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One year on: the shifting landscape of civilian protection and the Dublin Declaration

A year ago, the international community gathered in Dublin to confront a growing crisis in modern warfare: the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Representatives from 83 countries signed a declaration committed to safeguarding civilians from this insidious form of conflict. As Action on Armed Violence has dedicated over a decade of work focusing on this matter, showing that when explosive weapons are used in populated areas over 90% of those killed or injured are civilians, the Dublin Declaration represented not just a promise but a vital step towards meaningful change.

A year later, though, the landscape of war appears markedly different. The aspiration of Dublin has been eclipsed by the harsh news of conflicts that span the globe. From the streets of Gaza to the ruins of Syrian cities, from the desert oases of Sudan to the city jungles of Mynamar, the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas has not only persisted but, in some instances, become a normalised aspect of warfare.

This normalisation poses a direct challenge to the principles of International Humanitarian Law. The laws, drafted to protect the most vulnerable in times of war, are being eroded in both letter and spirit. In my role at Action on Armed Violence, I have witnessed firsthand this year – in Ukraine in particular – how these violations go beyond immediate physical destruction. They upend communities, disrupt families, and leave lasting scars on the collective psyche of nations.

In Gaza, the repercussions of this trend are palpable. The humanitarian crisis unfolding there is not just a local tragedy but a global warning sign. It highlights a disconcerting ease within the international community to overlook or normalize such breaches of law. This not only impacts the present but sets a troubling precedent for future conflicts.

The implications of these developments are far-reaching. When explosive weapons are used in populated areas, they indiscriminately inflict harm, often disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable – children, the elderly, and the disabled. The resulting trauma is not just physical; it is psychological and societal, with recovery stretching far beyond the cessation of hostilities.

Looking ahead to the next convening of the signatory States in Oslo in 2024, it’s clear that more needs to be done. The principles of the Dublin Declaration must be championed with renewed vigour. This is not just the responsibility of governments but also of organisations like INEW (International Network on Explosive Weapons) and others in the humanitarian sector.

We must work tirelessly to keep the conversation alive, ensuring that the plight of civilians in war-torn areas remains at the forefront of international discourse.

Furthermore, we need to address the complex interplay of politics, military strategy, and humanitarian law. The Dublin Declaration is a cornerstone, but it must be bolstered by robust dialogue, unwavering commitment to humanitarian principles, and, most importantly, actionable measures by all stakeholders involved.

The Dublin Declaration’s first anniversary is a moment for reflection, reassessment, and renewed commitment. The path to safeguarding civilians in conflict zones is fraught with challenges, but it is a journey that must be undertaken with persistence and resolve. The alternative is a world where the disregard for human life becomes an acceptable facet of conflict, a scenario we must strive tirelessly to prevent.