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War in Cities: Joining forces to tackle the humanitarian impact

April 2021

By Kaja Sannerud Andersen, Senior Adviser, Norwegian Red Cross

and Magnus Løvold, Policy Adviser, International Committee of the Red Cross


What do you do when your city suddenly becomes a battleground? Around the world, millions of civilians are caught in the crossfire. As homes and neighborhoods turn into frontlines, many have no other choice but to run for their lives amidst widespread destruction or to shelter in place, often with no place to hide.

We see it all too often. Mosul, Aleppo, Raqqa, Marawi, Gaza, Mogadishu, Donetsk, Tripoli, Sanaa—a long list of cities trapped in the horror of war, each a story of untold civilian fear and suffering almost too vast to imagine. Each battle leaving affected populations displaced and traumatized for years, many with life-long scars and disabilities – visible and invisible.

“My son suffocated in the attack”, Yasser Mustafa Najjar, a survivor of the war in Syria’s east Aleppo area, told the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “The first three floors of the building collapsed. He had no chance”.

How can the humanitarian community work to address such large-scale suffering and devastation? What part can the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement play in addressing the enormous humanitarian challenges presented by war in cities?

A new scale of civilian suffering

Urban warfare is not a new phenomenon. War has been fought in cities for centuries. Still the way armed conflicts unfold is changing. Military operations are too often run from locations side by side with civilians. The relentless trends of urbanization and population growth in recent decades have led to an unprecedented presence of civilians amidst the fighting, coupled with their reliance on critical but fragile infrastructure. The result: civilians are bearing the brunt of war in cities.

When cities are bombed and shelled, more than 90 per cent of casualties, according to one estimate,  are civilians, in part because of the intermingling and proximity of civilians and military objectives. In many cases schools, homes and hospitals lie side by side with legitimate military targets and are hit through negligence or an in appropriate choice of weapons. Indeed, a central cause of civilian suffering in urban warfare is the use of explosive weapons with wide impact area, designed for use on open battlefields.

Cities are dependent on a complex web of interconnected services, where damage to one part can trigger a domino effect that causes even more suffering. When water or electricity supply lines are destroyed, the impact on public health and the provision of healthcare can lead to loss of lives that far outweighs the direct impact. Death, destruction, and degradation of essential services leave entire neighborhoods uninhabitable and may force urban populations to leave their homes, in turn exposing them to harsh living conditions and new and heightened risks.

War in Cities: A unique challenge

The reality of war in cities confronts our Movement with a unique set of challenges. Protecting and assisting the most vulnerable, including in situations of armed conflict, is at the core of our mission. Yet, to fulfil this mission, we need access, which is too often denied intentionally by combatants or indirectly by the intensity of fighting. We need safety for our staff and volunteers who too often pay a high price for trying to access and support vulnerable populations. And we need adequate resources.

All too often, one of those conditions is not met. That is why we need to come together as a Movement and develop an effective strategy for how to prevent, mitigate and respond to the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of war in cities. Effective operational and preventive measures will be needed to ensure better protection of civilians and better respect for international humanitarian law.

To meet this challenge, the ICRC, the IFRC, the Norwegian Red Cross and several other National Societies have initiated a process to jointly develop a Comprehensive Movement Framework on War in Cities in the run-up to the next Council of Delegates. The consultations build upon the outcomes of a meeting organized by the National Societies of Iraq, Somalia and Norway together with the ICRC in Oslo in October 2019, as well as discussions on preventing and responding to the consequences of urban warfare which took place during the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2019. The Comprehensive Movement Framework on War in Cities could also draw on the Movement’s urban approach in general, and the urban resilience approach in particular.

Drawing on the collective experience, creativity and wisdom of our Movement, we aim, through this process to identify a set of concrete and actionable commitments that can be adopted by the entire Movement. Concretely, we hope to develop a Movement-wide action plan on War in Cities to prevent the suffering caused by war in cities and better protect and assist the people affected.

We cannot allow the immense suffering we have seen and continue to witness around the world when fighting engulf cities and towns around the world to become the new norm. Cities are for civilians. They must not be the battlegrounds of the future. We are confident that the Movement, by working together with determination can both reduce the suffering caused by war in cities and better assist those affected by it.

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For more information about the War in Cities initiative, contact Magnus Løvold at mlovold@icrc.org or Kaja Sannerud Andersen at kaja.andersen@redcross.no

1 thought on “War in Cities: Joining forces to tackle the humanitarian impact

  1. […] humanitarian response. The ICRC and the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement continue to reinforce their capacity to prevent and respond to these consequences. We favour a multidisciplinary integrated approach […]

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