News & Investigations

News & Investigations


April 12, 2022

Written by

Imogen Piper

Assisted by

Joe Dyke

Single strike may cause 350 metre span of damage, new Airwars visual investigation finds

A single Russian cluster munition that struck a hospital and blood donation centre in Ukraine likely caused lethal damage spanning 350 metres, a new Airwars visual investigation has found.

During Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, its use of cluster munitions has been widely documented. More than 100 countries have signed a UN convention banning their use, though Russia, Ukraine and the United States are among the nations yet to sign up. Such weapons are often described as indiscriminate. However on the ground, evidence of exactly how widespread their effects are can be are often hard to document. Yet a recent strike on the snow-covered grounds of a Ukraine hospital presented strong visual documentation.

Using uniquely placed, open-source videos, Airwars created a 3D model of all recorded damage locations when a cluster bomb hit the children’s hospital and a blood donation centre in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. One civilian was reportedly killed while waiting in line with his family to give blood, while hundreds of sick children took refuge in the hospital’s bomb shelters.

The Airwars investigation documented a total of 26 impact sites spanning 350 metres. Additional impacts likely took place in unfilmed areas around the sites.

Cluster munitions can have an impact range from around 100 metres – roughly the size of a football field – to multiple times larger, depending on the height at which they detonate. Their use by Russia has been documented multiple times in Ukraine, including in-depth analysis by Armament Research.

Several munitions experts whom Airwars consulted said the wide distribution of damage at Kharkiv could suggest that Russia is detonating cluster munitions at a higher altitude than normal.

Experts said that while the video showed a wide distribution of impacts, the number of submunitions documented was consistent with potentially being a single rocket. Definitive verification would only be possible with access to the site and to munition remnants.

“It has long been known that cluster munitions are indiscriminate, but this investigation highlights the sheer scale of suffering a single strike can cause,” Emily Tripp, incoming Airwars director, said. “While more than 100 countries have banned their use, many of the world’s largest militaries still refuse to do so – despite the inevitable risk to civilians.”

How the investigation was conducted

The cluster munition strike took place on February 25th, the second day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces had advanced quickly on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, in the northeast of the country.

In the afternoon, local reports first emerged of a devastating attack on a children’s hospital. The first video to emerge online, shot from a car dashcam, captured the moment the cluster munitions impacted on a road just outside the hospital grounds. It was timed-stamped at 16.41. Airwars was able to document and geolocate nine explosions in this video.

A second video filmed shortly after the attack meticulously documented each impact site inside the hospital grounds. Snow coverage enabled clear images of the different impact locations, again allowing them to be geolocated and mapped. In total Airwars investigator Imogen Piper was able to document a total of 25 craters.

In addition, the video showed one unexploded submunition found right outside the hospital entrance. This was a crucial clue, enabling us to identify the type of munition. Multiple weapons experts said it was a Russian made 9N235 or 9N210 cluster submunition – the two are visually identical.

Image of the submunition found outside Kharkiv hospital (Via social media)

There are two types of rocket capable of delivering these submunitions: the, 220mm 9M27K Uragan; and the 300mm 9M55K Smerch, which carry 30 and 72 submunitions respectively.

Munitions experts told Airwars that Russia is more commonly using 300mm Smerch rockets during the Ukraine conflict; and that their larger firing range of up to 70 kilometres also corresponded to Russian military positions at this time, north-east of Kharkiv.

Whilst 350 metres is a large distribution range for a single rocket, the experts said it was still within the parameters of a single 300mm rocket attack. They added that such rockets can be released at a higher altitude to increase the spread of submunitions.

As the video documents, this makes such cluster munitions relatively ineffective if trying to hit a specific military target. Instead, as Russia’s brutal assault has shown, they cause terror and devastation among civilians, with little military benefit.

▲ A still image from Airwars' visual investigation


April 8, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

International gathering brings nearer a protocol on restricting explosive weapon use in urban areas.

States edged closer to a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas on April 8th, after three days of crunch talks in Geneva.

More than 65 states descended on the Swiss city for key talks on the wording of a political declaration that advocates believe would save thousands of lives by restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). Detractors, such as the United States government, argue it would unfairly limit the freedom of their own military actions and have threatened not to sign.

While no final text was agreed upon Friday, all sides struck an optimistic tone at the end of the three-day meet – saying a deal was nearer than ever. Delegates will meet again for one day in two months before an adoption ceremony expected in the summer.

“There are clearly differences of opinion but we have seen a very positive, solution oriented approach,” the chairperson, Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland, said. “We are not simply working on a formula of words in a political declaration –  we want to make a real difference and impact on the ground and foster behavioural change.”

The talks were given additional urgency by the ongoing war in Ukraine, and Russia’s extensive use of explosive weapons on its cities. Moscow did not attend the talks.

Even the United States, widely viewed as one of the most hostile states to a declaration with teeth, struck a more positive tone than in previous meets. “There are still tough drafting issues and decisions ahead, and we have to get them right. The US delegation pledges our goodwill, to help to get to a positive outcome. We look forward to doing so.”

Since 2018, Ireland has chaired consultations on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In the sessions since, the need for such a declaration – which is not legally binding and so does not create new legal obligations – has only become clearer.

“The draft declaration text holds the potential to make a meaningful contribution to the protection of civilians, and negotiations over the past few days have overall been constructive,” Laura Boillot of INEW, a network of NGOs pushing for the protocol, told Airwars.

“But decisions will now need to be made if the final text is going to have humanitarian effect. Most importantly it needs to establish a presumption against the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in towns, cities and other populated areas.”

It will be a failure to leave this room agreeing that simply restating existing laws will reduce civilian harm – a failure for all of us who came here with the intention to reduce that harm in the first place." @alma_osta in HI concluding remarks at #EWIPA negotiations today.

— HI_Advocacy (@HI_Advocacy) April 8, 2022

Civil society groups and international agencies made a strong case for restricting EWIPA.

Three days of consultations

During three days of focused talks, several key fissures bubbled. While states in attendance – and civil society organisations – repeatedly emphasised the shared desire to produce a tangible and meaningful political declaration that could help save civilian lives on the ground, the practicalities of the process made clear that good intentions weren’t going to be enough.

On the first day of the informal consultations on April 6th, states made general remarks – affirming their support for the proceedings as well as their national positions – after an introductory statement from Ireland, the penholder.

In these general remarks, most states tended towards re-affirming the positions they had made clear in previous negotiations. On the hawkish side, the UK, US, Israel and Canada all emphasized that their positions as militarily active states meant that they would not sign a declaration in its current form, which included strong language about avoiding the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. Throughout the week, the delegates from these countries could often be seen meeting as a bloc outside of formal proceedings.

Many of the sticking points that emerged on the first day continued to dominate both the main floor and side conversations. The predominant line of argument was between those who argued that the declaration needed only to reaffirm the importance of international humanitarian law and provide further guidance about how to do so in this context; and those who asserted that this declaration needed to strengthen existing commitments and add new ones for states around the use of explosive weapons.

The second day of discussions took a more technical turn, with the majority of interventions focused on the wording of specific clauses and paragraphs of the text.

Clause 3.3, which attracted much attention in previous consultations, was once  again hotly debated. It is one of the first clauses in Section B, the operative section – which lays out the actions that states have to comply with if they choose to sign onto the declaration.

In the current draft, Clause 3.3 says states must: “Ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, when the effects may be expected to extend beyond a military objective.”

The bulk of the discussion around this clause was on the second sentence, as many states intervened on the use of “restricting or refraining,” with some suggesting it was strong enough while others lobbied instead for the use of “avoid”.

A split between the majority of civil society organisations and militarily-powerful states was apparent during these parts of the discussions, with NGOs and international agencies pushing for stronger language, rather than trying to place limits on what kinds of civilian harm would be protected under this new declaration.

Airwars’ incoming director and current head of research Emily Tripp also made an intervention – emphasising how crucial it was for states to actually track civilian harm.

Airwars’ incoming director Emily Tripp addresses a UN-backed conference on explosive weapons in Geneva on April 7th, 2022 (Image: Airwars)

At the end of day two INEW, one of the organisers, named nine states – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Israel, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States – that it said had “worked to weaken declaration provisions.” The UK delegation, for example, agreed that tracking civilian harm was a ‘moral obligation,’ but then highlighted ways in which it claimed this was not feasible – arguing that live hostilities made it near impossible to monitor casualties properly.

But INEW also said that there had been a “shift in the collective tone set by states since the last round of negotiations, with more governments explicitly committed to strengthening the protection of civilians through the declaration.”

The statement said this was likely as a response to the bombing of Ukrainian towns and cities, and the Ukraine crisis loomed large over the conflict. Not only did the majority of states open their remarks with condemnation of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, many also emphasised the importance of a meaningful political declaration with specific reference to Ukrainian cities and towns such as Mariupol, Bucha and Khrarkiv.

There was also an emphasis on the value of protecting civilian objects and infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, with states such as Mexico and the delegate for the Holy See (which holds observer state) urging specific language around the need to protect hospitals, blood transfusion centres, and environmental and religious sites.

Speaking at the end of the latest talks, Ambassador Gaffey said Ireland and organisers would review the submissions from all parties before a month or two of further work on the text. He said states and NGOs would then hold a final one-day consultation in a couple of months, before a political adoption ceremony where states would declare their support for the text.

As Alma Taslidžan Al-Osta, of Humanity and Inclusion, noted in her own concluding remarks to delegates: “Eleven years in Syria, seven years in Yemen and over a month in Ukraine have taught us that explosive weapons with wide area effects should not be used in towns, cities and populated areas. The status quo is no longer an option.”

Civilians increasingly bear the brunt of modern conflicts. Addressing the devastating harm to civilians from Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas is a priority for 🇮🇪. We welcome states, international organisations and civil society to consultations in Geneva this week #EWIPA

— Disarmament IRELAND (@DisarmamentIRL) April 6, 2022

Ireland chaired Geneva talks on restricting urban use of explosive weapons

▲ The three-day EWIPA conference in Geneva sought to reach a deal on the use of explosive weapons in urban environments (Airwars)


April 7, 2022

Written by

Chris Woods

Airwars speaks to Uladzimir Shcherbau, head of the UN civilian casualty monitoring team in Ukraine, on the challenges of tracking civilian deaths.

Beginning in 2014, the United Nations Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has been tasked with recording civilian casualties in that country. Until February 24th, the conflict was relatively low intensity. Russia’s invasion and subsequent attacks on communities across a swathe of Ukraine saw a huge rise in reported civilian deaths, which the UN Mission continues to track.

With the Ukraine Government ceasing its own public national estimates of civilian harm just four days into the war, the UN’s own daily cumulative tallies have become the sole official source for national casualty estimates. By early April, the UN had recorded at least 1,500 civilian deaths – while also publicly acknowledging that was likely a significant undercount.

Uladzimir Shcherbau joined the UN Monitoring Mission in Ukraine back in 2014, and today leads its civilian casualty monitoring unit. Almost all of the team remains in Ukraine – some close to the front lines – and all of them doing extremely challenging work.

In this extended interview with Airwars director Chris Woods conducted on April 1st, Uladzimir discusses among other topics the challenges of UN casualty counting following Russia’s invasion; how the Mission plans to address its own low estimates of harm; and the horrors of Russia’s onslaught on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

Some key points from this interview were also summarised in this article for The Independent: UN estimate of civilian casualties in Ukraine set to increase, official says

What’s the purpose of the UN gathering civilian casualty data? 

Why do we do it? It’s not just about gathering data. We have three or four major objectives, to which the information we collect should serve. The first is decision making by military and political actors – ideally to facilitate the cessation of hostilities, and definitely compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL). When we see the patterns of IHL violations – it is not our major objective, and very often in such contexts it is very difficult to establish whether the civilian was the result of IHL incompliance or in the worst cases of war crimes – but surely some of our findings would inform the deeper investigations and we do work deeply in some incidents – as we did for the period 2014-2021.

Ideally we go really deep into each single civilian killed, we establish as an ideal minimum the date of the incident, the status of the victim killed or injured, then if possible the name of the victim, then the age, definitely sex, place where it happened – as precisely as possible, if not geographic coordinates – then ideally the settlement or a specific area. Then control over the area – which party controlled the area – and then the weapon and the situation in which the casualty occurred. And we only record civilian casualties, not military casualties. When we have the slightest hesitation that a person might have been Directly Participating in Hostilities, we don’t include them in our figures.

In the current context I would put it like this. Because the amount of material we have to process is enormous and the time constraints are also enormous, we cannot go too deeply into each individual incident. I would describe this as ‘temporary superficiality’.

How is UN civilian harm monitoring presently structured in Ukraine? How big is the team? And are you still able to operate?

Most of the team is located in Ukraine in various places – not in the places where the hostilities are going on but in other places, sometimes nearby, which allows us to reach out to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), to people who evacuated from the conflict-torn areas, and to get access to first hand witnesses and victims. And we are still physically present in Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russian-affiliated armed groups control. We have been in those areas since 2014 and 2017 respectively, and we are still physically present in Donetsk, with certain restrictions on our operations there, and also those stemming from the security situation.

We have 37 human rights officers and several interns who have been working on monitoring and to a certain extent everyone is engaged in civilian casualty recording as well. But dedicated work on civilian harm is done by a small unit which I am in charge of.

From 24 Feb—5 April, we recorded 3,776 civilian casualties in context of Russia’s armed attack against #Ukraine: 1,563 killed, incl 130 children; 2,213 injured, incl 188 children, mostly caused by shelling & airstrikes. Actual toll is much higher. Update

— UNHumanRightsUkraine (@UNHumanRightsUA) April 6, 2022

How have you been able to continue this critical work following Russia’s invasion in February?

We apply the global [UN] guidance on how to record civilian casualties and it is fairly simple – we collect information from the best sources we can, preferably at least three independent sources and then based on the body of information we collected, we assess the sources based on their credibility and reliability. We also follow the patterns of violations which also allow us to assess, to verify, and to corroborate – so we collect a lot of information about the hostilities in general which also allow us to better understand the specific incident.

Basically we have three or four types of information. Definitely we take stock of all available official information – local authorities, national authorities, regional authorities, medical institutions, emergency services, police, very often military experts and some others – any state official or a person working in a facility who has some information on casualties. We take stock of all the information they provide.

We often reach out with requests for specific information but in the current context we see that the state agencies are overwhelmed with the numerous challenges, and they don’t have time to respond to our questions. But they do still report on civilian casualties – for example giving totals per region. Not only figures but we also receive a lot of descriptive narrative for specific incidents.

And when someone says ‘ok there was an incident in settlement X and there were a lot of civilian casualties’, in our records, as you can understand, it would be recorded as zero casualties unless we can understand the specific incident. But we take stock of all this information, it is extremely valuable, and we do analyse it systematically. So we have a mosaic of all these official reports.

Within weeks we saw which of these authorities provide consistently reliable information, and those which unfortunately are giving extremely vague information based on plausible assumptions and these assumptions do not get additional credibility simply because they are made by an official. They are definitely free to make any assumptions or judgements based on intuitive thinking but we clearly see in some cases it is not factually based.

The second source for our team is publicly available information on these incidents. In that regard the situation in Ukraine is extremely transparent – available through publicly available sources – Telegram, Facebook, Internet. Roughly speaking, we are talking about a lot of video footage, a lot of photos, and a lot of narrative reports. The number of channels in which people report is enormous. We do systematically follow as much as we can on these channels – very often it’s a local channel for a specific village or something. If you think about Mariupol – which is besieged and the situation is really bad and information is imprecise – people are reporting per quarter what happened in a specific house or area. We use all this information for our analysis and we collect it systematically.

Then there is our outreach to informed individuals. We had, for example, developed a broad network of contacts prior to the present high intensity conflict. All our offices and field presence were mostly in the east of Ukraine. And we are reaching out to these people to get information that is extremely valuable. I will give you just one example – we had a trusted partner NGO which had worked a lot in the east and there were for instance two towns in the Lugansk region which were well known to those who follow Ukrainian events. Shastiya and Staniska-Uganska. And there were hostilities from the very beginning there, and the NGO reached out to medical professionals working in the area to get very detailed medical records about casualties. So we use this network of contacts. They proactively provide us with some information but we also request them to provide us with some information.

And finally, we also publicly announced that we are interested in receiving information about civilian casualties – and so people send us information through Telegram, Facebook and by email.  We cannot cover it (fully) as we don’t have the capacity but we increasingly interview IDPs from the conflict affected areas – and also receive first hand accounts of individual incidents in which civilians were killed or injured.

So altogether we collect this information systematically – not only what happened yesterday but about what happened three weeks ago. If there is a (new) photo of a grave with the names on it from the town recently retaken by Ukrainian forces we go back to the records and check the names. All of that together.

Then we analyse this information, and once we come to conclusions that we have reasonable grounds to believe it happened, then it goes to our figures – the case is corroborated. It doesn’t mean we have all the information – maybe we don’t know the sex of the victims or something – but we still believed it happened and it goes into our figures.

Those cases which have not yet reached this stage we call ‘yellow cases’, which are still pending further verification and corroboration and we have many such cases which are in the process of corroboration. Some of them could stay marked as pending corroboration for months, if not years, some of them could be corroborated tomorrow if new information comes. So we are always reassessing such cases and seeing if anything is new. It’s like a mosaic – sometimes you get new information, and the puzzle  comes together and a case becomes corroborated. This is how we do it.

An elderly woman clears the rubble of her house in the aftermath of a Russian airstrike in the village of Ulica Szkolna, Kyiv Oblast, 29 March 2022. 📸 epa / @AtefSafadi #Ukraine #War #Ukrainewar #epaimages

— european pressphoto agency (@epaphotos) March 29, 2022

The volume of casework you are dealing with must be staggering. What adjustments have you had to make?

It is not a dramatic shift compared to what we did before. We did roughly the same from 2014-2021 – the only thing was the intensity of hostilities was much lower starting from 2015 and we then had the luxury (of) following each individual incident really deeply – going to the place, speaking to the people, getting forensic records etc

And today? Let’s say there is a report of an airstrike in Kiev with reported civilian casualties. Then we take note of this report. Then the city council says it was a centre for the distribution of humanitarian aid and 20 people have been killed on the spot – without specifying whether they were civilians or militants. That’s ok but it is not enough for us. Then video footage becomes available, and in that footage we see four bodies of people who appear to be civilians, some of them women, some can’t be identified but they don’t look like military or paramilitary. And there are also some people in the local chat groups saying a ‘horrible thing happened in this street and I was there and it was a Hell.’

So once again having analysed all this information we believe we have reasonable grounds to believe that the incident happened, and the overall context that the city was under fire, the military actors reported that incident, the General Staff is reporting that there was heavy shelling of this city, we have records from previous days that this area is being targeted, probably we will get some satellite imagery showing the neighbourhood affected. We can reach out to our partner in that area and ask if there was something and they might say “I don’t know what happened, I was 5km from that place, but there was something horrible.” And then, we say we saw five bodies. We don’t write ‘many’, we don’t write 20, we write five people were killed in that incident – including perhaps one man and two women – on that day.

This is roughly how we arrive at a conclusion, but once again it depends on the situation

From our experience usually reports of civilian casualties are not fake – sometimes there could be deliberate attempts to present certain incidents, to portray the other side as a perpetrator. But it is so easy to debunk such fakes so I don’t believe it happens often. Mostly reports are accurate, there could be some sort of natural imprecision or mistakes – very often when you receive a report about a civilian and the name – how the family name is spelled may not be found in the registration of population. But then you realise this family name is accurate –  it was just a (spelling) mistake in the report – and you realise it’s indirect evidence that the report is authentic, because most likely the report was made on the phone and the person who wrote down the family name just didn’t hear it properly.

UNOCHA conflict map of Ukraine for April 4th 2022.

Civilians have been urged by some to take up arms during the present conflict and to Directly Participate in Hostilities. How does that affect categorisations for you, when you’re making a determination of civilian harm?

Methodologically it is fairly simple – civilians are those who don’t take direct participation in hostilities. You don’t have to be a member of the armed forces or paramilitary formations to be counted as not a civilian – it could be purely a civilian who took his or her arms to fight. As soon as you directly participate in hostilities you are not a civilian any more. If such people are killed or injured we exclude them from the UN count.

There could be some marginal cases where there could be questions and you cannot be 100% sure how to classify this person as a civilian or not, but statistically these cases are extremely insignificant and for methodological purity we exclude such debatable questions from civilian casualties.

And we have a fairly clear definition. If there is a policeman who is performing regular police functions in the conflict zone and is killed or injured by hostilities and he or she is not taking part in hostilities – just patrolling the area in the conflict zone when he or she was killed or injured by shelling – we consider them a civilian casualty. If a police officer is present in a conflict zone to maintain law and order as part of enhanced police deployment, and basically also controlling the area recently taken under control, or doing some sort of paramilitary function, he or she is not a civilian any more.

We even excluded cases which could be very marginal – for instance if there is a military unit which is stationed in a certain location and there is a civilian who regularly brings some food to this unit – maybe paid or not, but somehow helps them to sustain. It is easy to argue that this person is not taking part in hostilities but we exclude such cases.

Statistically such cases are marginal but we exclude even very marginal cases so probably decreasing the toll a little. But statistically, it’s pretty clear whether a person participates in hostilities or not.

What is the situation for civilian harm in breakaway and Russian-occupied areas? How able are you to capture that?

For us it doesn’t make any difference – we are covering the entire territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders, and we do follow all the reports and do our best to corroborate all civilian casualties wherever they happen. And we do it in regard to territory controlled by the Russian-affiliated armed groups or the territory which is currently under the control of the Russian armed forces. We have certain difficulties in getting the information but it is roughly the same as getting the information from government-controlled territories. We also do breakdowns for Donetsk and Luhansk regions, for government controlled territory, and for territory controlled by Russian affiliated armed groups.

We haven’t yet published figures from the places which had been controlled by Russian Armed Forces – say from the Kharkiv or Chernihiv or Kherson regions. But we are also coming with those figures fairly soon. So once again, we do take stock of all civilian casualties, including in the territory which is presently outside of Ukrainian government control.

In your own daily press releases you are very clear that the true casualty figure is likely much higher. How wide a gulf might there be between UN estimates and the actual civilian toll?

I wish we had this interview in the next week or two. We are working right now on a realistic estimate of the actual death toll of the conflict. We have a big mass of information which allows us to triangulate or somehow approximate the actual death toll. I wouldn’t give you specific figures right now because it is extremely sensitive and we are under enormous pressure because we are criticised heavily – they are saying ‘your figures are irrelevant. It’s nice that you give these at least figures but they are irrelevant because the real death toll is higher’ as we ourselves point out in our daily updates.

But we have data, we have information, we have a really solid methodology – it is not pure maths, it is looking at patterns, correlations, available information per region and per type of casualties to come (up) with this realistic estimate and once again we will soon come up with an estimate fairly soon.

We believe it would be pretty accurate. The figure would be fairly reflective of the actual scale – it will be also conservative, not to go too broad, but we believe it will be fairly close to the actual death toll. All in all we would come with a rather accurate total and the gaps within the estimate of actual total and real total would not be so big. We believe we will give a gist of what the scale is – of the true scale we believe of the casualties – especially of those killed.

To put things in some perspective, the official civilian death toll after the first 6-8 weeks of the US invasion of Iraq was more than 8,000 — due to "Shock and Awe."

The civilian death toll in Ukraine is just over 1,000. It's all hideous, but calls for *WW3* require *sobriety.

— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) April 3, 2022

Low UN estimates have been cited to downplay deadly effects of Russia’s invasion.

The city of Mariupol reports more than 5,000 civilian deaths so far. What do you make of that estimate?

When we speak about Mariupol, it is definitely the deadliest place in Ukraine currently. We have been in touch with city authorities, with the city council – we do follow the data they provided and we requested additional data and they committed to providing us as much as they can, but they have been working in extremely challenging conditions as you can understand. Even so, they estimate 5,000 civilian deaths from just three weeks of hostilities in March.

Our own UN estimate should come hopefully fairly soon as we managed to collect information about Mariupol, we analysed all the narrative reports, official figures and official reports from medical (authorities) – sometimes fragmented but also some information which allows us to see the pattern from emergency services and video footage. We also do satellite imagery analysis – not only on damage. So we hope to come with a rather realistic, from our perspective, estimate.

The amount of conflict death is enormous, but also surely people kept dying in besieged Mariupol because of regular mortality, many people died as indirect casualties because of stress and the collapse of medical aid. And reportedly many suicides have occured in Mariupol. We have had several reports saying that the suicide rates increased, that’s for sure.

So it needs also to be factored in that all these people died during this one month of hostilities – though the UN Mission ourselves strive to single out the civilians who have been directly killed by hostilities, and we will come up with our estimate pretty soon.

Given this scale of harm, how long might it be before the UN has a comprehensive tally of civilian deaths at Mariupol?

When will the world know for sure when hostilities are over the exact number of civilians who have been killed in Mariupol from day one until the last day of hostilities? That will surely take time. It will take time to recover all the bodies, to identify them, and because there was a mass displacement for example, some people who were evacuated from Mariupol, some injured people who could have died in medical facilities outside of Mariupol. So the ultimate accurate figure won’t arrive quickly.

We have credible reports that there are still many bodies in the debris. Some bodies are unattended in the apartments – no one was (able) to take care of the bodies. Many bodies have been buried in improvised graves – they also need to be exhumed and reburied individually and with proper decency. That will also be an enormous challenge for the city.  We have seen a lot of footage of graves in peoples’ yards, which is appalling.

So we will analyse all the information and try to come up with our own estimate but surely for the future that will be a horrible and heartbreaking task – not only to count people, but to ensure decent treatment of those who perished. And then once again to work for reparations and bring the perpetrators to justice. The preservation of evidence – which is what dead bodies are – will be extremely essential.

Маріуполь: відео з дрону та знищений драмтеатр зсередини

— Радіо Свобода (@radiosvoboda) April 5, 2022

Radio Svoboda’s recent drone footage showing the devastation of Mariupol.

▲ A woman passes bodies buried at the side of the road during Russia's siege of Mariupol, April 3rd 2022 (Reuters)


April 7, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

Crunch talks in Geneva aim to hammer out protocol on explosive weapons in urban areas

The shadow of the Ukraine conflict loomed large over the first day of the informal UN-backed consultations on a political declaration on restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA), currently underway in Geneva.

Delegates from more than 65 nations have gathered to fine tune the language of the political declaration, along with more than 15 civil society organisations including Airwars. The chairperson, Michael Gaffey of Ireland, opened the proceedings by calling for a minute of silence for Ukraine.

Nujeen Mustafa, who had fled the war in Aleppo, then powerfully testified via a video message, saying, “throughout history, diplomats have discussed world problems while sitting at a table with a nice coffee. People trapped in a conflict zone cannot do that. Today, you have the possibility to change a terrible situation and protect civilians.”

Nujeen Mustafa, a Syrian who fled Aleppo after it was largely destroyed by explosive weapons, addresses delegates:“While you’ve been negotiating whether a declaration should be made, 11,076 people have fallen victim to these weapons" she says

— Airwars (@airwars) April 6, 2022

While there are two days of discussion left before proceedings close on Friday evening, many of the most pressing issues arose in proceedings on Wednesday – particularly as states laid out their own positions during opening remarks. Here are five key themes from the first day of EWIPA negotiations.

1. The conflict in Ukraine adds a sense of urgency

The first statement was made by the Ukrainian delegate, who noted that “our cities and towns have been turned into dead ash because of the use of these explosive weapons” – highlighting a new sense of urgency and relevance which the negotiations have taken on.

Every delegate who spoke made reference to the Ukraine conflict, with many emphasising that the violent and horrific violence against Ukrainian civilians must move states to act more effectively. The French delegate noted that Russia did not attend the proceedings, while the Japanese delegation emphasised the importance of documenting civilian harm in Ukraine.

Many other states called on Russia to cease its aggression and indiscriminate bombing of civilians and it was noted multiple times that Russia’s campaign has targeted and destroyed civilian neighbourhoods using wide area effect explosive weapons – referring to the scenes of destruction in Kherson, Mariupol, and Kharkiv.

2.  The gap between ‘IHL is enough’ and ‘IHL does not go far enough’

Broadly the delegates and countries fall into two groups – those that believe international humanitarian law (IHL) is enough to protect civilians under attack in urban areas – and those that argue more is needed to protect civilians.

States such as the USA, UK, France and Israel argued that any political declaration could not introduce new legal requirements (which it cannot) and that the requirements currently set out under IHL should be sufficient protection for civilians. Currently, these frameworks emphasise for example that deliberately attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure constitutes a violation of IHL – and that any military actions must be both proportionate, and distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Those backing strong wording to the political declaration text – from Ireland to the ICRC – insist that adherence to IHL alone is not doing enough to protect civilians during much urban fighting.

The US nevertheless called on those states gathered not to produce an “unrealistic impression” that civilians would not be harmed in conflict, while emphasising that explosive weapons are “considered a legitimate and lawful means of warfare when used in accordance with IHL.”

But other states, as well as civil society organisations such as Human Rights Watch, emphasised that any resolution which merely restated the value of IHL – and how states must abide by it – would effectively be useless, as it would be an iteration of what states have already committed to.

States such as Finland and Sweden remarked that there are gaps within IHL around EWIPA , and mere compliance with IHL is not enough to protect civilians.  This has been an ongoing fissure during previous consultations, and continues to be a major fault line.

3.  Reverberating effects

The particularities of the language used in the eventual political declaration are at the heart of the ongoing consultations in Geneva – with discussions about whether to “avoid” or “restrict” the use of explosive weapons in populated areas already a key sticking point.

An additional area of tension appears to the so-called “reverberating effects” of EWIPA, which are essentially the long-term effects.

An example of a reverberating effect would be the destruction of a bridge. If destroyed, it has the immediate effect of removing a crucial piece of civilian infrastructure. But even after the conflict finishes the destruction could also mean that people can’t travel across a certain river, making it harder to access other kinds of civilian infrastructure such as hospitals or schools.

These long-term impacts were the subject of much discussion on Wednesday – with some states, such as the US, Israel, and the UK all noting that ‘reverberating effects’ is neither a legal term nor – they claimed – a widely accepted term with a clear definition. The US also said it would not accept a ‘novel’ term such as reverberating effects in the eventual political declaration.

However, civil society organisations such as PAX and observer states such as the Vatican suggested that it would be difficult to meaningfully understand the full implications of how civilian populations were impacted without incorporating ‘reverberating’ effects.

4. Focus on the humanitarian impacts

The Holy See opened its own remarks by noting that it believes conventional weapons should be named “weapons of mass displacement,” a nod to the ongoing long term effects that explosive weapons can have. The Danish Refugee Council also noted that the use of EWIPA can contribute to displacement, and in time, continuously produce forms of renewed displacement.

Some other states such as Uruguay emphasised the need to collect and monitor the impacts of EWIPA on specific groups – such as those with disabilities, or those who face discrimination because of their gender. Organisations such as CIVIC, PAX and Humanity and Inclusion also spoke about the psychological and mental effects of the use of explosive weapons, notably the need for a survivor-centric approach to any kind of political declaration.

 5. The impact of non-state actors 

While the political declaration is primarily a matter between states, the UK, Israel, the US and others asked that the considerations around EWIPA must also extend to non-state actors, such as armed groups, in the interest of maintaining what they termed a balanced account of how explosive weapons are actually used in populated areas.

The US noted for example that “the declaration has to make it clear that all belligerents, including non-state armed groups, must take steps to address the harms to civilians and civilian objects.” The Turkish delegation argued that asking non-state actors to really consider these impacts would also mean they would be considered as legitimate parties to an international armed conflict – which they are currently, for the most part, not.

The declaration has to make it clear that all belligerents, including non state armed groups, must take steps to address the harms to civilians and civilian objects,” says the USA, intervening for the second time today.

— Airwars (@airwars) April 6, 2022

▲ MPs from various European countries attend the first day of EWIPA talks on April 6, 2022 (Photo: INEW)


April 6, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

Assisted by

Joe Dyke

Speaking at key Geneva talks, SNP's defence spokesperson calls on nations to back strong EWIPA protocol

Stewart McDonald MP, the defence spokesperson for Scotland’s ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), called on Wednesday for the United States and United Kingdom to join those nations backing restrictions on the use of explosive weapons in urban environments during key talks in Geneva.

On April 4th the SNP became the largest British party – and one of the largest in the world – to lend its support to restricting the use of explosive weapons in urban areas (EWIPA).

The policy – part of a wider SNP Protection of Civilians paper expected soon – was announced to coincide with crunch talks in Geneva, where dozens of countries are meeting to hammer out the wording of a protocol, or political declaration, on EWIPA. While the proposals are supported by the United Nations and many other nations, both the United States and United Kingdom are currently expected to oppose the protocol, while Russia is not attending the talks.

“It is unlikely that the United States or Russia are going to be signatories to it and that is deeply unfortunate – in fact it is worse than unfortunate,” Stewart McDonald MP told Airwars. “I am convinced that deeper cooperation internationally is what we need right now.”

During three days of talks, representatives from more than 65 nations are meeting in Geneva to discuss the potential final language of the political declaration. In Wednesday’s opening session, the US again said it had major reservations about restrictions on explosive weapons use.

The US and other states critical of the protocol argued that international human law is enough to limit civilian harm, but advocates say that when used in cities weapons designed for the open battlefield will always disproportionately harm civilians.

McDonald added that he was “optimistic” rather than confident that a strong text could still be agreed. But he raised concerns that the wording could be watered down by obstructive nations, including the United Kingdom, making it effectively meaningless.

“We will see what comes at the end of it, but anything that is not robust, that doesn’t have broad, multilateral buy-in to it, might make some people feel good – but I am not sure I would call that a success.”

🇺🇳 My remarks at today’s session at @UNGeneva on the #EWIPA negotiations, being led by 🇮🇪 @dfatirl. It was a pleasure to speak alongside fellow parliamentarians from Belgium 🇧🇪 and France 🇫🇷. The growing international consensus needs to coalesce around robust civilian protections

— Stewart McDonald MP (@StewartMcDonald) April 6, 2022

McDonald said the new SNP declaration was a significant moment for both his party and the United Kingdom. The text declares that there “must be a presumption against the use of wide-impact explosives in conflicts that take place in populated and urban territories. SNP fully supports the ongoing UN-backed process to develop a political declaration addressing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.”

The announcement comes ahead of a full approach the party intends to announce later this month outlining how the SNP, and potentially a future independent Scotland, would seek to protect civilians in conflicts.

“I believe my party should think like a state and act like a state – so if Scotland were independent, how would it approach these issues? That’s why we have taken the time to develop a policy around protection of civilians to show people where we think people would go.”

“But importantly, in the here and now what the UK government should be doing.”

While the SNP’s defence spokesperson said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – which has seen thousands of civilians killed while trapped in cities – had focussed attention on the scourge of explosive weapons use, McDonald also highlighted similar civilian suffering in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Research by Action On Armed Violence indicates that around 90 percent of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians.

“Ukraine has gathered the public and political momentum now [and] I think that does mean correctly that these negotiations take on a particular urgency to succeed and deliver something meaningful.”

“How do you scroll through social media right now, and not want something serious to happen?”

The political declaration talks are continuing until April 8th. Airwars’s social media coverage of the first day can be viewed here.

Full text of SNP policy extract: Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

When explosive weapons are used in populated areas – where conflicts increasingly take place – studies suggest that more than 90% of those killed and injured are civilians. Vital facilities such as sanitation systems and hospitals are disproportionately destroyed in attacks using these weapons, exacerbating risks to civilians who become further exposed to deadly diseases and further robbed of medical assistance. There must be a presumption against the use of wide-impact explosives in conflicts that take place in populated and urban territories.

SNP fully supports the ongoing UN-backed process to develop a political declaration addressing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. An independent Scotland would look to sign on to this declaration. Additionally, Scotland should ratify the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions as well as the 1997 Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention.

▲ SNP Defence Spokesperson Stewart McDonald (centre) addresses a UN-backed conference on explosive weapons in urban areas with fellow European MPs on April 6th 2022 (Photo: Airwars)


April 5, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

Crucial UN-brokered talks begin on restricting heavy explosive weapon use in populated areas

State delegates from around the world will meet this week in Geneva for UN-backed crunch talks, working towards a political declaration on restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in urban conflict. If successful, the move could help save thousands of civilian lives.

Representatives from more than 60 countries will meet from April 6th-8th in the Swiss city of Geneva to try and hammer out the wording of a protocol, or political declaration, on restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).

As wars have increasingly moved from open battlefields to urban environments, weapons designed for the former are being deployed in heavily populated areas – sharply increasing the risks of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.

UN and civil society reports have repeatedly found that civilians and civilian infrastructure are at most risk when heavy explosive weapons are used in populated areas. This has been clearly demonstrated in recent weeks in Ukraine as Russian forces have pounded civilian neighbourhoods with devastating results, but has also been documented in other recent conflicts across the globe.

Research by Action On Armed Violence indicates for example that around 90 percent of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians.

“Ukraine puts a spotlight on the devastating consequences civilians face when towns and cities are bombed. But this is a pattern of harm that we see elsewhere too: Ethiopia, Gaza, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria are all recent examples,” said Laura Boillot, coordinator for the International Network on Explosive Weapons, which is leading civil society efforts to restrict EWIPA use.

To highlight the EWIPA talks, the campaigning group Humanity & Inclusion has installed a tank made of balloons outside the United Nations in Geneva (Credit: Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen/Airwars)

“This week, states have an opportunity to reduce civilian harm and agree a new international declaration that commits states to avoid the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects.”

In 2019, Ireland convened the first EWIPA negotiations, inviting delegates from every country to join and shape a resolution to change how explosive weapons are used in populated areas.

In the years since, delegates have continued to gather to discuss the text of the declaration – which will be finalised and ratified by states this summer.

While not a United Nations process, the EWIPA proceedings are backed heavily by the UN; and Secretary General Antonio Guterres has repeatedly called for countries to adopt a strong protocol.

When explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of the casualties are civilians, causing devastating suffering.

I again call on countries to avoid using explosive weapons in populated areas.

— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) March 30, 2022

US, UK, France in focus

During three days of talks in Geneva, representatives from attending countries will pore over the draft resolution and try to agree on key sections of text.

Much of the focus will likely be on winning the support of those states which have previously attempted to water down the declaration’s language, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France. While some states argue that abiding by international humanitarian law (IHL) is enough, others like Britain also claim that limiting explosive weapon use in cities “would reduce the UK’s ability to operate legitimately and responsibly.”

Critics say that adherence to IHL alone is not sufficient to protect civilians during attacks on cities – a point recently supported by a major Pentagon-published study into the ferocious 2017 Battle of Raqqa, which noted that the US-led Coalition caused “significant civilian harm despite a deeply ingrained commitment to the law of war.”

Efforts by the US, UK and others to water down the political declaration would make it effectively useless critics warn – and crucially, would not lead to changes in the way that states actually approach the use of explosive weapons in cities.

Given the horrors of urban civilian harm in Ukraine, a very disappointing answer from UK government on whether it will commit to restrictions on explosive weapons use in cities, at upcoming @UN talks in Geneva. (Thanks to @MargaretFerrier for question.)

— Airwars (@airwars) March 17, 2022

Detailed negotiations

The draft resolution being discussed at Geneva consists of two parts – a preamble, which lays out the framework and overall considerations; and the operative section, which effectively compels states to act. For example, the value of tracking civilian casualties in real-time are currently mentioned in the preamble, but aren’t in the operative section – though some states are pushing for it to be moved there.

Broadly speaking, those attending the political declaration talks can be split into two camps: those states that argue the resolution should use weaker language; and those nations – backed by the UN – arguing that the declaration should be as strong as possible.

Other key states, including Russia and China, are not expected to attend this round of talks.

Among the strongest advocates for an effective political declaration is Ireland, which has led the process. UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres has also called for “strong” wording. “The Secretary-General supports the development of a political declaration, as well as appropriate limitations, common standards and operational policies in conformity with, and further to existing requirements under, international humanitarian law relating to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas,” he said in a recent statement.

Some countries, such as Belgium, have already passed their own parliamentary resolutions indicating that they will be signing the declaration, although it is still unclear how this would be implemented in practice.

While these negotiations were originally planned to be the final in a series of discussions, there may still be a further round ahead of final ratification in the summer. In the meantime, supporters of controls on explosive weapon use in cities believe that Russia’s extensive use of indiscriminate large weapons on Ukrainian cities – and the horrific civilian toll associated with such attacks – may help sway wavering countries.

Armed conflicts in urban areas are increasingly fought with weapons that are not designed or adapted to be used in populated areas.

As a result, the effects of these weapons go well beyond their targets and have devastating consequences for civilians.

— CIVIC (@CivCenter) April 1, 2022

▲ Remnants of a wide area effect explosive weapon used in Syria (Credit: White Helmets)


March 31, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

In news widely welcomed by team, Emily Tripp to take over as organisation's second leader this summer.

Emily Tripp will be the next Director of Airwars, the organisation’s Executive Board announced today, and will succeed the present head of the organisation Chris Woods in the summer.

Emily is presently Airwars’ Research Manager, where she has strongly led on recent projects including the team’s monitoring of the conflict between Israel and Gaza in 2021 – which was recently shortlisted for an Amnesty Media Award.

Emily has previously worked in the humanitarian sector, managing monitoring and evaluation departments in Syria and assessment teams in Libya. She brings to the Director’s role technical expertise in data collection in volatile conflict environments, as well as leadership experience overseeing large teams across different countries and regions.

“We are beyond thrilled to know that Emily will lead Airwars into its next iteration, in which civilian harm monitoring, archiving of open-source data, and research and advocacy on behalf of affected communities will continue to form the heart of our work,” the Board noted in a statement. “Emily’s talent, strategic vision and collaborative approach make her the ideal leader to build on the outstanding work done by Chris and the rest of the Airwars team.”

Emily Tripp will be the organisation’s second Director, succeeding Chris Woods who co-founded Airwars in 2014. He saw the organisation through a strong growth phase in which civilian casualty monitoring was introduced across multiple conflict situations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip. His work at Airwars also helped set the bar for accountability for military action in air-dominated conflicts around the world.

“Chris has been an invaluable asset to Airwars since its founding in 2014. He has been the driving force in building a unique organisation dedicated to the monitoring of civilian harm that has become recognised globally as the gold standard for accountability and transparency for belligerents in conflicts,” read a statement from Airwars’ Executive Board.

In further news, Dmytro Chupryna – Airwars’ Deputy Director since 2018 – decided to step down at the end of March. During his time with Airwars, Dmytro led on organisational, fundraising, and civil advocacy issues – and has been a critical contributor to the organisation’s ongoing success.

“We are all incredibly sad to see Dmytro move on – though his positive legacy will be with us for many years to come,” noted outgoing Director Chris Woods. “We wish him every success in his future career.”

Today was my last day at @airwars. I'd like to thank all the amazing Airwars team and our large POC family for unbelievable four years. It was an absolute honour and pleasure to working with all of you 💙💛 and thanks for wonderful flowers and gifts ☺️👐 will miss you a LOT!

— Dmytro Chupryna (@ChuprynaDmytro) March 25, 2022

▲ Emily Tripp will be Airwars' new Director


March 15, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

Assisted by

Joe Dyke

Do civilians who take up arms to resist Russian invasion lose protected status?

On February 24th, Russian forces launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine. In the weeks since, Ukrainian government agencies and officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have encouraged citizens to take up arms and defend their homeland. There have been widespread reports of state officials handing out thousands of guns and circulating information about making homemade explosives such as Molotov cocktails.

Civilians have some protections during times of armed conflict. It’s unlawful, according to the binding Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols, for civilians to be deliberately targeted – and any attacks by belligerents need to be both proportionate, and to distinguish between civilians and fighters.

Yet the potential involvement in Ukraine of civilians in hostilities against an invading state’s military has raised questions concerning their legal status under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Some voices online have even claimed that those who receive weapons may no longer enjoy civilian status for the duration of the war.

This briefing explores the likely legal status of those civilians that take up arms. Understanding this framework and the implications of these classification are of particular importance to organisations like Airwars that monitor civilian harm, as well as for journalists, academics and others. This is not intended as a guide for legal professionals, though others have written guides along those lines.


The civilian-combatant distinction

In an international armed conflict, there are basically two classifications – combatant and civilian. According to IHL, combatants are members of the armed forces of the party to an armed conflict, and so have the right to directly participate in hostilities. Combatants are considered lawful targets during a conflict between states, and they directly participate in hostilities. They are also – generally – afforded immunity for acts committed while they are a combatant unless those acts constitute war crimes. If detained, they would be considered a prisoner of war.

By contrast a civilian is typically defined in negative terms – that is, as someone who is not a combatant. Civilians are afforded protection by international humanitarian law. Civilians and civilian objects – such as residential buildings – cannot be indiscriminately or deliberately targeted by an attacking force.

The Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols outline protection of civilians during armed conflict, both international and non-international, and declare that they “shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations.”

However, there are some circumstances in which someone can lose that protection. The statement above is caveated by another rule, that civilians are only protected against attack “unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.”

As the Ukrainian armed and territorial defense forces fiercely resist Russian invasion, so do ordinary civilians across the country. Read my dispatch for @TIME from the Western Ukraine on how citizens here mobilize and volunteer to defend the country

— Olga Tokariuk (@olgatokariuk) March 11, 2022


What is Direct Participation in Hostilities?

A person is understood to lose the protections against attack afforded to them as a civilian as soon as they directly participate in hostilities (DPH). This can range from working to make a Molotov cocktail, to picking up a gun and using it to harm a member of the attacking force.

Obviously, DPH follows on from two crucial components – one, that there are hostilities underway, and two, that an individual is directly participating in them. The notion of DPH is often fact- and context-specific, and given how dynamic the situation in Ukraine is, what exactly constitutes DPH there is open to question.

However, as laid out in the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Interpretive Guidance on DPH, there are broadly speaking, three cumulative conditions that have to be met before a specific act could be considered as direct participation.

    There has to be a threshold of harm – so for example a specific act has to adversely affect the operations or capacity of one party in the conflict, or damage people or objects that are protected against direct attacks (eg civilian objects) There has to be a direct causal relationship between the specific act and the harm which arises from that act. This act has to have been carried out with the intention to aid one party in the conflict at the expense of the other.

So in the Ukrainian context, a civilian who participates in a specific act in this way – for example, picking up a gun or throwing Molotov cocktails – is considered a legitimate target for, and such a period of time when, they are directly participating in hostilities. If someone was to prepare a Molotov cocktail, that would likely be considered a preparatory act for directly participating in hostilities, which would also likely make this person targetable.

Shovelled trenches, home-made camouflage, a diagram of how to use a Molotov cocktail: this is Ukraine’s defence against Russia.

— The Economist (@TheEconomist) March 11, 2022

As soon as an individual directly participates in hostilities, for such a period of time as they continue to do so, they are generally understood to be a lawful target. “One does not lose civilian status, rather one loses protection from being directly attacked,” explains Natia Kalandarishvili-Mueller, Professor of International Law at ALTE University Georgia and lecturer in IHL at Tbilisi State University.

As expressed in Article 51 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, “civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this Section unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.”

“Put differently, for the duration of one’s direct participation in hostilities, one may be directly attacked by the adversary,” Kalandarishvili-Mueller added.

Once an individual ceases to directly participate – through going back home, putting down weapons, or otherwise not directly participating in hostilities – they regain full protection from being attacked.

Under the ICRC’s guidance on DPH, civilians “lose and regain protection against direct attack in parallel with the intervals of their engagement in direct participation in hostilities (sometimes referred to as the “revolving door” of civilian protection).”


If they take up arms once, can civilians be targeted throughout the conflict?

There is a generally understood distinction in IHL between continuous, status or function-based loss of protection and temporary, activity-based loss of protection. In the first category, the presumption is that of combatant status or continuous combatant function. This would entail joining or belonging to an organised armed group, whether state or non-state, or future intent to directly participate in hostilities.

In the second category, an individual who arms themselves with a gun and aims to maim or kill a member or members of an invading force, and then does not use the gun again after a period of time, would ultimately not be participating in hostilities after they have put the gun down again. They would not necessarily be immune from being arrested, detained or prosecuted for their actions at that point or after, depending on the domestic legal system, but they cannot be attacked.

Below, we apply those distinctions to the Ukrainian conflict more directly.


The Ukrainian army and regional governments gave out tens of thousands of weapons and encouraged people to use them. Might all those people automatically become targetable if they accept weapons?

Distinctions between civilians, armed forces, and non-state armed groups have become difficult in contemporary conflicts, particularly as modern warfare increasingly occurs in civilian areas and population centres and often involves non-state armed groups.

In Ukraine so far there have been three broad ways in which citizens who have chosen to fight have responded to the Russian invasion. Each one has different legal implications.

The first is those citizens voluntarily enlisting for the Ukrainian army to fight the Russian invasion. In doing so, individuals will lose their right to not be directly attacked for at least as long as they are part of the regular armed forces.

The second is those that have engaged in ad hoc but semi-organised forms of defence, in particular a loose command structure emerging as part of a movement known as the Territorial Defense Forces.

These groups have been identified as wearing yellow armbands and other insignia to distinguish them, potentially from both Ukrainian civilians and invading Russian troops.

Four conditions have to be met to be considered irregular combatants:

    Being commanded by a person responsible for subordinates Having a fixed and distinctive insignia Carrying arms openly conducting operations Operating in accordance with the laws and customs of war – such as not firing indiscriminately on civilians or civilian objects.

For the duration of the war, irregular combatants would therefore lose their civilian status.

In this specific conflict, Emily Crawford from the University of Sydney Law School has argued that the Territorial Defense Forces and groups like them have reached the threshold of being combatants.


Civilians with guns

The third, and legally most complicated, group is those Ukrainian civilians who have taken guns distributed by the state or the army, or those who have prepared and thrown Molotov cocktails.

Ofer Fridman, a Senior Lecturer in War Studies at King’s College, University of London, explained that in situations like these, civilian status would be treated more of a continuum than a hard yes or no.

“Essentially, the more you participate, the more of a target you are,” Fridman said. “Participating on a low level – providing shelter, helping the wounded, driving ammunition, or even supporting from home by handing out leaflets – does not necessarily turn you into a legitimate target. Participating on a high level, such as in the way militants do, definitely does.”

It is important to remember people can only be targeted as long as they are directly participating in hostilities. Schools of thought do differ about whether or not someone who continuously participates in hostilities but is not part of a group doing so can be considered a civilian. The ICRC’s guidance – which is the classical interpretation of the relevant article – takes a narrow view of what constitutes DPH by asserting that only when an individual is engaging in preparatory acts for or directly engaging in hostilities are they targetable. As such, an indiscriminate attack on the house or building that they live in would be considered an attack on civilians, not on civilians engaging in DPH, and so would be considered unlawful.

Gun school: Ukraine rolls out weapons training for civilians

— Irish Examiner (@irishexaminer) March 14, 2022

As Professor of IHL Dapo Akande notes, “This suggests that the ICRC rejects the notion of continuous direct participation. This is the idea that a person who takes a direct part in hostilities remains a valid target until he opts out of the hostilities through extended non-participation.” However, others may argue that if someone is participating in hostilities but has periods of rest between specific periods of participation, those periods of rest then essentially become preparing for DPH.

As such, if an individual uses a gun to defend their house or their building – but is not part of a command structure, does not wear a distinctive insignia, and does not carry their arms openly and is also not acting in accordance with the laws of war – it is likely that when they put down their weapon, they would not be considered a lawful target. Even if everyone in their apartment building had guns or molotov cocktails and acted with intent to harm the opposing forces – but they weren’t coordinating through a command structure and did not have a distinctive uniform or insignia – then by following the ICRC guidance, they would still be considered civilians when they stopped engaging in those acts.

Again, there are classical interpretations of these distinctions, such as the narrow scope taken by the ICRC, although there have been many court cases and rulings, particularly in the US and Israel, where the exact definition of DPH has been defined differently, along the lines of a ‘continuous combat function’.

As Professor Akande explains, “One danger of the continuous direct participation approach is that it increases the possibility of error given that a person can be targeted at moments when not involved in hostile acts. Such an approach to targeting raises the question how the belligerent can be confident that an individual poses a significant danger and will return to the fight.”

With regards to the conflict in Ukraine, the line about who is directly aiding the war effort and who is directly participating in hostilities becomes more blurry. Someone who is coordinating the movement of tonnes of explosives in cities in Ukraine may or may not be considered to be directly participating in hostilities. This is likely dependent on how integral their actions are to the continuing hostilities. For example, the ICRC’s guidance suggests that building blockades or road blocks should not be considered DPH as it’s indirect participation.

But crucially if it is ever unclear whether a person has civilian status or not, the assumption must always be that they are a civilian. As an additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions explicitly states: “in case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.”


If detained, would an armed civilian be treated as a prisoner of war?

In terms of detention, an article in one of the Geneva Conventions’ additional protocols offer some basic guarantees of humane and non-discriminatory treatment. Further protections are offered to those that have prisoner of war status under Article 4, Geneva Convention III.

Article 4 of Geneva Convention III requires at a minimum that the person detained be a member of an organised armed group or militia with a recognisable command structure that carry arms openly, and are recognisable at a distance. As such it would be unlikely that most civilians taking part in the Ukrainian conflict would meet that criteria.

However, this does not mean that a civilian captured under these circumstances could be degraded, abused or tortured. They must be afforded the fundamental guarantees laid out in Article 75 Additional Protocol I. The internment of the civilians is also regulated by Articles 42, 43, and 78 of Geneva Convention IV.


Is Russia respecting protection of civilians under IHL in Ukraine?

It is unclear how significantly the above distinctions between combatants and civilians – which are laid out in both the Articles of and Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, overly impact the targeting or attacking decisions of Russian forces.

While in the early days of the war Russia’s targets were often military, there have been extensive and widespread reports of civilian neighbourhoods being directly targeted. There have also been recent reports of agreed humanitarian corridors – onto which it is unlawful for a military to fire – being targeted, with several civilians confirmed to have been killed when trying to escape to safety.

Russian attacks have also been characterised by the bombardment of cities using often indiscriminate weapons, including heavy artillery, cluster munitions, airstrikes and cruise missiles.

The Russian bombardment of the southern city of Mariupol has now caused more than 2,500 deaths, per Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser in President Zelensky's office. "The Russians are just wiping the city out," he said Monday.

— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) March 14, 2022


In summary, the mere fact of civilians taking a weapon from the government does not necessarily mean Ukrainians lose their civilian status. If individuals join an active armed organisation – whether the formal military or a more informal military one – they would likely lose civilian status and be considered a combatant.

However for those at home with a weapon, they would likely remain civilians unless and for such a period of time that they are directly participating in hostilities, at which point they would be considered a lawful target. And if there is ever any doubt, it should always be assumed that the individual is a civilian.

▲ Ukrainian armed civilians or irregular forces inspect an alleged Russian military vehicle. Credit to Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ukraine