Symbols indicating military equipment shift around on a screen. Figures show totals of civilian casualties and other combat statistics. Military officers from countries as disparate as Nigeria, the Philippines and the UK closely watch what is happening, while checking topographic maps laid out on tables. Welcome to the joint ICRC-UAF Conference on Protection of Civilians and Critical Infrastructure in Urban Combat Operations, which took place in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv last month.

From 25-28 September, officers from six armies listen to lectures, share experiences and consider how to operate in urban conflict situations while complying with international humanitarian law, which protects civilians and infrastructure. The range of issues under consideration is wide, from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas to the legal challenges of urban combat operations. Each delegation shares its own experience of combat actions in armed conflicts.

The event culminates in a practical exercise: two teams competing to execute a military task and seize a city, using the knowledge they gained and their own practical experience to achieve the mission whilst minimizing the effect on the civilian population. The trainers deliberately make the task as difficult as possible: in the village there are sheds stocked with chlorine and weaponry. Everything has to be taken into account, and development of an offensive operation has to include preparation of a humanitarian corridor to evacuate the population.

“For all armies, the protection of civilians is important, and they understand the basics of this issue,” said Abubakar Sadiq Ahmadu, Lieutenant Colonel of the Nigerian Army. “And there is no right answer on how to act, we can only use the IHL rules the best way we can. That is why I found this conference useful, because the experience of people here is quite different.”

“As an artilleryman, I enjoyed sharing my own experience and listening to colleagues’ discussion about use of artillery in urban areas,” said Serhii Mitchenko, Head of the Chief Joint Artillery Training Center of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. “During the conflict in the east of Ukraine, artillery has played an important role, therefore we managed to get some know-how. For example, even with the enemy’s heavy equipment in cities, it is possible to calculate in advance when it would pass through a relatively deserted area and attack it, provided the necessary information on movements is collected and intelligence data is used.” During the final exercise, Mitchenko points out that it is quite possible to cut off enemy soldiers from re-supply with the help of artillery. However, he recognizes that it requires high accuracy of fire.

Photo credit: Ukrainian Armed Forces

Questions can come from unexpected places. For example, how should an attacking force warn a population of an upcoming operation? Is it permissible to seize a telecommunications tower in order to suppress the enemy’s ability to give an alert? Or will the damage to civilians caused by the lack of telephone connection outweigh the benefits?

“We are constantly considering questions about the protection of civilians while planning operations in urban areas,” said Charlie Llegaria Tiu, Colonel of the Philippine Army. “Representatives of other countries told us that counterterrorism operations require special care for civilians and critical infrastructure, and it is very important to see the whole picture while planning such operations”.

Conference participants affirm that everyone learnt something from their peers from other militaries, which is not surprising, as the military job involves constantly acquiring new knowledge. Still, protection of civilians is a key task in planning military action, and this will always remain the same.