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, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday.
In some cases, civilians might be mistaken for combatants and attacked, while in others, fighters do not 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, Guterres told a UN Security Council meeting on the protection of civilians in urban settings during wars.
During last year’s fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas militants, dozens of schools and healthcare facilities were damaged, and nearly 800,000 people were left without piped water, he said.
In Afghanistan, an explosive attack outside a high school in the capital, Kabul, in May last year killed 90 students, mainly girls, and injured an additional 240 people, he said.
The risk of harm to civilians “rises when combatants move among them, and put military facilities and equipment near civilian infrastructure,” he said.
However, conflict in urban areas “goes far beyond its immediate impact on civilians,” he said.
Urban warfare also put civilians at risk of sieges and blockades that have led to starvation, he said.
It also forces millions of people from their homes, “contributing to record numbers of refugees and internally displaced people,” and it creates millions of tonnes of debris that affect the environment and people’s health, he said.
“Four years after the destruction of 80 percent 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 fighters 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.”
International Committee of the Red Cross president Peter Maurer told the council there is “mounting evidence of the unacceptable harm of warfare in urban areas to civilians.”
Repeated calls for action have not resulted in major improvements and the urbanization of conflicts “is having massively negative impacts on populations in urban areas,” he said.
Ghanian Vice President Mahamadu Bawumia said that “the rise of terror and violent extremist groups,” including Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Islamic State, “have revealed the true threat posed to civilian lives.”
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