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Protecting the Populace: Humanitarian Considerations in Urban Operations

9 MINS READJun 2, 2018 | 20:53 GMT
Getty Images / AFP / Stringer

Urban operations ranging from internal strife through terrorism and armed conflict challenge all actors involved, but the greatest challenge is faced by the civilian populace – men, women, and children – who are exposed to violence, brutality, and all too often death. Addressing these challenges is likely to become increasingly common since the era of urban warfare, terrorism and insecurity has arrived.

The humanitarian challenges

As I described at the outset of this series on urban operations, the urban environment presents many unique operating challenges to military, police, fire service, medical, and humanitarian actors. The density and complexity of the setting demand awareness and specialized preparation (planning, training and exercising) in order to be effective in achieving their respective missions.

Cities play a complex role in civil conflict. At times they are a place of refuge and economic hubs of war economies (which in turn adds the complexities of illicit and grey markets and organized crime into the mix), at others they become focal points in direct hostilities as combatants seek to gain control and strategic advantage. Civilians at risk are the main challenge in urban warfare and insecurity. This risk is compounded by potential damage and degradation to the interconnected urban infrastructure – lifelines such as water, power, sewage, transport, and supply lines for food and consumables such as fuel – necessary to urban life.

Damaged infrastructure and the physical consequences of war: pollution, including toxic chemical waste and explosive weapons, landmines, cluster munitions, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other unexploded ordnance (UXO), also known as explosive remnants of war (ERW) can scar the urban battlespace for generations.  

As the ICRC warned in its Outcome Report: When War Moves to Cities: Protection of Civilians in Urban Areas, “Cities that have been the subject of intense urban battles – including Aleppo, Homs, Mosul, Taiz, and cities in the Gaza Strip – have been so devastated by urban conflict that development and reconstruction will take years, if not decades, to complete. Reconstruction will be further complicated by the extensive contamination of ERW in many of these conflict zones.”

Military Obligations

The military – meaning all combatants including armed non-state actors – has specific obligations to avoid targeting civilians and persons hor de combat under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and/or human rights law and criminal statutes in areas experiencing internal strife. Specifically, these norms (Customary IHL Rules) require a distinction between civilians and combatants and prohibit intentionally targeting civilians and both civilian objects (schools, dwellings, religious facilities) and humanitarian infrastructure (including hospitalsmedical personnel and transports, religious personnel, and humanitarian personnel and objects). Respect for cultural property is also required.

Attacks must be proportional, limited to military objectives, and precautions must be taken to protect civilian and humanitarian objectives. Control  must be maintained during the execution of attacks and attacks be canceled or suspended if an attack is expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects (or any combination of these factors), or would be excessive in relation to expected concrete and direct military advantage.

Attacks on dangerous infrastructure (‘dangerous forces’ such as dams, levees, nuclear facilities) that could lead to excessive civilian injury and violence aimed at spreading terror among civilian populations are also proscribed. Civilians and civilian objects should be removed from the vicinity of military objectives. Starvation of the civilian populace as a method of warfare as seen in classic siege is also prohibited.

Attacks on Health Care, Humanitarian Aid and Civil Defense

As discussed in my last essay “Policing Urban Conflict: Urban Siege, Terrorism and Insecurity,” humanitarian challenges also complicate response and threaten the populace in urban terrorism and insecurity where civilians and emergency responders are frequently targets of violence and attacks. Urban conflict, including civil wars, increasingly see attacks on health care providers and medical facilities (for example, in Syria) which appear to be intentional acts of forced displacement. As a recent Foreign Policy commentary entitled “Hospitals Become the Front Line in the Syrian Civil War” notes, medical operations have become a target.

Attacks on humanitarian aid workers, as seen in South Sudan, also complicate response. The spectrum of urban conflict creates a situation ripe for ‘conflict disaster’ potentials including disease, epidemics, and malnutrition as seen in Yemen’s cholera epidemic.  Refugees and internally displaced people are also a consequence of urban warfare as seen in a range of conflict settings from Mexico’s drug war, to street battles in Rio’s favelas, to Syria’s civil war.  

Despite humanitarian concerns, provisions of customary IHL, and public opprobrium, attacks against civilian targets in cities persist. Indeed in some cases, it appears some actors are deliberately using indiscriminate attacks to gain strategic advantage through forced displacement and potentially ethnic cleansing in a contemporary variation of total war.  

Contemporary conflicts bring new dimensions to the urban battlespace. Drones (UAVs/UAS) used for surveillance, weaponized swarms, or attack vehicles by non-state actors complicate operations but also bring opportunity for countering threats through reconnaissance or as delivery vehicles for humanitarian actors. Robots, artificial intelligence (AI), and autonomous weapons capabilities are also emerging potentials.  Information operations – ‘InfoOps’ – targeting civil defense organizations, such as Syria’s ‘White Helmets’, have become a feature of that conflict, eroding perceptions of humanitarian neutrality and independence. Such ‘InfoOps’ should be considered a potential feature of future hybrid warfare in urban areas.

Chemical weapons, the resulting toxic contamination and injuries are features of contemporary civil war, according to U.S. Army War College adjunct professor Robert J. Bunker’s Strategic Studies Center assessment of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, including blister, nerve, and pulmonary agents in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

As the International Crisis Group has noted, this is a case where misery has become a strategy. The resulting human anguish is profound, yielding displaced people (IDPs and refugees), acute hunger, and misery in places as diverse as Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. Attacks on aid workers and peacekeepers are becoming part of the conflict playbook. Lawlessness and competitive competition for control of strategic space and the illicit economy (terrain and markets) fuel organized crime, gangs and criminal cartels, exacerbating violence.

Protecting the Populace

While counting the costs of armed conflict in cities is problematic, one thing is clear: all participants – military, armed non-state actors, civil defense, police, fire service, medical, and humanitarian actors in urban operations – share a ‘duty to protect’ the populace.

Civil protection must go beyond employing the principles of distinction, precaution, and proportionality to embrace active protective measures such as empowering civil defense workers and community emergency response teams (CERT). Preparation for civil protection must start before the conflict by training and preparing emergency responders (first responders) from the fire service, hazardous materials (hazmat) teams, emergency medical services (EMS), hospitals and healthcare providers with the skills and experience to manage complex, multi- and mass-casualty incidents during armed conflict and terrorism.  

This will require developing protocols for the urban battlefield and counterterrorism medicine for physicians, nurses, healthcare, mental health, and EMS workers. French experience from terrorist attacks in Nice (July 2016) and Paris (November 2015) has shown that military medical experience and expertise were valuable to civilian responders (from the SAMU – Service d'Aide Médicale d'Urgence; the French EMS), emergency physicians and surgeons managing casualties resulting from the attacks. This action needs to be coordinated with fire service and police responses. In addition, all emergency responders need to be trained in self and buddy aid and trauma care to protect themselves and members of the public. Equipment for mass casualty care needs to be cached in key urban areas and onboard fire apparatus to speed triage and treatment.

Tactical medics (including police medics or specially trained fire/EMS medics) are increasingly employed to enable rapid medical rescue and triage, and treatment during hostile situations ranging from active shooter situations to terrorist attacks and urban siege.

The police service – especially patrol officers as seen in the San Bernardino (December 2015) and Orlando attacks (June 2016) – will play the main role of evacuating the public from areas at risk or under attack, in addition to their investigative and crime scene capabilities. The police also have the responsibility to provide force protection to other responders. Crime and victimization won’t stop during a conflict, an attack or a battle. Capabilities to provide intra-conflict policing, while protecting operational capacity and ensuring force protection are essential. These should include crime scene management and investigative capabilities to document war crimes and atrocities encountered.

The fire service plays the main role in protecting people and structures from fire (arson and explosions are specific treats encountered) and rescue, including extricating entrapped and injured people from the rubble and damaged/collapsed structures (including high-rises) and vehicles. The fire service also provides hazmat response, detection and decontamination in chemical warfare (and biological and radiological) incidents.  The fire service must also work with utilities and infrastructure (i.e., lifelines, water, power, gas, steam, sewage, transport) providers that are often private sector entities.  

Conclusion: Interoperability

All of these interagency operations are interdependent and require a detailed understanding of the threats encountered, the urban terrain and its demographics, and their own internal and interagency mission capabilities. These involve emergency management and must be coordinated and synchronized at an emergency operations center.

Responding to armed urban conflict, urban terrorism or disasters requires an interdisciplinary, multi-agency response. This requires a high degree of inter-agency and inter-service confidence. Interoperable communications and protective protocols and an understanding of operating requirements and legal frameworks for response is essential.  This must include command capabilities and coordination channels among all responders and military actors (peacekeepers and/or combatants).

This requires the development of doctrine, training personnel, and exercising with partner agencies to ensure operational capacity. Respect for the public and reciprocal public trust must be nurtured by embracing humanitarian principles of action, including ensuring impartiality and neutrality in the provision of care. Humanitarian actors must add independence to the mix. Transparency and accountability are a common imperative. All police, fire, and health responders must embrace a ‘combined arms’ approach that incorporates the ability to work with humanitarian actors and military forces when appropriate through civil-military operations centers and active liaison in order to protect the populace.

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