Statement by H.E. Archbishop Gabriele Caccia
Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations,
at the Security Council Open Debate on
Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict:
Wars in Cities — Protection of Civilians in Urban Settings
New York, January 25, 2022
The Holy See would like to thank Norway for organizing today’s important debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.
The horrors of the Second World War—which involved the wholesale destruction of cities through explosive, incendiary, and even nuclear bombings—gave rise to efforts to advance the protection of civilians in wartime, resulting in the Fourth Geneva Convention, which codifies protections owed to non-combatants in international conflicts.
Since World War II, the vast majority of civilian casualties now result from internal, rather than international, conflicts. While Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions extends protections for civilians in these conflicts, such protection has proven inadequate in the face of what Pope Francis calls “another world war… fought piecemeal,” which increasingly involves harm to civilians found in densely populated areas, where sadly, “the deafening noise of conflict” has been intensifying.
Tens of millions of people each year now sufferthe consequences of armed conflict in cities, which includes the disruption of essential services, and the risk of displacement, injury and death. The Secretary-General has further reported that civilians make up almost 90 percent of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in urban settings. Such statistics demonstrate that in densely populated areas, distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants is very difficult, calling into question whether the use of explosives is licit in such settings at all.
Beyond the initial tragic loss of life, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas causes significant and lasting damage. Urban warfare can devastate critical civilian infrastructure—such as hospitals, sanitation systems, schools, and places of worship—and ravages the local environment. This damage leads to outbreaks of preventable disease, hinders the provision of humanitarian assistance, robs surviving civilians of their dignity and hope, and increases the number of people forced to leave home in search of a more secure future. Meanwhile, explosive remnants contaminate urban centers, complicating the return of displaced persons, hindering reconstruction efforts, and inhibiting integral human development for long after a conflict is settled.
In recent years, the Council has taken steps to rectify the issue of inadequate recourse to the principles of distinction and proportionality by parties to armed conflict. Resolution 2573 (2021) demands that parties to conflict refrain from attacking objects critical to the survival of civilian populations and rightly expresses grave concern at the “establishment of military positions in densely populated areas,” which treats non-combatants as pawns of war, rather than as a class to whom protection is owed.
In this regard,the Holy See welcomes and continues to support effortsresponding tothe call of the Secretary-General “to develop a political declaration in which States commit themselves to avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas”, including the ongoing consultations process led by Ireland. While States bear the primary responsibility to protect civilians from the effects of explosives, “everyone is bound to observe the limitations imposed by international humanitarian law, protecting defenseless peoples and civil structures." Efforts to constrain the use of explosive weapons in urban settings should therefore engage all parties, including non-state actors,operating in conflict settings as well, since many of them now employ increasingly destructive weapons. Here, the Holy See would also like to acknowledge the tireless work of the International Committee for the Red Cross.
It is our sincere hope that today’s open debate advances measures to protect civilians in armed conflict and end the culture of impunity that has sown death and suffering among urban populations. For their sake, we pray that the words expressed here today are translated into concrete action.
Thank you, Mr. President.
Pope Francis, Homily at the Military Memorial of Redipuglia, 13 September 2014.
Cf. Pope Francis, Message for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2022.
“Urban Services During Protracted Armed Conflict,” International Committee of the Red Cross, September 2015.
S/2021/423 of 3 May 2021.
S/2021/423 of 3 May 2021.
Pope Francis, Angelus, 11 August 2019.