canberra. The exhibition highlights the devastating humanitarian impacts of war in cities, and encourages compliance with international humanitarian law and respect for humanitarian operations. Find out more here [11].

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URLs in this post:

[1] reported: https://sudantribune.com/article273479/#:~:text=April%2029%2C%202023%20(KHARTOUM),to%20528%2C%20with%20thousands%20injured.

[2] endangered: https://www.icrc.org/en/document/sudan-fighting-densely-populated-areas-endangers-civilian-lives-humanitarian-organisations

[3] including: https://www.icrc.org/en/document/present-and-engaged-how-icrc-responds-armed-conflict-and-violence-cities

[4] outer space: https://www.icrc.org/en/download/file/163654/icrc_potential_human_cost_of_use_of_weapons_in_outer_space_and_ihl_protection.pdf

[5] Planning is key: https://www.icrc.org/sites/default/files/document/file_list/challenges-report_urbanization-of-armed-conflicts.pdf

[6] major causes: https://www.icrc.org/en/explosive-weapons-populated-areas

[7] political declaration: https://www.dfa.ie/media/dfa/ourrolepolicies/peaceandsecurity/ewipa/EWIPA-Political-Declaration-Final-Rev-25052022.pdf

[8] including by militaries: https://library.icrc.org/library/docs/DOC/icrc-4569-002.pdf#:~:text=This%20handbook%20is%20one%20element%20of%20that%20strategy.,could%20lead%20to%20a%20reduction%20in%20civilian%20harm.

[9] higher humanitarian stakes in cities: https://www.icrc.org/en/publication/4666-present-and-engaged-how-icrc-responds-armed-conflict-and-violence-cities

[10] report: https://www.icrc.org/sites/default/files/topic/file_plus_list/4249_urban_services_during_protracted_armed_conflict.pdf

[11] here: https://www.icrc.org/en/event/icrc-exhibition-brings-reality-war-australian-cities

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