The UK, the US, France, and Japan are among a slew of countries set to sign the first ever political declaration committing nations to avoid bombing and shelling populated towns and cities, a move which rights groups say will save thousands of civilian lives.
Ireland presented a final draft of the declaration to the United Nations in Geneva on Friday after nearly three years of negotiations by member states and civil society organisations.
The final wording - which is significantly watered down compared to initial drafts - is not legally binding. But it commits signatories to avoid using explosive weapons, like aerial bombs, rockets, artillery projectiles and missiles, in urban areas as they have such devastating effect.
According to the UN more than 90 per cent of global reported civilian casualties each year are the result of the use of these weapons in populated areas.
Airwairs, a UK-based monitoring group that backs the declaration and tracks the destruction caused by this globally, citing data from the Explosive Weapons Monitor say they were responsible for more than 5000 civilian deaths or injuries this year alone. Several thousand of those casualties are in Ukraine which Russian invaded in February.
And so a declaration signed by countries around the world will change behaviour that will “lead to countless lives being saved”, said Airwars director Emily Tripp.
“We welcome the UK’s announcement that it intends to sign the Political Declaration, we urge the UK to stick to its commitment, for other states to follow suit and for clarity on how states expect to implement it,” Ms Tripps told The Independent.
“States that join this declaration will contribute to creating a new international norm around the use of explosive weapons and will require militaries and governments to review their own practices and create robust national policies.”
She said many militaries, including the UK, show a “poor understanding” of the impact of their own weapons in towns and cities and that “so called precision warfare” has not improved civilian death and injury tolls.
“If implemented properly, this declaration will no doubt lead to countless lives being saved,” she added.
British MPs have over the years joined calls for countries in particular the UK to “show some leadership” and not only sign the declaration, but push for an outright ban.
Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s spokesperson for Defence and a member of the foreign affairs committee who has been involved in the talks, welcomed the UK’s decision to sign the declaration calling it a “positive step forward”.
He said the current laws of war were falling short: even under international law explosive weapons with wide area effects can still be legally used in urban areas.
He said it was important for the UK to go even further than signing the declaration, which had been “watered down”.
“To continue with an architecture that doesn’t protect civilians shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone,” he said.
To continue with an architecture that doesn’t protect civilians shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone
Stewart McDonald, SNP MP
“The UK, as a founding NATO member, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a major European military power, should show some leadership and sign up to the original ban and help lead an international coalition to get that ratified.”
Fabian Hamilton, a Labour MP and shadow minister for peace and disarmament, said President Putin’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Ukraine had made the issue “an urgent priority”.
“The scale of the death and destruction shows that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas must become an urgent priority for the international community in order to protect civilian life and those responsible must be held to account,” he told The Independent.
Political declarations are not legally binding but right groups and the UN say they are an initial step in countries committing to make a change.
They can help clarify what constitutes legal conduct and establish a framework for best practices and reform among states for the future. The UK signed a similar political declaration on Safe Schools in 2018, in which it pledged to strengthen the protection of education and limit the use of school facilities from use during war which has worked.
Now more than ever this is vital, with the devastating Russian invasion of Ukraine that has seen urban centres be obliterated and towns littered with land mines and unexploded bombs.
And this is the issue for the future of war-ravaged states, said Najat El Hamri, Middle East Regional Director of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG).
Explosive weapons not only maim and kill civilians at the time of the attack but often do not explode on impact leaving behind deadly remnants “continuing to threaten people’s lives, often for generations.”
“Unexploded ordnance is left around homes, schools, water stations, and other vital infrastructure.,” Ms Hamri said. “People are not safe while explosive items litter their communities, and clearing these areas takes years of costly and resource-intensive work,” she added.
Human Rights Watch said that the use of explosive weapons in built up areas can also cause environmental damage, can obstruct health care and education and can displace communities.
There was some criticism of the declaration which is a far tamer version of what was initially tabled. But both rights groups and MPs said it was a first step.
“It is a shame that the current wording of the declaration has been watered down but it is progress of a kind, a step towards something that is enforceable” MP Stewart added.
“How can you possibly look at what is happening to civilians, to children and their mothers, to the elderly in places in Ukraine, how can you see all that and think rules around the use of explosive weapons aren’t needed?”