Pressure is growing on countries to support an international political declaration to restrict the use of explosive weapons in urban areas.
The Belgian parliament is considering adopting a resolution to help protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. The resolution calls for Belgium’s active participation in ongoing diplomatic negotiations among nations on an international political declaration to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, to help reduce civilian suffering.
In a joint statement published on January 12th, Airwars, Humanity & Inclusion, PAX Christi Vlaanderen and PAX for Peace called upon Members of Parliament in Belgium to support the resolution. The statement reads: “Such resolution is a good step in the right direction as it clearly demands the Belgian Federal Government for an unequivocal commitment against the use of high-impact explosive weapons in populated areas, in line with the presumption of non-use; a recognition of the “domino effects” of wide-range explosive weapons; and a commitment to victim assistance and unconditional access to humanitarian aid. After dozens of parliamentary questions, motions and public hearings in France, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the UK, the adoption of this resolution would be pioneering as it is the first of its kind.”
On January 6th, the National Defence Commission of the Belgian Federal Parliament came together to discuss a draft of Resolution 1222/1 on the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Prior to the hearing, Airwars, Humanity & Inclusion, Pax Christi Vlaanderen and PAX for Peace sent Members of Parliament a letter with key recommendations.
If the Resolution is adopted by the Belgian parliament, it could be a key event in the ongoing negotiations between nations on an international political declaration. Since October 2019, more than 70 countries, including Belgium, have participated in diplomatic negotiations led by Ireland to draft such a declaration.
During the parliamentary hearing on January 6th, experts from the Belgian Red Cross and Humanity & Inclusion (HI) gave short presentations on the importance of the proposed resolution. Anne Hery, director of advocacy and institutional relations at HI, stated: “How can one systematically claim to respect the principles of precaution and proportionality of attack when using artillery or mortar shells in places where children, women and men are concentrated, or when bombing near infrastructures vital for the survival of populations, such as hospitals, schools or even power stations? The devastation in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya, more recently in Nagorno Karabakh or in the Tigray region, in Ethiopia, forces us to rethink the methods, tactics and choice of weapons of war used today.”
"Comment peut-on prétendre systématiquement respecter les principes de précaution & proportionnalité de l’attaque lorsqu’on utilise obus d’artillerie/mortier dans des lieux où se concentrent des civils ou quand on bombarde à proximité d’infrastructures vitales?" @Anneh2906 #EWIPA pic.twitter.com/40NFKrBiKj
— Baptiste Chapuis (@Baptiste_Cps) January 6, 2021
Samuel Cogolati, a Member of Parliament for ECOLO-Groen, is one of the initiators of the resolution. Mr Cogolati told Airwars: “Today’s armed conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Libya are not the same as those of 20, 30 or 50 years ago. Because although conflicts are increasingly urban, battles are most often fought with weapons or ammunition systems with indiscriminate effects, initially designed for use on open battlefields.”
According to Cogolati, the draft resolution is “simply an attempt to respond to the call of the UN Secretary-General, as well as the ICRC and Handicap International. The text itself was written in close cooperation with civil society.” The text calls upon the Belgian federal government to not only avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, but also requests that the government actively pushes for the recognition of reverberating effects of explosive weapons and victim assistance as key elements of the international political declaration.
Mr Cogolati also emphasised the reverberating effects for civilians of the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects, such as the destruction of vital infrastructure, contamination by explosive remnants of war and massive waves of forced displacement. In October 2020, Airwars and PAX for Peace presented their joint report Seeing through the Rubble on the long-term effects of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas to MPs in Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
Camilla Roberti, advocacy officer for Humanity & Inclusion, is hopeful that the Resolution will be adapted, but also has reservations. “We remain concerned as Belgium reiterates its belief that IHL is strong enough and that strict compliance and implementation of IHL rules will suffice [to limit civilian harm during urban fighting]. On the contrary, we believe that IHL, which remains crucial, must be coupled with policies and standards that enhance its effectiveness during conflict and address the harm caused to civilians and civilian infrastructure during and after conflict.”
Roberti also warns that Belgium “doesn’t seem to take into account the indiscriminate effects caused by these weapons even in those cases where attacks appear ‘legitimate’. This is something we call on all States, and Belgium in particular, to put at the very centre of the future political declaration, as it will be the only way to put the people at the centre and prevent harm to civilians.”
Denial of civilian harm
Whilst Belgian parliamentarians are focused on pushing Belgium to become a pioneer in the protection of civilians, the Belgian Ministry of Defence continues to refuse taking responsibility for any civilian harm its own actions may have caused.
During a recent public event ‘New Military Technologies: What About Drones?’, organised by PAX Christi Vlaanderen, Vrede Vzw and the European Forum on Armed Drones on December 2nd 2020, Chief of Staff of the Belgian Air Forces, Colonel Geert de Decker, stated that “Neither in Libya, nor in Iraq, we have any reports of civilian casualties as a result of Belgian interventions. That is one of the things that we pride ourselves on. You are never one hundred per cent sure, but we do everything possible to avoid making civilian casualties.”
Belgium has, in fact, been implicated in several civilian harm incidents that were officially acknowledged by the US-led Coalition, but has repeatedly refused to answer on its possible involvement in these incidents. It remains unknown whether it was Belgium or France which was responsible for five airstrikes which led to the confirmed deaths of at least 22 civilians. When the Belgian Ministry of Defence was asked about their possible involvement in these strikes, officials told Airwars: “For the year 2017, BAF [Belgian Armed Forces] was certainly not involved in all events”, indicating that the Belgians were in fact involved in some of those events. It remains unclear why Belgium then still continues to state that its actions in Syria and Iraq have caused zero civilian casualties. On September 30th, 11 international and Belgian NGOs sent an open letter to then Minister of Defence Phillipe Goffin, calling on the Belgian government to finally take concrete steps to improve its transparency and accountability for civilian harm.
The Belgian parliament will likely vote on whether to adopt Resolution 1222/1 by February 2021.