EWIPA: The epitome of civilian suffering in modern conflict

December 1, 2023

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2023

It seems obvious that those of us troubled by the horrible suffering that civilians are experiencing in ongoing armed conflicts, such as those in Gaza and Ukraine, are particularly disturbed by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). It is also obvious that the international community is not responding adequately to such use.

We know that EWIPA is the leading cause of civilian casualties in armed conflict and that most of those killed and injured by EWIPA are civilians. Yet recent efforts to develop robust new standards to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of noncombatants, in which Project Ploughshares has participated, have been undermined by state and nonstate combatants that ignore norms for the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

Authoritative evidence, including data from Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), reveals the extensive use of EWIPA in some of today’s most devastating conflicts. According to AOAV’s information as of November 15, in Ukraine alone, there have been 17,745 civilian casualties from explosive violence since the Russian invasion began on February 24, 2022, with 5,251 killed and 12,494 injured.

Recent data on Gaza: A disturbing surge in civilian casualties

AOAV is now providing data that illustrates the dire effects produced by the Israeli Defense Forces’ Operation Swords of Iron in Gaza, in response to the Hamas attack on Israeli settlements on October 7. The 299 recorded airstrikes in October resulted in 4,104 civilian casualties, with 2,798 killed and 1,306 injured. These numbers represent an unprecedented level of violence, which demands a closer examination of the human costs and raises questions about adherence to international humanitarian law (IHL).

Along with the urgent humanitarian imperative to address the unfolding crisis in Gaza, there is a legal obligation to comply with IHL. The international community must protect the lives of civilians and ensure that military actions adhere to the established norms of international law.

What sets this operation apart is not only the sheer intensity of the attacks but the profound impact on civilian lives. According to AOAV, this operation has caused an average of 10.1 fatalities per casualty-causing airstrike. This is four times higher than the rate in Operation Protective Edge in July and August 2014, when the average number of deaths per civilian casualty-causing airstrike stood at 2.5. This stark increase in lethality underscores the magnitude of the crisis Gazan civilians now face.

In addition to these alarming statistics, there are multiple credible and well-documented reports of airstrikes that targeted civilian infrastructure and services, including hospitals and ambulances, residential neighborhoods, and even religious sites. Such attacks on civilian spaces exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, violate fundamental principles of international law, and further underscore the urgent need for concerted global action.

The surge in civilian casualties raises critical questions about potential escalations in Israeli military tactics or shifts in targeting policies. The fourfold increase in lethality of airstrikes suggests a departure from previous operational strategies, amplifying concerns about the impact on civilian populations. Moreover, the disturbingly high casualty rates bring to the forefront serious concerns about a lack of adherence to international humanitarian law. Principles such as distinction, proportionality, and precautions in attack are fundamental to protecting civilian lives during armed conflict. The evident escalation in lethality prompts a critical examination of whether these principles have been adequately observed in the conflict in Gaza.

A humanitarian and legal imperative

The international community must confront the egregious violations of humanitarian law taking place in Gaza, holding responsible actors accountable and reinforcing the imperative to protect innocent lives caught in the crossfire of armed conflict.

Along with the urgent humanitarian imperative to address the unfolding crisis in Gaza, there is a legal obligation to comply with IHL. The international community must protect the lives of civilians and ensure that military actions adhere to the established norms of international law.

As the world grapples with the complex realities of conflict, it must recognize the moral responsibility of nations and global bodies to prevent further unnecessary loss of civilian life. According to AOAV Executive Director Dr. Iain Overton, “This isn’t just a statistical concern; it’s a human one. The numbers suggest a potential shift in military strategy that has had devastating consequences for non-combatants.”

As we navigate the complex terrain of armed conflict and its devastating impact on civilians, confronting the issue of EWIPA becomes a moral necessity. The international community must unite to strengthen existing frameworks, develop new strategies, and hold accountable those who commit violence against civilians by using explosive weapons in populated areas.

Unlocking the tragic truth of conflict encapsulated in the acronym EWIPA is not only a universal responsibility but a call to action for every citizen of the world to protect the most vulnerable in times of armed conflict.

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