Sixty countries will meet in Geneva from Wednesday to discuss curbs on the use of heavy bombs in urban areas in the wake of intense fighting in Ukraine believed to have killed and injured thousands in cities such as Mariupol.
The three-day conference, supported by the UN secretary general, aims to produce a draft international agreement to restrict use of indiscriminate bombing in cities, which statistics show overwhelmingly leads to the death of civilians.
An analysis published on Tuesday shows that when bombs went off in cities during 2021, 89% of those killed and injured were civilians – described as a “predictable harm” by one of the report’s authors, Iain Overton from the charity Action on Armed Violence ( AOAV).
The global figures do not include any data from the conflict in Ukraine, but the pattern is expected to be similar for 2022. Initial figures recorded by AOAV in Ukraine have counted 1,411 civilian casualties – almost certainly an underestimate – 96% of which took place in urban areas.
Russian forces have sought to capture the port city of Mariupol in the south of the country with heavy shelling, with a theater sheltering civilians and a maternity hospital struck during the past month. Ukraine has estimated that 5,000 civilians have been killed in the city but this is not possible to verify.
Laura Boillot, the coordinator of the International Network on Explosive Weapons pressure group, said that “when explosive weapons with wide area effects are used in populated areas among civilians and infrastructure, it is civilians that suffer the most”.
She added: “We’ve seen extensive use of heavy explosive weapon systems such as unguided missiles and multi-barrel rocket launchers in major towns and cities in Ukraine such as Kyiv and Mariupol. These weapons impact a wide area with blast and fragmentation, and are prone to inaccuracy.
Those involved and watching this week’s talks hope the fighting in Ukraine will give impetus to those involved to agree to a draft text to curb bombing in built-up areas by a core group of countries. The wording will then be finalized at a meeting in May or June to produce an agreement that states can then sign up to.
Last week a spokesperson for António Guterres, the UN secretary general, called for countries to agree “a strong text that includes an express commitment to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas”.
But it is not yet clear what language will be agreed – and who is prepared to sign up to the draft agreement, which has so far been coordinated by Ireland.
European countries, led by France and Belgium, have been among the keenest to reach an agreement, with others, such as the UK, engaged on the issue. However, the US has expressed some reservations and is not certain to sign up.
Russia has been monitoring previous discussions but is not expected to endorse the agreement. At present the key part of the draft text calls for “restricting the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas” – beyond the area of an immediate military objective.
It is already illegal under international humanitarian law to target civilians in war. But it is hoped that further curbs on the use of heavy munitions in built-up areas will act as a reference point in future conflicts, as does the ban on cluster munitions.
Overall, the AOAV research recorded 19,473 deaths and injuries by explosive weapon in 2,489 incidents recorded in English-language media, up 1% from the year before. Of these, 57% were civilians. The worst-affected countries and territories in 2021 were Afghanistan, Syria, Gaza, Yemen and Iraq.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism