Who’s really left behind in today’s most dangerous cities?

The New Urban Agenda finally recognizes the challenges of urban warfare. But Habitat III also must chart how to ensure safe access to health and education services in areas affected by chronic urban violence.

A boy holds a dove near destroyed buildings in Homs, Syria, September 2013. (ART Production/Shutterstock)

The ICRC does not usually see cities at their best. We see them being bombed, fought over and destroyed. We see civilian populations living in miserable and dangerous conditions for years at a time. A neutral and impartial humanitarian organization, we work to protect and assist people in armed conflict and other situations of violence. Today, our biggest operations are in urban areas.

In an urbanizing world, armed conflict is urbanizing too. It is for this reason that we are engaging very seriously in Habitat III, the global process that seeks to finalize a new 20-year vision on sustainable urbanization in October. Last month, we attended negotiations on that vision, known as the New Urban Agenda, in Surabaya, Indonesia, along with colleagues from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. And we will be at Quito, where the Habitat III conference will be held.

The greater part of the New Urban Agenda is rightly forward-looking and progressive, with a focus on green cities, “smart cities”, more-equal urban areas and improved infrastructure. But we also feel it necessary to focus the minds of national governments more firmly on the rising challenge of urban warfare.

For many years, we have been working alongside National Red Crescent and Red Cross Societies across the Middle East to help people survive in cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq; Damascus, Homs and Aleppo in Syria; Sana’a and Aden in Yemen; and, longest of all, in Gaza, where we have worked for decades. Equally, we have a history of working in fast-growing African cities that have been affected by armed conflict, such as Goma, Freetown, Bangui and Juba.

[See: More than half the world’s refugees live in urban areas. Here’s what that means for cities.]

Many of these cities have been destroyed by war and yet also have seen their populations rise dramatically from the arrival of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees. Towns and cities in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and parts of Europe also are seeing their populations increase, with people fleeing armed conflicts in neighbouring countries. Many informal settlements that started as IDP or refugee camps in countries such as Sudan and Kenya are now effectively new towns and cities.

The changing demography of war creates cities as well as destroys them. Venice, perhaps the world’s most beautiful city, was founded in the fifth century by IDPs who fled invasions into the marshes around its now-famous lagoons. Today’s wars likewise will shape tomorrow’s cities.

Safeguarding municipal services

Before Surabaya, there was virtually nothing in the draft New Urban Agenda about the challenges of urban warfare that is destroying so many cities and dramatically reversing development gains. The ICRC went to the recent negotiations in an effort to correct this omission.

“The changing demography of war creates cities as well as destroys them. Today’s wars likewise will shape tomorrow’s cities.”

In Surabaya, we asked U. N. member states to include some important new policies on urban warfare in their drafting of the New Urban Agenda, and they responded positively. We had two main asks.

First, we urged member states to recommit to international humanitarian law and to respect and ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions in urban warfare. We asked that Habitat III’s concerns for safety apply to civilian populations in armed conflicts, too. We reminded states that parties to conflict must distinguish between civilian and military objects, and that they must provide relief to civilian populations.

[See: Learning the language of cities in crisis]

We also urged that parties to conflict avoid using explosive weapons with a wide impact area in densely populated areas, and that all parties fulfil their humanitarian obligations during siege warfare. And we reminded states that health-care facilities, their patients and staff members should not be the objects of deliberate or indiscriminate attack.

Second, we asked that states commit to supporting resilient urban services during armed conflict. The survival of the civilian population depends on these services. The ICRC spends most of its budgets in urban warfare working closely with municipal authorities to repair and maintain essential infrastructure and services — the pipes, wires, storage tanks and supplies that are essential for electricity, water and sewerage.

During times of war, repeated attacks, loss of revenue and the flight of critical staff lead to the rapid deterioration of infrastructure, services and expertise. In turn, this often leads to a devastating, cumulative impact on the capacity and quality of these services.

[See: Habitat III process paying ‘insufficient’ attention to resilience and urban crises]

We were very encouraged to see member states include a new paragraph — Paragraph 28 in the post-Surabaya draft — that reaffirms the importance of respect for international humanitarian law and the need to support urban services during armed conflict. This paragraph now reads: “We acknowledge the need for governments and civil society to further support resilient urban services during armed conflict. We also acknowledge the need to reaffirm full respect for international humanitarian law.”

To ensure millions of people living with armed conflict for many years are included under the New Urban Agenda, it is important that this paragraph stays in the agenda when it is agreed this fall.

Safer access

Much armed violence in the world’s town and cities is not armed conflict governed by the Geneva Conventions but rather chronic urban violence. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that this can result in similar humanitarian consequences. The risk of urban violence can stop health workers and patients from going to health facilities, or deter pupils and teachers from going to school.

“The ICRC spends most of its budgets in urban warfare working closely with municipal authorities to repair and maintain essential infrastructure and services — the pipes, wires, storage tanks and supplies that are essential for electricity, water and sewerage.”

The draft New Urban Agenda recognizes the need to integrate measures to address urban violence in urban planning (notably in Paragraph 99 of the post-Surabaya version). But this recognition is still vague. There is no clear reference to the invisible costs of urban violence from clinics that are shut or school days missed. The document’s notion of safety also remains generic and poorly illustrated; it could do more to clarify what it is to be unsafe and what it means to be protected and safe.

[See: In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning]

Many national and local governments have strong track records of reducing urban violence and improving people’s safe access to basic services. Urban violence will be a major challenge in the next 20 years, and the New Urban Agenda could usefully spell out some of this positive experience.

In the ICRC’s experience of working in situations of urban violence, such success typically comes from a combination of community engagement, negotiations with armed actors, training of service-delivery professionals and better resourcing of health facilities and schools. Law enforcement activities alone are seldom sufficient.

Meanwhile, states are slated to continue negotiating the details of the New Urban Agenda in New York in early September, after which they will meet again in Quito the following month. Together, these negotiations will shape urban policy for the next 20 years and be an important guide to countries, local governments and civil society.

[See: Habitat III can help migration drive city development]

The ICRC is encouraged by the greater focus on the challenges of urban warfare in the new draft of the New Urban Agenda. But we would be even more pleased to see more specific recognition of the policies needed to address the challenge of safer access to health and education services in towns and cities affected by chronic urban violence.

We look forward to new progress on all aspects of the New Urban Agenda in New York and to a very positive, inspirational summit in Quito. A New Urban Agenda resulting from Habitat III must serve to protect and assist the many millions of people who will continue to experience armed conflict and high levels of violence in urban areas.

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Hugo Slim

Dr. Hugo Slim is head of policy for the International Committee of the Red Cross.