Strengthening the protection of civilians: Reflections from the Oslo Conference on EWIPA

June 12, 2024

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2024

In the heart of Oslo, on April 22-23, 2024, the international community gathered to reaffirm its commitment to protecting civilians from the devastating impacts of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). Events started with the Global Protection Forum on April 22, co-hosted by the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) and the Norwegian Red Cross. The forum was followed by the first conference to review the implementation and universalization of the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, hosted by the government of Norway on April 23.

The urgency of concerns over the use of EWIPA was underscored by dire situations in Gaza and Ukraine, among other conflict zones, where civilians continue to bear the brunt of explosive violence. The Oslo events also served to showcase the passion and determination of experts, activists, and policymakers dedicated to safeguarding civilian lives in armed conflict.

The humanitarian cost of EWIPA

The horrific suffering that civilians endure in ongoing armed conflicts is highlighted  when considering the use of EWIPA. Explosive weapons in populated areas are the leading cause of civilian casualties in armed conflicts, and civilians account for the majority of those killed and injured by these weapons.

In Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began on February 24, 2022, there have been 21,717 civilian casualties from explosive violence, with 9,511 killed and 12,206 injured. The recent surge in civilian casualties in Gaza further illustrates the grim consequences of explosive violence. The Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Swords of Iron, begun in response to the Hamas-led attack on October 7, has resulted in more than 35,000 Palestinian casualties, including more than 30,000 killed as of May 2024.

Behind these figures are lives shattered, families torn apart, and communities devastated.

The horrific suffering that civilians endure in ongoing armed conflicts is highlighted  when considering the use of EWIPA. Explosive weapons in populated areas are the leading cause of civilian casualties in armed conflicts, and civilians account for the majority of those killed and injured by these weapons.

The harrowing statistics presented at the Oslo conference raised a critical question: Why is the international community not responding adequately to the use of EWIPA? Despite the development of robust new standards to safeguard noncombatants, state and nonstate actors continue to ignore norms for the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The disturbing number of civilian casualties as a result of airstrikes in Gaza, for instance, demands a closer examination of military tactics and targeting policies.

Insights from the Protection Forum

The Protection Forum brought together a diverse group of stakeholders, including representatives from humanitarian organizations, civil society, academia, and affected communities. It was designed to facilitate an open and interactive dialogue on how to address the challenges posed by EWIPA and to develop effective strategies for protecting civilians.

A key takeaway was the urgent need to hold accountable those who violate international humanitarian law (IHL) and to ensure that military operations adhere to established norms of international law. This includes principles such as distinction (distinguishing between civilians and combatants), proportionality (prohibiting military attacks that cause excessive harm to civilians in relation to the military advantage gained), and precautions in attack (taking constant care to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure), which are fundamental to protecting civilian lives during armed conflict.

One of the most poignant moments came when Younis Al Khatib, President of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, stated, “In Gaza, you are better off dead than alive.” This powerful statement underscored the dire conditions faced by civilians in conflict zones and the urgent need for international intervention to prevent further suffering.

The forum highlighted the need for improved data collection and sharing to better understand the impact of EWIPA on civilian populations. Participants emphasized the importance of collaborative efforts to document and disseminate information on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and to advocate for stronger international standards and accountability mechanisms.

Several panels at the forum focused on the legal and humanitarian implications of EWIPA and the necessity of adhering to IHL principles. Experts called for more robust enforcement of existing laws and the development of new legal frameworks to address specific challenges posed by explosive weapons in urban environments.

The Oslo conference: A step forward

At the conference, representatives of states that have endorsed the Declaration, as well as participants from various sectors, came together to share insights, propose solutions, and reaffirm their commitment to protecting civilians. The conference also welcomed new endorsers Jordan, North Macedonia, and Montenegro; the number of supporting states is now 86. This growth highlights the increasing global recognition of the importance of the EWIPA Declaration’s principles.

However, the reality that some of the states directly involved in armed conflicts, such as Russia and Israel, are not signatories to the political declaration underscores the challenges in achieving universal adherence and effective implementation of the Declaration’s principles.

The conference produced several recommendations to enhance the Declaration’s impact. They include designating national focal points to spearhead implementation efforts, regularly sharing national progress updates, and fostering stronger military and civilian cooperation to uphold the Declaration’s commitments. There was also a push to organize thematic and regional meetings to improve the understanding of, and compliance with, the Declaration’s provisions.

Building on previous efforts

Advocacy campaigns, policy development, and field research have all supported a growing international consensus on the need to address the humanitarian impact of EWIPA. Significant progress has been made in documenting the effects of explosive weapons, raising awareness among policymakers and the public, and developing new legal and policy frameworks to enhance civilian protection. The Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas represents a significant step forward.

However, the true test lies in its implementation and universalization. At the Oslo conference, participants reiterated the importance of translating commitments into concrete actions, such as enhancing data collection and sharing, increasing support for affected communities, and promoting compliance with IHL. The Declaration calls for states to take concrete steps to protect civilians—avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, providing assistance to victims, and ensuring accountability for violations of international law.

A call to action

The crises in Gaza and Ukraine starkly highlight the urgent humanitarian need to protect civilians from EWIPA. Beyond the immediate necessity to save lives, there is a binding legal obligation under IHL to ensure the safety and protection of noncombatants.

The Oslo conference served as a crucial reminder of the significant work that remains. It called on the international community to intensify efforts, transform commitments into concrete actions, and prioritize the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Only through sustained, cooperative endeavours can the devastating effects of explosive weapons be mitigated.

At the same time, the grim reality is that civilians in conflict zones around the world are suffering intensely as a result of EWIPA. The ongoing devastation demands immediate and decisive action. Achieving a future free from the horrors of EWIPA requires relentless effort and unwavering commitment. The suffering of civilians must drive the resolve to ensure that the promises made in Oslo lead to tangible, life-saving improvements to better protect civilians in armed conflict.

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