The ICRC protects the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and violence, providing them with assistance and promoting respect for international humanitarian law. Headquartered in Geneva, it deploys humanitarian operations worldwide, including in urban areas. Urban warfare and violence disrupt the economic, political and social fabric of the cities. As a result, they have devastating humanitarian consequences on the population.
Humanitarian operations in rural and sparsely populated areas have been at the core of humanitarian work for decades. However, in an urbanizing world, the ICRC is stepping up its efforts to adapt humanitarian operations and better respond to the multi-faceted needs of people affected by the growing urbanization of armed conflict and violence. It does so by mainstreaming an integrated multi-disciplinary response. It also strengths the resilience of essential services. Finally, it implements durable solutions including through engagement with local authorities.
Armed conflicts increasingly occur in urban areas. This reality is conveyed by images of Mosul, Aleppo, Raqqa, Donetsk, Tripoli and Sanaa. These examples unveil the high cost of urban fighting for civilians. Injury and death among civilians and damage to civilian and other protected facilities and infrastructure occur on a dramatic scale. The use of explosive weapons in urban settings is often in cause because of their wide area effects.
In parallel, the direct, indirect and cumulative impact of hostilities disrupt the urban services that are indispensable for sustaining life. Too often, inhabitants run out of food, water, sanitation, electricity and health care. Cuts to these basic needs are aggravated when cities are besieged, when impartial humanitarian organizations are denied access to the civilian population, or when urban conflicts become protracted.
Many of these consequences are not unique to cities, but they occur on a significantly larger scale in urban warfare. So the humanitarian impact of urban warfare requires a sustained and holistic response.
The ICRC, together with the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, adopts a multidisciplinary integrated approach. This approach is combining prevention, protection and assistance components specifically adapted to the urban context. Therefore, it engages with belligerents at every level, driven by the needs of the people who are most affected.
In June 2022, the Council of delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – which sets common strategies and ensures alignment within the Movement on approaches to global humanitarian issues – adopted Resolution 6 on “War in cities”. In this resolution, the Council of delegates expresses its deep concern with regard to the devastating humanitarian impacts of war in cities (high number of civilian deaths; extensive physical and mental suffering; destruction of homes and critical civilian infrastructure; disruption to essential services such as healthcare, water and food supply; sanitation, electricity, education, etc.); environmental damage; widespread displacement of people, etc.). While recognizing that “many of these consequences are not unique to war in cities“, the resolution underscores that “they occur on a significantly larger scale because of the density of the civilian population and civilian objects, the belligerents’ choice of certain weapons, means and methods of warfare, the population’s reliance on interconnected infrastructure systems that enable the delivery of public services and the often protracted nature of urban fighting”. In order to prevent and respond to the humanitarian impacts of war in cities, a Movement Action Plan is annexed to the resolution and puts forward a comprehensive set of activities that all Movement components will strive to implement.
More information on the ICRC and urban warfare here.
In many large cities, some areas have become unsafe for the population, and for the State agencies or civil society organizations operating in them. This happens because gangs and other armed actors clash with State security forces and fight among themselves to control neighborhoods and economic resources. Some urban areas have become severely dysfunctional and practically ungovernable because of their activities.
Consequently, the impact of chronic armed violence is profound and all-pervasive on the lives of the people struggling to survive in such environments.
The ICRC works in urban settings to mitigate the direct and indirect humanitarian consequences of violence. Working directly with affected individuals and communities, the ICRC designs and implements effective responses that help bolster resilience.
Collaborating with partners, such as the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, civil society organizations, local authorities and local service providers, is also key to ensure an appropriate integrated response, such as facilitating a safer access to basic services, and the sustainability of relief programs.
More broadly, the ICRC seeks to engage, wherever possible, in a constructive dialogue with all stakeholders present in urban settings. This includes armed and security forces, as well as armed groups. The objective is to positively influence behaviours and minimize the impact of violence on the population.
More information on the ICRC and urban violence here.
A growing proportion of the people displaced by armed conflict and other violence live in cities. This concerns both internally displaced persons (IDPs) and people displaced across borders. People are displaced because their own city has become the scene of armed conflict or other violence, disaster, or as they seek refuge in a city, contributing to global urbanization trends.
The ICRC has thus undertaken research to better understand the phenomenon. It looked into ways to adapt the humanitarian response to the immediate and longer-term needs of IDPs in urban settings. It also helps them to fully recover.
The primary responsibility to provide protection and assistance to IDPs lies with the State. But affected communities themselves, local authorities, local businesses, civil society, humanitarian organizations and development organizations team up to better meet the needs of IDPs and their hosts.
More information on the ICRC and urban displacement here.
The City’s Assessment for Mass Casualty Emergency Response (CAMERA) tool, developed by Johns Hopkins University with the support of the ICRC, was launched on 27 April 2021. This tool aims to empower urban communities and city managers. It provides a way to measure and score the life-saving capability of their city’s health system in the immediate aftermath of a mass casualty event.
Urban stakeholders interested in using the tool are welcome to write to the ICRC’s Health Care in Danger Initiative at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- Present and engaged: how the ICRC responds to armed conflict and violence in cities; 2023 – ICRC Report
- ICRC Humanitarian Law & Policy blog series: urban warfare, 2021 – ICRC’s Blog
- Urban Violence and the ICRC’s Humanitarian Response, 2020 – ICRC Briefing paper Urban Armed Violence and the New Urban Agenda: The ICRC’s Recommendations for Habitat III, 2020 – Policy Recommendations
- Settings Need New Approaches, 2019 – Blog by ICRC President, Peter Maurer
- Urban violence in Latin America: What is it? What is the ICRC doing about this problem? 2019 Video
- Displaced in Cities: Experiencing and responding to urban internal displacement outside camps, 2018 – ICRC Report
- I Saw My City Die: Voices from the front lines of urban conflict in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, 2017 – ICRC Report
- Urban Services During Protracted Armed Conflict: A call for a better approach to assisting affected people, 2015 – ICRC Report
- Mr Charles Deutscher, Policy Adviser, email@example.com
- Ms Audrey Purcell-O’Dwyer, Operations Coordinator for Armed Violence with the Americas Region, firstname.lastname@example.org
- ICRC Health Care in Danger Initiative: Please write to email@example.com for more information about the City’s Assessment for Mass Casualty Emergency Response (CAMERA) tool.