Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (S/2007/643)
1. The present sixth report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict is submitted in accordance with Security Council resolutions 1674 (2006) and 1738 (2006). Resolution 1674 (2006) marked a watershed in the protection of civilians by providing a clear framework for action by the Council and the United Nations in this area - action that is as critical and necessary today as it was eight years ago, when the Council considered the first report on the protection of civilians.
2. The present report provides an update on progress made in implementing resolution 1674 (2006) and strengthening the framework for the protection of civilians elaborated by the Council and other partners in recent years. It takes stock of positive developments and ongoing or new concerns that affect civilians in conflict situations around the world. In doing so, it highlights four challenges of particular importance to us all: the denial of life-saving access to civilians in need; the abhorrent practice of sexual violence in conflicts and its devastating impact on individuals and communities; the critical need to address more consistently the impact of conflict on housing, land and property; and the importance of eliminating the unacceptable humanitarian toll of cluster munitions. The report ends by proposing a set of key actions for the Security Council's consideration, all aimed at further strengthening the protection framework in areas that require more prompt and systematic action.
3. My visits to a number of conflict-affected countries have convinced me that for those displaced and victimized by war, our actions matter far more than our words. Their plight has left me with a deep sense of responsibility to ensure that where we cannot prevent armed conflict, the protection of civilians is, and must remain, an absolute priority: for me, as Secretary-General, for the United Nations, for the Security Council and, above all, for the Member States, with which the primary responsibility for protecting civilians lies. Enshrined in all major moral, religious, and legal codes, and not specific to any particular culture or tradition, the protection of civilians is a human, political and legal imperative that recognizes the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. It is a cause that unites us all in the responsibility to protect civilians from abuse, to mitigate the impact of warfare and to alleviate their suffering.
II. The nature of contemporary armed conflicts
4. Although there has been a decline in the number of conflicts around the world,(1) in those, predominantly non-international, conflicts that simmer or rage, large numbers of civilians remain at risk of, or suffer, brutality and degradation. Some are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others are deliberately targeted and subjected to atrocities in an environment of almost total impunity.
5. For 35 million people, flight has become the only option. Displacement, therefore, continues to be one of the principal features of contemporary conflict and arguably the most significant humanitarian challenge that we face. But often it is only the beginning of an ordeal that may last for years or even decades, marked by suffering, deprivation and a daily fight for survival. In many cases it leads to the permanent loss of livelihoods, opportunities and cultural identity. The world's refugee population stands at 9.9 million, the highest it has been in four years. The increase stems largely from the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Iraq, which has forced well over 2 million people to seek refuge abroad.
6. These numbers are in addition to an estimated global population of 24.5 million persons internally displaced by conflict. In Iraq, there are some 2.2 million internally displaced that we know of. In the Sudan, although approximately 1 million have returned to the south of the country this year, insecurity in Darfur has resulted in 240,000 newly displaced, making a total of 2.2 million internally displaced in Darfur alone. Some 242,000 people have fled Darfur for the Central African Republic and Chad, neighbouring countries that also have large internally displaced populations, 300,000 and 170,000, respectively. In Somalia, some 700,000 remain internally displaced, while in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, recurrent fighting has forced over 500,000 people from their homes this year, bringing the total displaced population to over 1.2 million. In Colombia, 20,000 civilians have been displaced by non-State armed groups. Overall, there are 2.1 million registered internally displaced persons in Colombia, though some estimate the total at 3 million. In Afghanistan, violence and insecurity have resulted in renewed and increasing displacement, particularly in the southern provinces, with some 44,000 people displaced during the first half of 2007. Violence in Sri Lanka has displaced 100,000 people so far this year, particularly in the north and east of the country, though some 120,000 have been able to return to their homes in the east since May, following a decrease in hostilities.
7. The majority of conflicts today continue to be non-international. While such conflicts have always been marked by an imbalance in the military capacity of the warring parties, this asymmetry has become increasingly pronounced in a number of conflicts in recent years, most notably in the occupied Palestinian territory, but also in Afghanistan and Iraq, where national and multinational forces are fighting a variety of armed groups. In such conflicts, to overcome their inferiority in conventional military strength, militarily weaker parties have resorted to strategies that flagrantly violate international humanitarian law, such as deliberate attacks against civilians, including suicide bombings, as well as hostage-taking and intentional placement of combatants and other military objectives amid civilian infrastructure. Such acts are inexcusable violations of international humanitarian law of which civilians bear the brunt. There is also a risk that in fighting an enemy that is difficult, if not impossible, to identify, militarily superior parties may increasingly respond with methods and means of warfare that violate the principles of distinction and proportionality, of which civilians, again, bear the brunt. 8. A further feature of contemporary conflicts is the counter-terrorism operations by which States strive to prevent and respond to acts of violence by transnational armed groups. While recognizing States' inherent right to protect themselves and those within their jurisdiction, it is essential that all aspects of such operations, be it the use of force or deprivation of liberty, be carried out in full compliance with applicable international law.
9. Another prominent feature is the contracting out of functions traditionally performed by States' security or military apparatuses to private military and security companies. In Iraq, for example, in March 2006, there were an estimated 181 such companies, with 48,000 employees, undertaking functions for multinational forces.(2) Activities undertaken by private military and security companies include the protection of personnel and assets, interrogation of prisoners and even participation in combat operations - activities that often put the employees of such companies in direct contact with the civilian population. It is well established that the employees of private military and security companies must comply with international humanitarian law. The responsibilities of the States that hire them are also well established. However, far more needs to be done to promote compliance with the law and the accountability of employees and hiring States for any violations thereof. In this respect, I welcome the initiative of the Government of Switzerland, in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, to foster intergovernmental discussion on the issues raised in relation to private military and security companies and to study and develop good practices, regulatory models and other appropriate measures to promote respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law.
(1) In 2006, there were 17 major armed conflicts in 16 locations, compared to 19 in 17 locations in 2004. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 2007.
(2) United States Government Accountability Office, Rebuilding Iraq - Actions Still Needed to Improve the Use of Private Security Providers, statement of William Solis, Director, Defense Capabilities and Management, June 2006.