Ukraine highlights role of Declaration opposing use of explosive weapons

During a visit to Kyiv, Green peer Natalie Bennett reflects on the role of the recent Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Area. 

Shopping centre in Kyiv damaged by Russian missile
Shopping centre in Kyiv damaged by Russian missile

Shopping centre in Kyiv damaged by a Russian missile 

Natalie Bennett

This morning I arrived at Kyiv station on the sleeper train. It was like an early morning arrival in the continental European winter, a dusting of snow, heavily coated and gloved people hugging each other with the vigour of long separation and the joy of reunion. 

Around the corner, it felt far less normal. A modern office block, glass-fronted, the like of which is to be found on every second street corner in central London or Manchester, but its side was blown out, tumbled. That was from a Russian missile strike on 10 October.

Just a little distance away, an even sadder story. Two missiles landed at about the same time, 8.30am, on a children’s playground, and most deadly, on a road junction where cars were stopped – so normally – at the traffic lights. Here, eight people died, among them an older couple burned to death in their car.  

At the first site, the actual target might have been an energy company building across the street. At the second, in the middle of a university district, there was none at all. It’s only possible to conclude that the aim was terror, rather than any kind of military target.  

Research by Action on Armed Violence has found that when Russia has used explosive weapons in towns and cities over the past decade, 98 per cent of the casualties were civilians. That has dreadful echoes, it has to be acknowledged, in the civilian death toll of Western drone and air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is easy to despair when you think how today so many civilians, in so many countries, face the daily threat of destruction and death raining down on them, but today internationally it is also a day of hope. In Dublin nations gathered to sign a long awaited International Political Declaration directed at addressing the harm caused by explosive weapons in populated area – a leading cause of harm to civilians in conflicts around the world. The list starts with Ukraine, Syria, Yemen and Gaza, but just goes on and on. 

The Declaration commits signatories to work with UN bodies the ICRC and civil society organisations to strengthen the protection of civilians against these hugely destructive weapons. 

The declaration was finalised in June and I can only commend the UK government for agreeing then to sign up to it, as has the US government. 

Figures from conflicts over the past decade show that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90 per cent of those killed and injured are civilians. Children are, of course, particularly vulnerable to catastrophic injuries (and that’s only a measure of physical harm – the damage to mental health, and the stress and fear of living with daily threat are well documented). 

Then there’s the longer term effects from the destruction of infrastructure – health facilities, schools, homes, water and power supplies. And even where the homes are not destroyed, civilians flee in their millions (13 million so far from Ukraine) to seek safety. And even if the fighting ends, there are massive costs in clearing unexplored ordinance; estimates suggest this takes six times as long in urban areas as in rural.  

The Declaration is not, of course, a solution, more a commitment to at least start to address the issue. By signing, states are committing to change policy and practice, including in the planning and conduct of military operations, humanitarian measures to assist victims and conflict-affected communities, and to address the infrastructure impacts. There’s also a commitment to collect data to improve understanding of the impacts, particularly of what are known as weapons with 'wide area effects', such as those with a wide blast area, multiple warheads or inaccurate delivery systems. 

Quite how that fits with yesterday’s announcement of the continuing cutting of Official Development Assistance to 0.5 per cent of GNP and the Home Office’s hostile environment for refugees are issues that I expect to be raising regularly with ministers in the House of Lords. 

Of course the Declaration is not suddenly going to change the nature of warfare. But it sets out an international expectation, a path of travel to show that use of these weapons in this way is beyond any acceptable international norm, just as chemical and biological weapons and land mines have been identified as unacceptable. We know that doesn’t stop, totally, their use, but it reduces it. 

And in the UK, it means campaign groups – and the Greens – will be keeping up the pressure to reassess military doctrine and practice, call for the UK to push more countries to sign up to the declaration and for regular international meetings to assess progress. 

The UK’s commitment to this declaration is a real triumph for advocacy and expert groups that have been working towards this day for years, among them Airwars, Article 36, Humanity and Inclusion, the Mines Advisory Group and Save the Children. It is one more demonstration that, although it is never simple or easy, campaigning works. We cannot accept that the people of Kyiv, or any other city or town, should live as they do today, with one ear out for the app warning of another incoming attack that could strike innocent civilians any time, anywhere in their city.