Vol. 1, Issue 2, 2023
Explosive Weapons and the 2030 Agenda
How the use of explosive weapons in populated areas undermines sustainable development
Barbara Morais Figueiredo, Associate Researcher, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)
The use of explosive weapons in today’s increasingly urban conflicts gives rise to a distinct pattern of harm that affects civilians long after the hostilities end. The reverberating effects from the use of these weapons presents significant challenges to the attainment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and undermines development efforts in affected regions and beyond. Halfway to the 2030 deadline to achieve the global goals, avoiding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and committing to take armed conflicts “out of urban areas altogether” should be an integral part of efforts to help put the world “back on track” towards sustainable development.
“The massive destruction caused by armed conflicts in cities can set development indexes back by years and even decades... This is a major setback to the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals. Progress gained over decades can be quickly reversed as once lively and prospering population centres turn into ghost towns.”[i] – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and ICRC President Peter Maurer, September 2019
2023 marked the midway point to the deadline set by the international community for achieving the ambitious set of goals for people, planet, and prosperity agreed with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda) in 2015. Global leaders met to consider the progress achieved on the 2030 Agenda at the high-level Sustainable Development Goals Summit in New York in September 2023. That meeting reflected broad consensus that a fundamental shift is required to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ensure that they do not disappear “in the rear-view mirror”.[ii]
The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s A New Agenda for Peace, launched earlier this year, presents a vision for how the international community should more effectively act to prevent armed conflicts and sustain peace in the face of multiple and interlocking crises.[iii] Crucially, it proposes several key recommendations for action to address the complex global challenges confronting humanity and boost progress towards the SDGs.
Noting the dramatic adverse effects that armed conflicts have on the attainment of these goals, A New Agenda for Peace underlines that the implementation pace of the 2030 Agenda is particularly concerning in conflict-affected environments. With one quarter of humanity living in conflict-affected areas, it warns that “without a dramatic reduction in conflict, violence and the spread of weapons, the 2030 Agenda will remain out of reach for a large percentage of humanity.”
Against this backdrop, the increasing number of armed conflicts and their shift to urban and other populated areas presents enormous obstacles to the attainment of the 2030 Agenda.[iv] Given current urbanisation trends, these challenges are only likely to grow more acute in the coming years and decades.
Over half of the global population currently resides in urban areas, a rate projected to reach almost 70 percent by 2050.[v] While urban growth can be an important accelerator of human and socio-economic development, when cities become the battlegrounds of conflicts, the humanitarian and developmental impacts are immense.
Across the world, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a recurring feature of many of today’s armed conflicts and constitutes a major cause of civilian harm. In Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Myanmar, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen and elsewhere, such use claims countless lives and results in widespread destruction of infrastructure and essential services upon which civilians depend for their survival and well-being. Beyond the immense human suffering caused, the use of these weapons also entails severe development costs
This article examines some of these developmental impacts, highlighting various ways that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas hampers progress towards several SDGs and derails efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda.
The implications of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda
According to the 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report, conflict-related civilian deaths from the world’s twelve deadliest conflicts increased by 53 percent over the last year, marking the first increase since 2015, when the 2030 Agenda was adopted.[vi] As alarming as this figure is, it still fails to convey the full extent of human suffering and the profound societal and economic impacts borne by people and communities when cities and towns become the battlegrounds of armed conflicts.
The use of explosive weapons has humanitarian consequences for civilians both during armed conflicts and in their aftermath. In addition to their immediate and devastating effects, the damage and destruction wrought by the use of these weapons on critical infrastructure can disrupt or deprive civilians of access to services essential to their survival and well-being, causing widespread and long-lasting harm. These indirect, or reverberating, effects are not only responsible for a large part of civilian suffering, but also impose severe socio-economic costs – holding back or even reversing development processes in affected communities and beyond.[vii]
In Yemen, according to a study by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the large-scale destruction of civilian infrastructure and essential services resulting from the widespread use of explosive weapons significantly reduced the pace of development in the country, setting back human development goals by more than two decades.[viii] The study also noted that most civilian casualties did not result from direct conflict-related violence, but rather from the indirect effects of the conflict, such as food insecurity and the spread of diseases.
Indeed, between 2015 and 2017, Yemen recorded the world’s worst cholera outbreak of the twenty-first century with over two million identified cases. The outbreak was linked to the use of explosive weapons in the conflict in at least two ways: first, the country’s already burdened water and sanitation system disintegrated following years of conflict; second, the outbreak was further aggravated by the lack of effective public health responses due to conflict-related disruptions to health infrastructure and services.[ix]
Given the complex interdependence of infrastructure and essential services in urban ecosystems and other populated areas, these impacts are often cumulative and spread out in space and time in ways that critically jeopardise progress towards various SDGs.
For instance, the damage or destruction caused by the bombing and shelling of transportation systems and networks in urban areas affects the movement of populations, compromising the achievement of several targets under SDG 11. Damaged transportation systems and networks can disrupt food supply lines and distribution networks – which has negative implications for achieving food security under SDG 2 – and can prevent the delivery of essential medical supplies to hospitals, clinics, and other health facilities, undermining the provision of health care to affected communities under SDG 3. Disruptions to supply chains in turn affect businesses and have adverse impacts on economic activities under SDG 8.
The impacts of the use of explosive weapons during armed conflicts also imply distinct challenges as societies seek to restore essential services and, ultimately, rebuild. While the negative effects on infrastructure and systems can be magnified or diminished depending on pre-existing conditions and levels of resilience in the affected areas, they can only be addressed through rehabilitation and reconstruction. However, repairing or rebuilding electricity stations, water plants, housing, bridges or roads is a time-consuming and very costly endeavour which inevitably diverts resources – both human and financial – away from other development efforts.
In protracted armed conflicts, the need to restore the capacity of essential services for relief operations often implies financing temporary solutions that can provide emergency relief, instead of investing in more sustainable and cost-effective systems and infrastructure. For instance, when water treatment plants are degraded or rendered inoperable by bombing or shelling, water trucking is typically implemented to cover interruptions in service and water access. Nevertheless, these operations are not only expensive but can also create dependencies on such alternative service provision and compromise efforts to establish more durable solutions.[x]
Beyond the evident opportunity costs reflected in these considerations, some of the harms inflicted on individuals and the social fabric of communities by the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities cannot be as easily quantified or measured, and they are likely to span generations. The destruction of cultural property, for example, can have a profound and enduring impact on the identity, memory and dignity of entire populations.[xi]
In Mosul, Iraq, where 80 percent of the Old City was destroyed during the campaign against ISIL in 2017, the recovery costs were estimated above US$ 83 billion. Despite the immense investments to rehabilitate cultural and religious sites, however, much of the damage to century-old monuments and landmarks remains irreparable.[xii]
The use of explosive weapons in populated areas can also result in social and security challenges. The competition for scarce financial resources, when combined with the lack of access to essential services wrought by the use of these weapons, can aggravate social tensions, provoke community unrest, or even trigger further conflicts. This creates an additional negative feedback loop that amplifies the harmful effects of the use of explosive weapons on development.
Overall, these cumulative impacts also contribute to the further marginalization of affected regions and communities, perpetuating or deepening existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. As is all too often the case in conflict-affected regions, the extensive humanitarian and developmental impacts manifest not only in death and physical destruction, but also in patterns of socioeconomic exclusion and inequality.
In Marawi, the largest urban centre of one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines, the use of explosive weapons during the 2017 conflict resulted in the large-scale destruction of public infrastructure and services.[xiii] Given the magnitude of the destruction, as well as the high number of families who were already in vulnerable situations before the conflict, it was estimated that the number of people below the poverty line in the Lanao del Sur province could increase by approximately 150,000.[xiv]
In the context of the current conflict in Gaza, the UNDP and the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) estimate that from November 2023, poverty rates are set to soar if hostilities continue, with multidimensional poverty threatening 96 percent of the population of Gaza.[xv]
Given the increasingly connected global economy, these harmful effects are seldom confined to national borders and typically spill over across countries and regions. The destruction of food production facilities and distribution networks, coupled with the extensive contamination of agricultural lands, can exacerbate local food insecurity, while also generating disastrous effects on global food supply chains and sparking global crises. Developing countries, in particular, can find these challenges magnified, “putting further strains on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder”.[xvi]
The widespread damage and destruction of infrastructure resulting from the extensive use of explosive weapons in the current conflict in Ukraine has significantly affected domestic food production and availability. This not only exacerbated food insecurity in the country – where the World Food Programme estimated that 11 million people faced food insecurity in early 2023 – but also sparked a global food and economic crisis reverberating around the world, with particularly harmful impacts to countries in Africa and the Middle East.[xvii]
From words to action: leveraging the implementation of the Political Declaration to support progress towards the 2030 Agenda
At the midpoint of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, it is long past time to sound the alarm: it is now time to act. The recent SDG’s Summit, which renewed commitments to implement the global goals by 2030, reflects this sense of urgency and recognises that profound changes are needed. Avoiding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and taking armed conflicts “out of urban areas altogether" would put into practice the vision presented by the UN Secretary-General in A New Agenda for Peace and should be an integral part of such efforts.[xviii]
An important step in this direction was the adoption of the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas by 83 states in November 2022.[xix] Critically, the Declaration promotes a shared recognition by endorsing states of the devastating direct and indirect effects on civilians of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, as well as of the need to take action to prevent and mitigate these effects. In its preamble, the Declaration explicitly recognises the severe impacts that the use of explosive weapons has on progress towards the SDGs and describes how their reverberating effects continue to affect individuals and communities long after hostilities end.[xx]
In addition to this important acknowledgement, the Declaration stipulates several operational commitments that endorser states are required to implement to fulfil these goals. These include “restricting or refraining” from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, taking into account the foreseeable direct and indirect effects of their use on civilians and civilian objects, as well as collecting and sharing data on their impacts. Other key commitments include the provision of assistance to victims, the facilitation of humanitarian access and the further promotion of the Declaration.
While each and all of these commitments are pivotal, the collection and sharing of data on the impacts of the use of explosive weapons on civilians is crucial to increasing the understanding of their humanitarian and developmental implications, as well as to planning effective and appropriate responses. The systematic collection and sharing of data on direct and indirect effects can shed light on the multiple ways that the use of explosive weapons adversely affects civilian well-being and reverses hard-won development gains.[xxi] Using the lens of sustainable development to understand and document these impacts can also demonstrate key obstacles to achieving the 2030 Agenda and help identify critical actions needed to “get back on track” on its implementation.
Crucially, the implementation of the Declaration also requires addressing the cumulative and long-term impacts that result from the damage and destruction to civilian infrastructure and disruption of essential services. As such, it can be a critical tool for galvanising efforts towards the global goals and offers a unique opportunity for the international community to act upon the humanitarian, peace and development nexus. In implementing these commitments, states should also be guided by the defining principle of the 2030 Agenda and deliver on their promise: to leave no one – and no place – behind.
[i] United Nations and ICRC (2019), Joint Appeal by the UN Secretary-General and the President of ICRC on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Cities
[viii] UNDP (2019). ‘Assessing the Impact of War on Development in Yemen
[ix] Lyons, K. (2017). ‘Yemen’s cholera outbreak now the worst in history as millionth case looms’. The Guardian.
[xi] ICRC (2017). ‘Attacks on cultural property are attacks on our humanity
[xiv] Asian Development Bank (2018). ‘Emergency Assistance for Reconstruction and Recovery of Marawi
[xv] UNDP-ESCWA (2023). ‘Gaza War: Expected Socio-Economic Impacts on the State of Palestine’.
[xvi] UN-Habitat (2022). ‘World Cities Report’, and World Food Programme (2023). ‘War in Ukraine pushes Middle East and Africa deeper into hunger as food prices reach alarming highs’.
[xviii]Supra iii, p. 22.
[xix] Ireland Department of Foreign Affairs (2022), Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.
[xx] Ibid, paragraph 1.6
[xxi] See UNIDIR’s Menus of Indicators to Measure the Reverberating Effects on Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas. The First Menu of Indicators (2021) focuses on documenting civilian casualties and injuries, as well as disruptions to the infrastructure of sustainable cities and communities, good health, and education. The Second Menu of Indicators (2022) focuses on impacts to water, sanitation and hygiene, food security, environmental degradation, and economic opportunity.