All posts tagged: Mariupol

The protection of civilians and siege warfare: CEASEFIRE and the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK host event

From Mariupol and other cities in Ukraine, to Mosul, Aleppo and other cities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia and the Philippines, the global resurgence of siege warfare and its devastating impact on civilian populations have raised serious questions about the implementation of international humanitarian law (IHL) and military strategy and operational practice.

Such questions were considered at an event at the Swiss Ambassador’s residence in London on 31st March to launch CEASEFIRE’s latest report, Protecting civilians in siege warfare: Constraints on military action. Academics, lawyers, civil servants, parliamentarians, military officials and civil society members gathered to engage with a panel discussion on the protection of civilians and siege warfare.

The Swiss Ambassador Markus Leitner introduced the panel discussion, referring to Switzerland’s long-standing tradition of protecting civilians in armed conflict and emphasising the importance of the conversation. He underlined the priority of the protection of civilians in Swiss foreign policy and the value of cooperation with like-minded countries such as the UK. Opening remarks were also given by Ambassador Corinne Cicéron Bühler, Director of the Directorate of International Law at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, on the role of IHL in regulating siege warfare, and how Switzerland is working in multilateral forums to strengthen IHL and compliance with it.

The panel discussion, which was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, was chaired by CEASEFIRE’s Executive Director, Mark Lattimer, and the speakers included:

  • Radhya Al-Mutawakel, Chairperson of Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights
  • Helen Alderson, ICRC Representative to the UK & Ireland
  • Brigadier Keith Eble, Head of Operational Law at the British Army
  • Professor Noam Lubell, Director of the Armed Conflict and Crisis Hub, University of Essex.

Participants agreed that while siege warfare is often referred to as ‘medieval’, this description was deeply inaccurate given how widespread such tactics are in contemporary urban warfare, and the extent to which modern technologies and equipment have changed the nature of siege warfare.

Several panellists and audience members spoke about the devastating consequences of siege warfare for civilian populations, including casualties from bombardment, food and water scarcity, and psychological consequences. It was crucial that discussions were grounded in the realities of civilians’ lives under siege.

A significant point of discussion was about whether existing IHL was sufficient for mitigating civilian harm from siege warfare, and if so, whether the focus should be on increasing compliance with IHL. Some commented that it was better to improve compliance with IHL in siege warfare through increased training, funding, and accountability for potential violations. Others noted that these approaches were not mutually exclusive, and that we should seek to expand IHL where necessary while also strengthening compliance to existing IHL.

There was also an ongoing conversation about what accountability means in the context of siege tactics and urban warfare. Participants examined criminal and state accountability for violations of IHL during sieges, and what avenue may be most appropriate for this kind of warfare.

Read CEASEFIRE’s latest report on siege warfare here.

ceasefireThe protection of civilians and siege warfare: CEASEFIRE and the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK host event
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Global resurgence of siege warfare traps civilian populations on the frontline – new report

Read CEASEFIRE’s latest report on siege warfare here

A resurgence across world regions of the tactics of siege warfare has trapped civilian populations at the frontlines of today’s battles, finds a new report by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights. From Mariupol and other cities in Ukraine, to Mosul, Aleppo and other cities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia and the Philippines, militaries around the world have imposed sieges leading to tens of thousands of civilian casualties and massive destruction to civilian infrastructure.

‘Protecting civilians in siege warfare: Constraints on military action’, by Professor Stuart Casey-Maslen, analyses the limits imposed by international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law on the conduct of sieges, and the role of the UK and other governments, armed forces, NATO, the UN, humanitarian actors and the civilian population itself in avoiding or minimising civilian harm.

‘The law of the Geneva Conventions requires both attacking and defending forces to take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population, but in a siege civilians are trapped in the battlespace,’ said Ceasefire’s Executive Director Mark Lattimer. ‘Their treatment under siege is unbearable – and frequently unlawful.’

In addition to banning attacks that target civilians, indiscriminate attacks, and the terrorizing of the civilian population – all of which are war crimes if done intentionally – IHL prohibits the starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare and places an obligation on parties to conflict to allow humanitarian relief, including the provision of food and water, medical assistance and the evacuation of casualties and other vulnerable civilians. Evacuation should always be voluntary and both those evacuated and those left behind continue to benefit from the right to protection.

Analysing the conduct of recent sieges, including those of Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, the report details how the laying of siege by militaries with very different approaches to the implementation of IHL can similarly result in civilian harm on a massive scale.

Russian attacks on cities in Ukraine have seen numerous reports of IHL violations, such as the targeting of civilian objects, including educational and medical facilities, indiscriminate artillery shelling and the use of cluster munitions in or near residential areas. In an unprecedented move, 41 states including the UK referred the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court and a war crimes investigation has been opened.

The current style of warfare favoured by the UK and other NATO members, owing much to US doctrine, is based on stand-off, long-distance precision strikes, delivered on an industrial scale. While there may be benefits in terms of force protection, the extensive destruction that results can also be catastrophic for civilians trapped under siege.

‘Public revulsion at the treatment of civilians in cities under siege in Ukraine should spark urgent reflection in militaries around the world,’ added Mr Lattimer. ‘Their playbook may be different, but the end result is disturbingly familiar – mass civilian casualties and widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure.’

Despite its devastating effect on civilians in recent years, siege warfare and its particular challenges are not mentioned once in the 2020 NATO Protection of Civilians Handbook – nor in the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published in 2021.

Ceasefire’s report calls on the UK and other governments to:

  • Review legal guidance and military doctrine to ensure that IHL protections are being fully implemented in situations of siege
  • Improve pre-attack proportionality assessment procedures, including removing the assumption that where civilians are not visible they are not present, and incorporating an estimation of the reverberating effects on civilians
  • As part of current intergovernmental negotiations on a Political Declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, commit to avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in towns and cities, in particular where civilians are trapped under siege.


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ceasefireGlobal resurgence of siege warfare traps civilian populations on the frontline – new report
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