UNITED NATIONS (AP) — More than 50 million people are affected by conflict in urban areas from Afghanistan to Libya, Syria, Yemen and beyond where they face a much higher risk of being killed or injured, the United Nations chief said Tuesday.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that in some cases civilians may be mistaken for combatants and be attacked. In others, he said, fighters don’t try to minimize harm and use explosive weapons in crowded areas that lead to devastating suffering for ordinary people who face life-long disabilities and grave psychological trauma.
As examples, he told a U.N. Security Council meeting on the protection of civilians in urban settings during wars that during last year’s fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas militants dozens of schools and health care facilities were damaged and nearly 800,000 people were left without piped water.
In Afghanistan, an explosive attack outside a high school in the capital, Kabul, last May killed 90 students, mainly girls, and injured an additional 240 people, he said.
Guterres said the risk of harm to civilians “rises when combatants move among them and put military facilities and equipment near civilian infrastructure.”
But he said conflict in urban areas “goes far beyond its immediate impact on civilians.”
The secretary-general said urban warfare also put civilians at risk of sieges and blockades that have led to starvation. It also forces millions of people from their homes “contributing to record numbers of refugees and internally displaced people,” and it creates millions of tons of debris that affect the environment and people’s health, he said.
“Four years after the destruction of 80% of housing in Mosul, Iraq, an estimated 300,000 people were still displaced,” he said.
“The frightening human cost of waging war in cities is not inevitable; it is a choice,” Guterres said.
He urged combatants to respect international humanitarian law that prohibits attacks on civilians or civilian infrastructure and also bars indiscriminate attacks and using civilians as human shields. He also urged combatants not to use explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and to “gauge the impact of their operations and find ways to minimize harm.”
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the council there is “mounting evidence of the unacceptable harm of warfare in urban areas to civilians.” He said repeated calls for action haven’t resulted in major improvements and the urbanization of conflicts “is having massively negative impacts on populations in urban areas.”
Vice President Mahamadu Bawumia of Ghana said that “the rise of terror and violent extremist groups” including Boko Haram, al-Qaida in the Maghreb, Al Shabab in Somalia and the Islamic State “have revealed the true threat posed to civilian lives.”
While attempts have been made to get state-supported combatants and armed groups to abide by the rules of war, he said, many conflicts in Africa continue to involve civilian combat “and often results in scapegoating of the civilian populations,” including by using them as human shields.
Norway’s Jonas Gahr Støre, whose country holds the Security Council presidency and chaired the meeting, said Norway chose the topic of Tuesday’s debate because the protection of civilians in conflict is a long-term priority.
With urban warfare on the rise and 50% of the world’s population living in cities and that figure expected to keep rising, he said, “we need to address the obligations that states have and warring parties under international humanitarian law.”
Ukraine’s deputy ambassador, Yuri Vitrenko, told the council “the Russian aggression” in 2014, which led to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and current bloodshed between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, has led to continuing shelling of residential areas of Ukrainian cities in conflict areas. He said occupied areas were used to deploy artillery and weapons with the local population as a human shield.
Vitrenko said the council’s focus on urban warfare is especially relevant today for Ukrainians living near the Russian border, where Moscow has massed over 100,000 troops, and in the separatist east.
“Let me reiterate that Ukraine has no intention whatsoever of any military action on the occupied parts of its sovereign territory, let alone along the border with Russia,” Vitrenko said. “We see no alternative to a political and diplomatic solution to this international armed conflict, and will continue to seek any viable option to secure these.”
He said the starting point must be with Russia de-escalating the security situation on Ukraine’s borders and withdrawing from the east and Crimea.