University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

In responding to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of war in cities, it is crucial to pay attention to every individual death, injury, and incident of destruction and also to indirect harm to the collective population and its shared spaces—to the very fabric of the city.

A 2023 report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the humanitarian consequences of war in cities describes the multiple impacts of urban warfare that stretch, in multilayered ways, beyond any particular physical injury of an individual or damage to a building. The report stresses the importance of better understanding the patterns of complex, interconnected harms and losses to people’s lives and livelihoods, as well as to the city itself.

Fighting around homes, schools, and businesses destroys mundane structures, which can be more easily rebuilt, but also destroys the magical—the shared spaces where life happens. Communities suffer not only from the physical danger of bombs and bullets, but from no longer being able to safely go to work and school, to visit their relatives or neighbors, or to visit a loved one’s grave. The interdependent nature of services provided and accessed in cities–the networked water, power, health, education, business and other employment opportunities–also makes the population vulnerable to dangerous reverberating effects of disruptions to these essential services caused by war. Scholar Martin Coward has described the destruction of buildings in and around which communities live as the destruction of conditions that allow for our coexistence (“being-with-others”) in the city’s shared spaces.

Lawyers trained in the law of armed conflict (also known as international humanitarian law, or IHL) regulating the conduct of hostilities often assess individual attacks and events. Each strike must be evaluated for its compliance with IHL’s fundamental rules requiring distinction, proportionality, and precautions in attack. In comparison, calls to recognize urbicide as an international crime understand the unique harms to the whole as having a meaning of their own, separate from the individual underlying attacks constituting the hostilities.

Certainly, in the face of the overwhelming devastation witnessed during urban warfare, it can seem misplaced, even imperceptive, to conceptualize demonstrable patterns of widespread civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure as unique instances of an unlawful attack, or unfortunate incidental harm during otherwise lawful attacks. At a certain point, the catastrophe of the whole outweighs what may seem like pathetic quibbling about individual strikes and collateral damage.

Since urbicide is not yet accepted as a distinct international crime and proving the necessary intent might be challenging, what can IHL nevertheless offer regarding the harms we observe to the city and its inhabitants’ livelihoods?

For its part, IHL recognizes certain collective harms—most obviously, perhaps, the prohibition of collective punishment, as well as the prohibition on bombarding a densely populated area as a single military objective, and requirements to facilitate aid to meet the humanitarian needs of the civilian population. IHL also recognizes specific risks of harm to cultural heritage and to the natural environment. Moreover, a pattern of attacks can become indefensible: “either intentional or indicative of reckless incompetence,” said the Secretary General of Doctors without Borders (MSF) in April 2024 based on the indiscriminate nature of the effects from bombing that MSF staff have observed from their facilities in Gaza. In early 2022, experts appointed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe likewise inferred possible IHL violations committed by Russian forces from the patterns and scale of death and destruction in Ukraine, for which the experts felt that, absent other information to which they did not have access, there could be no other plausible explanation.

What is key, of course, is to prevent and mitigate such civilian harm in the first place. In assessing expected incidental civilian harm when applying the rules of proportionality and precautions in attack, both the direct and indirect (or reverberating) effects must be taken into account, insofar as they are reasonably foreseeable in the circumstances. What should be considered reasonably foreseeable by the ‘reasonable commander’ in the circumstances is debated. Yet, existing evidence and growing understanding of indirect effects of damage to cities and their infrastructure—for example, the degradation of the provision of essential services and related harms such as the spread of disease, loss of livelihoods, food insecurity, displacement, and significant psychological trauma—mean that all such available information must be included in any meaningful assessment of the foreseeable incidental harm to civilians and civilian objects. Put differently, it becomes increasingly less feasible to argue that indirect effects caused by an attack, even the complex, so-called ‘less visible’ and cumulative consequences, were not reasonably foreseeable.

Concerning accountability and reconciliation, therefore, it remains important to pay attention to each attack so that every civilian casualty is investigated as necessary, while also paying increased attention to the complex patterns of indirect collective losses.

Download a PDF of this issue »

Written by Marnie Lloydd, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington.