Use of heavy weapons in urban conflict has dire consequences: ICRC

Benise Balaoing, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 11 2022 12:29 PM

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MANILA -- A new study from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has found that the use of heavy explosive weapons in urban areas in some countries, including the Philippines, has led to devastating consequences for the civilian population.

The study noted, in particular, that 65,000 civilians displaced by conflict in Marawi have reportedly been unable to return to their homes more than a year after the end of hostilities because of the damage caused by the use of heavy explosive weapons in the fight against Islamic State-inspired militants.

“In the Philippines…65,000 civilians displaced by conflict in Marawi have reportedly been unable to return to their homes more than a year after the end of hostilities because of the extent of the damage in the city and the presence of (unexploded explosive ordnance),” it said.

The study also pointed out that when critical city infrastructure is hit, essential services like water, sanitation, electrical power, and health care are disrupted and may even collapse.

This, the ICRC says, may lead to outbreaks of disease and epidemics, further endangering the population.

“These ‘reverberating’ effects can spread far in time and space and can affect a much larger part of the civilian population than those in the impact zone of the attack,” the study said.

Speaking to ANC’s “Rundown,” ICRC legal adviser Eirini Giorgou said that heavy explosive weapons sow destruction and damage in a large area around their actual target.

“This can be whether because they are very heavy weapons--so large bombs, big missiles, large caliber artillery shells--or it can because they are low in accuracy so a lot of munitions will fall in a large area around the target. They will not strike the target accurately and with precision,” she said.

Giorgou explained that more heavy weapons are being used in urban areas because urban conflict has been increasing in recent years.

“The problem is that while this environment of the battlefield has changed, becoming more urban, the weapons that are used by the parties to conflict have largely remained the same,” she said.

“So these heavy explosive weapons that we mentioned earlier, they were mostly designed for use in open battlefield where of course, they are not as problematic. But now they are being used in densely populated areas which is what causes a grave humanitarian concern.”

The ICRC report pointed out that the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas is not currently prohibited under International Humanitarian Law.

It stressed, however, that the use of these weapons could violate prohibitions against indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on the civilian population.

Giorgou noted that even “smart weapons”—munitions that try to limit the damage they cause by hitting a target more precisely—can inflict damage on civilian property.

“Even a weapon striking accurately its target can in fact cause damage and destruction around a large area if it has a large explosive payload,” she explained. 

“So if it’s a heavy bomb, even if it strikes precisely the target in a densely-populated area like a city, it will almost inevitably also harm civilians and civilian objects around it because it has a large payload.”

“The other point is that these technologies are available but are still limited to a relatively small number of states and their armed forces, precisely because their cost is still a bit too high for the majority of states and military to afford,” Girogou said.

“And even for those states who do have them, they will not use them as their main weapon in their arsenal. They will keep them for strategic targets or high value targets.”

“They have not yet replaced the traditional mortars, artillery and the other weapons that are usually not guided and therefore inaccurate,” she added.

Giorgou said the ICRC is talking to various governments around the world about the impact of using heavy weapons in urban conflict.

“There is a diplomatic process going on for a couple of years now…the objective is not to prohibit the use of heavy explosive weapons but to make political commitments to restrict or limit its use,” she said.

The Philippines in particular, she noted, has not yet responded to their latest findings. 

She stressed, however, that they have been in talks with the Armed Forces of the Philippines on ways by which the International Humanitarian Law could be better implemented in the country.

“As of last year, we in fact have a memorandum of agreement with the Armed Forces of the Philippines on integrating International Humanitarian Law into their doctrine and practice by 2028, which is a great vision.”

“And we very much look to work with them in the context of this agreement as well on how to adopt at least a number of these recommendations because while they are recommendations of policy and good practice, in their majority, if they’re implemented, they will also enable armed forces to better respect the law when fighting in urban areas,” she said.

--ANC, 11 February 2022