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Remember the millions of people living in urban violence

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With all eyes on the upcoming Habitat 3 Conference in Quito, Ecuador, and the New Urban Agenda which will be adopted there, the ICRC urges States negotiating the final text to remember the needs of large urban populations suffering the consequences of attacks, displacement and impoverishment.

In an urbanizing world, armed violence has been urbanizing too. States negotiating the New Urban Agenda must remember the particular needs of the 50 million people living in cities like Aleppo, Aden, Mogadishu and Donetsk who can be stuck in armed conflict for many years.

Tens of millions of the world’s most vulnerable people live in increasingly unsafe and impoverished conditions because of armed conflict that dominates the urban spaces in which they live. Violence is ruining their lives and their cities and is the main driver of development reversals in urban areas in many parts of the world.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is urging States to include important policies to support the continuity of essential urban services during armed conflict and to ensure respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) in the conduct of urban warfare. We are also encouraging creative policies to maintain safe government services in areas of chronic urban violence.

Support resilient urban services during armed violence

Armed conflicts are being increasingly fought in ever larger urban areas. Civilian populations in towns and cities rely on an intricate network of essential services that is extremely vulnerable to attack by modern weapons and to the loss of skilled staff and critical supplies. The growing sophistication and interconnectedness of urban infrastructure and services – like electricity, water, sewerage, waste disposal and healthcare – means that millions of people experience armed violence are highly dependent on resilient infrastructure and service continuity for their most basic needs.

The ICRC knows from experience that protracted armed conflicts can, over time, have a very damaging cumulative impact on urban services that has severe humanitarian consequences for people’s health, livelihoods, education and dignity. Repeated damage to essential civilian infrastructure and the challenge of maintaining interconnected infrastructure across contested front lines puts enormous pressure on urban services. This pressure can be dramatically increased by the arrival of internally displaced people (IDPs), refugees and migrants.

About 60% of the ICRC’s infrastructure budget for 2016 is invested in urban areas, most of it to maintain water-supply services, in an effort to minimize the cumulative impact of violence and conflict on civilians. Our Water and Habitation teams are working constantly with municipalities and utility authorities to bolster the resilience of these systems to the shocks and supply shortages that make them so vulnerable during armed conflict.

Preventing the total collapse of urban services is an essential humanitarian priority which needs clear policy support in the New Urban Agenda. This also means new multi-year financing packages that enable humanitarian organizations to achieve the necessary scale and sustainability.

Increase respect for IHL during urban warfare

Habitat 3 provides an important opportunity to reaffirm the rules of IHL which require parties to armed conflict to avoid – as much as possible – situating military objects within or near densely populated areas. This requirement should also influence State planning during peacetime. Good urban design should reduce the risk to civilians during any future armed conflict.

Urban warfare poses significant challenges for military commanders operating in accordance with IHL. They must take into account the vulnerability of large numbers of people living in densely populated areas as they distinguish between combatants and civilians, and take appropriate precautionary measures in attack and defence.

Targeting often requires greater consideration in urban warfare. Indiscriminate attacks – such as area bombardments – which make no distinction between civilians, civilian objects and military objects, and disproportionate attacks are prohibited.

It is also important to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact in populated areas. In urban areas, these weapons can expose civilians to incidental or indiscriminate death, injury and lifelong disability. They can also cause secondary damage to vital infrastructure.

Important obligations also exist in IHL around the conduct of siege warfare which prohibit starvation and require the continuity of healthcare.

The New Urban Agenda is an important time to recall the obligations of parties of armed conflict in urban warfare. This also means reaffirming the rules that respect and protect health facilities, patients and medical staff during armed conflict at a time of increasing attacks against urban healthcare.

Support to governments working with people affected by chronic urban violence

Armed urban violence is a growing problem and a major challenge to the struggle for safer cities. Urban violence leaves people dead and injured. It also leaves them deprived of health and education services if students, teachers, medical staff and patients are too afraid to attend clinics, hospitals and schools.

Habitat 3 must draw attention to the humanitarian impact of urban armed violence. This is best done by recommending policies which measure the impact of violence, such as the number of missed school days and clinic hours, and encourage creative policies and programmes to support increased access to urban services. This means training staff to work safely and effectively in violent areas and empowering communities in unsafe areas to access vital urban services.

Reduce the impact of armed conflict and urban armed violence

Habitat 3 is rightly concerned with a range of exciting new policies that focus on greener cities, more equal cities, more innovative cities and better governed cities. But the ICRC urges States negotiating the final resolution to remember the needs of large urban populations in towns, cities and informal settlements suffering the consequences of attacks, displacement and increasing impoverishment.

People in armed conflict, or living with the threat of chronic urban violence, must have their rightful place in the New Urban Agenda.


Dr Hugo Slim is Head of Policy at the ICRC.

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