When War Moves to Cities: Protection of Civilians in Urban Areas

Photo By: Brian Harrington Spier

New InterAction and International Committee of the Red Cross Report Examines the Challenges of Mitigating Civilian Harm in Urban Conflicts

WASHINGTON – InterAction and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released a new joint report, "When War Moves to Cities: Protection of Civilians in Urban Areas," in response to the increased risks facing civilian populations in several urban conflict contexts. With more than half of the world’s population now living in cities, and at least 50 million people worldwide affected by conflict in urban areas, minimizing harm to civilian is increasingly necessary. Protecting civilians and civilian objects during urban conflict is far more challenging than in rural environments due to high population density and the close proximity of civilians to military targets. The interconnectedness of urban services, such as between water and power supplies, means that damage to infrastructure, intended or not, affects significant numbers of people and demands large scale humanitarian efforts.

Based on the findings of an October 2016 roundtable discussion jointly facilitated by ICRC and InterAction staff, the report describes the challenges presented by conflict in urban areas and highlights good practices related to the protection of civilians by militaries and other parties to conflict, as well as the efforts of humanitarian agencies and civilians themselves. Roundtable participants included policymakers at the State Department, Department of Defense, senior congressional staff, policy advisors at humanitarian agencies, prominent researchers and human rights advocates, UN personnel, and various elements of the U.S. Armed Services. ICRC and InterAction staff subsequently analyzed the discussion to identify key common themes for minimizing civilian harm in urban conflicts.

In the midst of conflict in cities, civilians experience dangerous journeys to markets, are exposed to sniper fire, attacks on their homes, schools, and places of work, and may be forced to leave their homes in search of safety elsewhere. Beyond loss of life, physical and psychological harm also affect civilians caught in urban conflict situations: loss of limbs, sight, and hearing; burns; injuries caused by collapsing buildings; and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Destruction of civilian infrastructure in Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, Homs, and other Syrian cities has impacted millions of civilians; for example, fighting in Aleppo destroyed much of the power grid, leaving the majority of the city and surrounding areas with little or no access to electricity. Renewed fighting around Damascus in December 2016 damaged the infrastructure used to divert water from Ain al-Fijeh spring in the Barada Valley north of the city, leaving 5.5 million residents of the area without access to water.

InterAction calls on all parties to conflict, both state and non-state, to take concrete measures to minimize harm to civilians in situations of urban conflict. Urban warfare can have devastating consequences for civilians, particularly, though not only, when parties to conflict fail to respect the relevant rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) regulating the conduct of hostilities.

Read the full report, "When War Move to Cities: Protection of Civilians in Urban Areas."