Secretary-General Describes Appalling Catalogue of Violence Inflicted on Civilians in Conflict, Says ‘We Must Do More to Save Innocent Lives,’ in Security Council
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6790th & 6791st Meetings (AM & PM)
Day-Long Debate on Civilian Protection Hears from UN Relief Coordinator, Top Human Rights Official, International Committee of Red Cross, Some 45 Member States
Around the world — especially in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa — the Security Council must use the tools at its disposal to protect unarmed civilians, who were often caught in the crossfire or targeted in places that rightly should be sanctuaries, including hospitals, schools and places of worship, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today, as he launched an open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
“Too many people are dying in too many places,” he said in opening remarks.
More and more, the world had seen an “appalling” catalogue of sexual violence, forced disappearances, torture and other acts that violated international humanitarian and human rights law. Across the geography of conflict — in Afghanistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and both Sudan and South Sudan — “we simply must do more”, he said. “We must do more to protect women and children, in particular. More to protect journalists. More to save innocent lives.”
Changing the calculus, he said, required that parties to conflict better comply with international humanitarian and human rights law. There was also an urgent need for more systematic engagement with non-State armed groups. Peacekeeping missions mandated to protect civilians must have the resources and forces to do the job. Further, unhindered humanitarian access must be secured to help those in need. When States failed to take the steps necessary to protect civilians, the Council must exercise strong leadership in guiding the international response.
“Meeting these challenges requires political will”, he said, both for the parties involved and for the Council to use the tools at its disposal, including arms embargoes, targeted sanctions and referral of situations to the International Criminal Court. Beyond that, it must consider new approaches to prevent and respond to international humanitarian and human rights law violations, and ensure that the protection of civilians received the attention it demanded.
Briefing the Council, Valerie Amos, Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that poorly regulated arms trade and widespread availability of weapons fuelled many of the violations seen in armed conflict. In particular, action was needed to address the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide-area effect, the humanitarian impact of which was clear in parts of Syria. The Council also must be more proactive in calling on all parties — in Syria and elsewhere — to stop using explosive weapons in populated areas. In addition, the systematic recording of civilian casualties could help confirm the causes of harm to civilians, and actions needed to end it.
Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, delivering a statement on behalf of Navanethem Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed that human rights monitoring was essential to safeguarding civilians. He urged the Council to include protection and accountability provisions in its resolutions. Where missions received protection mandates, they should be given the personnel and materiel resources — such as helicopters — to carry them out. Human rights training should be provided to all peacekeepers and, more broadly, use of new technologies, such as satellite imagery, should be considered.
Philip Spoerri, Director for International Law and Cooperation at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said civilians in many parts of the world were bearing the brunt of hostilities, and he urged the Council to take practical measures to counter a wide range of threats to health care, adopt a strong Arms Trade Treaty and commit to strengthening legal protection for the victims of armed conflict. Resolute action in those three areas would go a long way towards ensuring better protection of civilians everywhere.
When the floor was opened for debate, representatives from some 45 countries voiced concern at situations in Syria, South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and elsewhere, where civilians — especially women and children — had been caught in various forms of extreme violence, prompting grave humanitarian crises and huge population displacements.
Speakers stressed the State’s primary responsibility to protect civilians, underscoring that respect for the humanitarian principles of distinction, between combatants and civilians, and proportionality — which forbids attack on a military target if harm to civilians or civilian property is excessive — was crucial, as adherence could decrease the number of displaced persons. Non-compliance by one party to a conflict did not justify non-compliance by the other.
Where national authorities failed to take steps to ensure accountability, the Council could play a more proactive role. Many speakers urged the Council to make use of the full range of justice and accountability mechanisms, including referrals to the International Criminal Court. Some, including the representative of the European Union, saw merit in the increased use of commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions. Missions also must be properly resourced to prepare peacekeepers for civilian protection duties.
Still others, including Colombia’s delegate said concern for enhancing compliance by non-State armed actors with international law was valid, but he did not agree with the Secretary-General’s “sweeping” proposition of more systematic engagement with such groups. Any dialogue between the Organization and illegal armed groups categorized as “terrorist” organizations could be held only with Colombia’s explicit consent. Turkey’s delegate echoed that sentiment, cautioning against extending any sense of legitimacy to terrorist groups, which often sought to exploit humanitarian approaches to gain international acceptance and recognition.
Also speaking today was the Foreign Affairs Minister of Guatemala, as well as representatives from the United Kingdom, Togo, Portugal, Pakistan, France, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Russian Federation, Germany, India, United States, South Africa, China, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Egypt, Australia, Israel, Finland (also on behalf of Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Greece, Luxembourg, Jordan, Estonia, Mexico, Austria, Canada, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, Venezuela, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Bangladesh, Chile, Philippines, Iran, Libya, Armenia and Syria.