Use of explosive weapons in populated areas

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 It is a pleasure to, on behalf of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to welcome you all to this expert meeting on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

  • We appreciate the participation of a group of individuals who are at the forefront in this field.
  • I am certain you will ensure that our discussions over the coming two days are informative, relevant and innovative.

I am particularly pleased that so many colleagues from other states have made time to attend this meeting.

  • We have participants with experience from a broad range of countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria.
  • Your first-hand experience will help us make this a productive and useful meeting.

For Norway it is important to support international efforts to strengthen the protection of civilians from the harmful effects of wars and armed conflicts.

  • This has been a consistent priority for decades and is a core aspect of Norwegian foreign policy.
  • We support the UN Secretary-General’s work in this area.
  • Today’s meeting is a result of our cooperation with OCHA and their work to implement the mandate given to them by the Secretary-General on explosive weapons.
  • We also have a number of other partners working both on policy development and on programmes on the ground in affected areas.

The existing rules of war, in the form of international humanitarian law, are clear.

  • Parties to an armed conflict have an obligation to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants and to balance military objectives against the protection of civilians.
  • Wars are brutal, and international humanitarian law accepts that some civilians will inevitably be harmed.
  • And therefore we have an obligation to never give up our efforts to strengthen the protection of civilians.

The purpose of our meeting is to identify existing military policies and practices on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and to look at ways to reduce the potential for negative humanitarian impacts arising from their use.

  • The aim is not to create new international law, nor to ban a particular weapon.
  • Rather, we are seeking to promote the full implementation of the existing rules of warfare, in particular the obligation to protect civilians in armed conflict, to the extent possible.
  • We know that the way in which international humanitarian law is practised matters.

Sound military tactics employed in the pursuit of strategic objectives tend to restrict the use of explosive force in populated areas.

  • This was the case, for example, in the ISAF operation in Afghanistan.
  • There are also ample examples from other international military operations that indicate that the excessive use of explosive force in populated areas can undermine both tactical and strategic objectives.

The tendency to reduce the use of explosive weapons in populated areas can be seen as part of a long-term downward trend over the last decades.

  • To take just one example, we can look at the use of explosive weapons during the air campaign over Libya in 2013.
  • Explosive weapons were employed within the limits permitted by international humanitarian law, but there was significantly less civilian damage and harm on the ground compared to previous conflicts.
  • This tells us that practice in exercising international humanitarian law, matters.

The data on the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in populated areas, produced in recent years by actors such as the ICRC, the International Network on Explosive Weapons and the UN, are overwhelming.

  • The use of explosive weapons in populated areas makes civilians the main victims of armed conflict, in both the short and the long term.
  • Shelling and bombing populated areas, and in particular urban areas, kills and hurts indiscriminately, destroys vital infrastructure and deprives people of housing, health facilities and schools.
  • This in turn affects post-conflict rehabilitation, peace-building and reconstruction long after the actual fighting is over.

Nowhere is this more clearly and tragically evident than in Syria.

  • The Syrian regime’s continuous use of massive explosive force in densely populated areas, including its use of banned cluster munitions and devastating barrel bombs, demonstrates an appalling and criminal neglect of all the basic rules of warfare, in particular the obligation to protect civilians.
  • Elements of the opposition are no better in terms of their use of explosives in populated areas, though this has been on a much smaller and less catastrophic scale.

The goal for the discussions we will have over the coming days is to help to establish and improve norms for how governments that are engaged in military operations should implement existing laws of war,

  • in particular with regard to the use of explosive weapons and where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable practice.

The approach taken to this problem so far, with its focus on actual situations and practical experience, is a very useful one.

  • In my view, this is the best way of developing operational recommendations that can change behaviour.
  • These recommendations can then provide a basis on which states and other actors can develop general norms that can be applied to similar situations.

A similar approach has been taken on drafting the “Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict”.

  • Norway will take lead on completing and promoting these guidelines, something we believe will significantly enhance protection of civilians in conflict situations.

I wish you all the best of luck with this meeting, which I am confident will be a successful.

Thank you.

 

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