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On Protecting Civilians in Urban Conflict Zones


A mother of 8 children exits part of her house as her children stay around in an informal settlement of internally displaced people in the outskirts of the city of Hargeisa, Somaliland. (File)

According to the United Nations, globally more than 50 million people are impacted by fighting inside towns and cities.

On Protecting Civilians in Urban Conflict Zones
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It’s a sad fact that in times of conflict, it is the civilians who suffer the most. This is particularly true of violence in urban areas. According to the United Nations, globally more than 50 million people are impacted by fighting inside towns and cities.

In urban areas, military forces are often positioned alongside civilian dwellings and interwoven throughout a city. This puts innocent civilians and the infrastructure that supports them directly in the line of fire.

“Explosive weapons have made it devastatingly easy to threaten and kill large groups of civilians,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas Greenfield.

“In some instances, armed actors go so far as to use civilians as human shields. In others, they deliberately place military objectives near civilians – sometimes purposely seeking out the highest concentration of innocent people.”

What can be done to prevent such atrocities? “As a first step, parties to armed conflict must respect applicable international humanitarian law,” said Ambassador Thomas Greenfield.

“Of course, often the perpetrators are non-state armed groups. They, too, must abide by these laws.” And all parties to the conflict must be held accountable.

“States should implement improved accountability measures to hold themselves to a high standard; that means conducting assessments and investigations, acknowledging civilian harm when it happens, and making serious efforts to assist harmed civilians. And we should work together to develop [multilateral] frameworks for addressing the most pressing challenges. As just one example, the United States has been working with a number of other states, led by Ireland, to develop a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas.”

The United States is committed to strengthening its own efforts in these areas. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Austin has recently announced a Defense Department effort to create a national action plan on civilian harm mitigation and response.

“Our claim to maintain international peace and security is only as strong as our results. We have an obligation to uphold international humanitarian law, to turn those lofty and important words into real and practical protections for civilians,” said Ambassador Thomas Greenfield.

“The world’s civilians are counting on us. Let us live up to their expectations, enable their hopes and dreams, and do everything in our power to protect them.”

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