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80 countries just signed a declaration on protecting civilians in war

If it’s not a binding treaty, how can it influence military action? Here’s what research tells us.

Local residents stand in front of a residential building damaged by a missile attack in Vyshgorod, outside Kyiv. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

As Russia’s war against Ukraine illustrates, civilians often bear the brunt of suffering in conflict — sometimes directly killed or saddled with lifelong injuries, and sometimes from the destruction of critical infrastructure like hospitals, power plants and sanitation systems needed to survive. International laws of war prohibit targeting civilians — but often fail to protect them in practice.

How can this be stopped? Ireland recently organized the development of a multilateral declaration aimed at better protecting civilians from explosive weapons in populated areas. While it’s not a legally binding treaty, this declaration includes new guidelines developed to improve how international humanitarian law gets put into practice. Eighty countries, including the United States, signed this declaration in Dublin on Nov. 18.

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Why a new agreement on explosive weapons in populated areas?

Existing international humanitarian law already regulates military conduct in war. Some core principles include using no more force than necessary; not causing unnecessary suffering; and distinguishing targets from non-targets. Militaries are also forbidden from targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure.

While these principles may seem straightforward, countries can have a hard time applying them in practice. That’s because countries and armed groups increasingly wage war not on open battlefields but in areas densely populated with civilians. And yet many explosive weapons — from unguided air-delivered bombs to heavy artillery — were designed for use in open battlefields, with few civilians nearby. When these weapons are used in urban areas, where military targets are often close to civilian buildings and infrastructure, mistakes are easily made.

In 2021, civilians made up 89 percent of the people killed or injured by explosive weapons used in populated areas. When these weapons were used outside populated areas, only 10 percent of those killed or injured were civilians.

Further, in urban areas, explosive weapons easily damage or destroy sanitation systems, hospitals, food distribution centers and energy infrastructure. Such secondary effects often kill and injure many more civilians than the initial blast. This occurs even when militaries avoid directly targeting these facilities (unlike Russia’s direct targeting of civilian infrastructure in Ukraine).

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What does this declaration do?

The agreement was led by Ireland and Austria but supported and signed by countries on every continent, including the United States. In response to growing international concern over civilian suffering in armed conflict, countries began to discuss how civilian protection could be improved. After three years of meetings and consultations, from 2019 to 2022, countries agreed on standards through which militaries could better live up to their obligations under international law.

Specifically, signatories agree that their armed forces will restrict or refrain from using explosive weapons in populated areas when doing so can cause harm to civilians or civilian infrastructure. They commit to “take into account the direct and indirect effects on civilians and civilian objects which can reasonably be foreseen in the planning of military operations and the execution of attacks.” And they accept the obligation to assist civilian victims affected by armed conflict, for example, by providing emergency medical services to civilians and/or funding rebuilding after conflict.

Countries will implement this declaration in different ways, depending on the particulars of their armed forces. But many will need to revise their “rules of engagement” — the term militaries use to define how their armed forces behave in battle — and revise their military education and training. This extends to how they assess the anticipated effects of weapons before using them. Such assessments — especially regarding anticipated collateral damage — will need to consider factors that differ from urban to open battlefield contexts. For example, weapons aimed at military targets in urban areas may damage water or energy infrastructure in unanticipated ways.

Many countries, including the United States, already incorporate the commitments in this declaration into their doctrine and training. For them, signing this declaration reinforces and makes public their commitment to protecting civilians in armed conflict.

What can political agreements achieve if they’re not legally binding?

This agreement is a political declaration rather than a legally binding treaty. It contains no mechanisms for punishing violators or monitoring compliance. Russia did not participate and is unlikely to join any time soon.

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But political agreements can still help change countries’ behavior, researchers find, by establishing international standards for behavior. Countries and civil society organizations can then put social pressure on countries to comply with those standards. Moreover, as Michael Gaffey, Irish ambassador to the U.N. office in Geneva, noted, the process of negotiating this declaration was important for creating agreement among countries on the problems with using explosive weapons in populated areas and appropriate measures to address them. Holding follow-up meetings to review governments’ implementation of this agreement, identifying best practices, and drawing public attention to where countries fall short can put social pressure on them to implement their commitments.

In addition, naming and shaming by civil society has led governments to improve their protection of human rights in other areas and could do so here too. Civil society groups like Human Rights Watch and Action on Armed Violence brought governments’ attention to the international failure to protect civilians from armed conflict in urban areas. They are well-positioned to name and shame countries that signed this declaration if they don’t live up to it, as well as countries that haven’t yet joined.

While unlikely to change Russian behavior, this declaration takes an important stand against normalizing Russia’s bombing and violence against civilians in Ukraine. The 80 countries that signed the agreement include not just NATO members but a wide range of countries, showing how far-reaching support is for better protecting civilians in armed conflict.

Yet civilians in other countries endure explosive weapons attacks in their cities, including in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the Philippines, Syria, and Yemen. Establishing standards of behavior for military operations makes it possible for countries that developed this agreement to then pressure those that sign up — and even those that haven’t — to change their behavior or risk being seen as inhumane.

Finally, this declaration shows how countries both large and small can work together on international security and humanitarian problems — and can agree that civilians deserve to be safe, no matter how volatile the conflict may be. Its effectiveness, however, will depend on how it is implemented.

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Naomi Egel is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University.

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