DR Congo + 12 more

Protection of civilians in armed conflict - UN Security Council briefing by Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes

Mr. President,

Thank you for this opportunity to brief the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. This is one of my top priorities, as it should be for all Member States. In the four months that I have been Emergency Relief Coordinator, my visits have included the Darfur region of Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, Northern Uganda and Somalia. In each of these, and in too many other places as well, I have seen how hundreds of thousands of civilians have been uprooted from their ordinary lives by the effects of conflict and left stranded, their fate of no apparent consequence to those who fight around them. Countless thousands have been killed, injured, maimed, assaulted, humiliated, ignored, and treated as less than human.

It is hard not to conclude that for all our advocacy on behalf of civilians in need of protection, and for all the resources that are devoted to all aspects of protection by the humanitarian and peacekeeping communities, we are still failing to make a real and timely difference for the victims on the ground. This is an over-simplification, as I shall try to explain. But we cannot afford to do anything but look the facts in the face. Lip-service is easy. Effective action is much harder.

Mr. President, protection can mean different things. To most people it means what it says, physical protection of innocent people from those trying to harm them. We must not lose sight of this primary meaning. However, protection of civilians in armed conflict also has a particular significance in the work of humanitarian organizations and in the context of this Council's responsibilities. For the Council, it represents a series of primary objectives outlined in your Aide Memoire, prepared at the request of and adopted by this Council, which aim to transform the security, political, legal and moral environment in which all concerned operate. These objectives include: security for displaced persons and host communities; ensuring access to those in need and a secure environment for humanitarian workers; strengthening the rule of law, in particular police and justice systems; protection of women and girls in particular from gender-based violence; involvement of women in decision-making and incorporating gender perspectives at every level and in all areas; ensuring the rights of children by preventing their recruitment, ending abduction, supporting family reunification and fulfillment of basic needs; action on disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration of soldiers: and finally, arms control, mine action, reconciliation and reconstruction programmes.

The list is long, and important. And the increasingly widespread acceptance of these ideas and principles, together with the existence of institutions and staff specifically charged with monitoring and where possible ensuring their observance, is a huge step forward. So too is the agreement of 191 Member States in the 2005 World Summit Outcome on a fundamental "responsibility to protect", a norm that emphasizes the primary responsibility of each State to protect its citizens and those within its jurisdiction from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity but which also recognizes the role of the international community and UN in helping States exercise this responsibility.

Mr. President, I believe we are gradually making a difference to what is regarded as acceptable and normal and that this will have a profound effect over time. The activities of the International Criminal Court, the four seminal resolutions of this Council, and the specific inclusion in peacekeeping mandates of provisions on the protection of civilians are all key steps in changing the international environment. And we are seeing improvements on the ground in some areas. More robust peacekeeping and strategic deployment of peacekeepers in the interests of protecting civilians has helped facilitate returns or, at the least, an environment conducive to the provision of assistance in places such as DRC. In Northern Uganda, Southern Sudan and Nepal, relative peace and stability are allowing some refugees and the internally displaced to return to their homes and begin the arduous task of re-establishing their lives. Implementation of the cluster approach should lead to a more coordinated protection response at the field-level among UN agencies and their partners through the action of a specific protection cluster.

In many places, however, the picture remains somber and profoundly worrying. Allow me to highlight three areas of particular concern.

Targeting of civilians

The first is the targeting of civilians, whether deliberately or through lack of concern about the consequences of the use of force. As noted by the Council in its resolutions on protection of civilians, these are flagrant violations of international humanitarian law. Yet day in, day out, this is too often what we see, particularly in the internal conflicts and civil wars which have increasingly replaced wars between states in today's world.

Civilians bear the brunt of indiscriminate firing and violence in populated areas, including cities, where warring parties fail to distinguish, or even to try to distinguish, between combatants and the civilian population; or where they employ methods of combat or types of weapons, such as cluster bombs, that are out of all proportion to any military advantage to be gained; or just as culpably deliberately place themselves among civilian populations to try to deter attacks, or at least ensure the opposing side will damage their image by killing civilians if they do attack. In Somalia, fierce fighting in Mogadishu involving heavy weapons, between March and early May resulted in the killing of over 400 civilians and wounding of 700 more (for the most part older people, women and children), as well as the destruction of countless homes and livelihoods. Civilian casualties resulting from indiscriminate use of force have characterised fighting in the occupied Palestinian territory, whether from Israeli military operations or violence between Palestinian factions, as well as from indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel itself.

In Afghanistan and also in Iraq, in addition to the dreadful toll of civilian deaths caused by insurgents and militias on all sides, the civilian casualties resulting from security operations of multinational forces and government security forces are of increasing concern, even if no suggestion of deliberate targetting. Last weekend in Afghanistan was particularly tragic when 18 children died as a result of separate attacks by insurgent and multi-national forces, and the overnight news of possible further civilian deaths reinforces the concern. In Iraq, UNAMI estimates that an average of 94 civilians died violently every day throughout 2006 due to the actions of all sides in the conflict.

Civilians are too often deliberately targeted in order to create a climate of fear and to destabilize populations. We see this in calculated attacks by Janjaweed and other militias on innocent villagers in Darfur and Chad; in brutal sectarian, ethnic and political violence in Iraq; in large-scale killing and abduction of civilians, particularly women and girls, by ruthless armed groups in the DRC, as well as arbitrary executions and acts of banditry attributed to Government forces; and in assassinations, disappearances and other violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law by those bearing arms in places as far apart as Sri Lanka and Colombia

Mr. President, one particularly horrifying trend is the increasing use of suicide attacks including car or truck bombs, or IEDs, to use the chilling technical term. These are most often perpetrated quite intentionally in public places; places of worship, market squares, civilian areas where people gather in the normal course of their lives and where there is no military advantage to be gained. The inevitable result is carnage among wholly innocent civilians, thousands of lives ruined forever, and a pervading sense of insecurity, disrupting even the most basic forms of public life. In Iraq, UNAMI reports that over 700 civilians were killed and more than 1,200 injured in such attacks during the first three months of this year alone. Only three days ago, the bombing of a mosque in Baghdad resulted in the death and injury of over 200 civilians. Similar trends in countries such as Afghanistan, Lebanon and Somalia are profoundly worrying. Those who send so many young men and women to their bloody ends, along with their innocent victims, in order to foment ethnic or sectarian tension and violence, bear a heavy responsibility. Those who keep quiet about such attacks or even privately applaud them share that responsibility, and appear heedless of the likelihood that they or their societies in their turn may become victims of this inhuman method of spreading pointless death and destruction.

Another repugnant manifestation of deliberate targeting of civilians, also too common in too many of today's conflicts, is gender-based violence, particularly sexual violence. This has been used as a calculated method of warfare in places such as Bosnia, Rwanda, Liberia and is currently used in DRC, and occasionally in other conflicts too, including Darfur. Its aim is to brutalize and instil fear in the civilian population, especially women and girls, but also sometimes boys and men, to weaken their resistance and resilience, through humiliation and shame, and destroy the social fabric of entire communities. Survivors are left with horrific physical and psychological scars. In the South Kivu province of DRC, over 27,000 cases of sexual violence were reported in 2005 and 2006. From March 2006 to April 2007, 6,000 cases of sexual violence were reported in Ituri, also in the east of DRC. Only a handful of these cases have ever been the subject of a judicial process.

In its resolution 61/134, the General Assembly urged all Member States to take effective measures to address gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies, and to make all possible efforts to ensure that their laws and institutions are adequate to prevent, investigate and prosecute acts of gender-based violence. This Council, in resolution 1674, condemned "in the strongest terms" all sexual and other forms of violence against civilians in armed conflict, in particular women and children. The Council undertook to ensure that peace support operations work to prevent such violence and address its impact where it takes place. This is vital, as is the ICC's recent decision to investigate cases of rape in Central African Republic.

Nevertheless, the nature of sexual violence and its consequences demand that we, the United Nations, the Member States - particularly those within whose borders such crimes are committed - do much more to prevent and respond to them and to hold their perpetrators to account, as well as the commanders under whom such crimes are committed. This requires more robust coordination and more coherent action by UN agencies and their partners. The UN recently launched UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, a coalition of 12 UN entities which aims to do just that, as well as to support national efforts to prevent sexual violence and respond effectively to the needs of survivors. Combating gender-based violence also requires still greater stigmatization by national courts and the ICC as a particularly grave form of war crime and crime against humanity. Last but not least, the UN itself and Member States must do still more to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeeping forces operating in the UN's name, and to ensure no impunity for those responsible.

Forced displacement

Mr. President, a second area of particular concern is the continuing displacement of civilians as result of, or sometimes as the very purpose of, conflict. UNHCR report that there were an estimated 9.9 million refugees at the end of 2006, an increase in the global refugee population for the first time since 2002 - primarily because of refugee flows from Iraq - as well as some 24.5 million internally displaced persons - all people deliberately forced from their homes and normal lives, or having to flee to avoid violence and conflict and to meet their basic needs and those of their families.

In Iraq, UNHCR currently estimate that there are 2.2 million internally displaced, while a further 2.2 million people have sought refuge abroad. In Darfur, the ranks of the internally displaced continue to swell with over 150,000 people displaced during the first five months of this year alone, bringing the total number to well over 2 million. More than 237,000 people have also fled Darfur for neighbouring CAR and Chad, countries which are also confronted by large internally displaced populations of 212,000 and 150,00 people respectively. In CAR, the figures have increased by over 60,000 in the last six months. In Somalia, the intense violence in Mogadishu between March and early May displaced some 390,000 people to add to many hundreds of thousands long-term displaced. There may be still as many as 700,000 IDPs in Cote D'Ivoire, despite recent political progress. And in Sri Lanka, 300,000 people have been internally displaced during the last 15 months due to hostilities. Overall, it is estimated that so far this year an additional 1.5 million people have been internally displaced by war in these and other countries.

Mr. President, while displacement is as old as war itself, that does not mean that we should accept it as inevitable. On the contrary, we must look for better ways of preventing the conditions that lead to displacement, as well as trying to deal with the results. This includes emphasizing in our actions and resolutions the right to voluntary, safe return and the rejection by the international community of the results of ethnic or sectarian cleansing. To do otherwise is to condemn millions to lasting misery and degradation. As I heard, and saw for myself, in the camps that I visited in Africa, becoming displaced often only marks the beginning of further frightening challenges to survival. These include continuing insecurity; occasionally as we have seen in Darfur, repeated displacement through attacks on camps; and exposure to further serious risks, especially in militarized camp settings, such as gender-based assaults and forced recruitment. Despite the efforts of relief agencies, displacement too often leads to hunger and illness, both physical and mental. It erodes human dignity, as individuals and families become dependent on others for their survival. Where children are deprived of access to education and adequate health care, the effects of displacement can last a lifetime and ruin future generations too, with camps becoming the frame of reference for what is normal. For too many of the world's displaced, the experience will translate into permanent loss of livelihood, culture, and opportunities and turns into chronic destitution. Life in a camp, even when basic needs are met, is a life of misery: inactivity and boredom are profoundly debilitating, and commonly lead to increasing politicization and militarization of those concerned, thus perpetuating cycles of violence and further reducing the chances of returning to peace, stability and normality.

If peace can be restored, there is still the enormous challenge of returning home and re-establishing lives, sometimes after a few months but often after many years or even generations. As we see in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan, this also involves addressing specific protection challenges if return is to be truly voluntary, safe, dignified and, ultimately, sustainable. Aside from provision of basic services, these include restitution of land and property, community reconciliation, and the painstaking clearance of landmines and unexploded ordnance in areas of return

Access and security

Mr. President, the third area I would like to emphasize today is access and security for humanitarian workers. This Council has often underlined the importance of safe and unhindered access for humanitarian staff to civilians in armed conflict. In all my encounters in the field, aid workers have emphasized access as the main prerequisite for humanitarian action which, for millions of vulnerable people caught up in conflict, is often their only hope for survival. Yet frequently, and I fear increasingly, we see that such access is anything but safe and far from unhindered.

In Darfur, the targeting and harassment of aid workers continue to place enormous strain on the delivery of life-saving assistance to millions of people. Between January and May of this year, over 60 humanitarian vehicles were hijacked, usually by rebel groups of one kind or another, and 56 staff temporarily abducted. 31 aid convoys were ambushed and looted, and 13 relief organizations forced to relocate due to attacks. Of particularly grave concern are incidents of assaults against, and detention of, humanitarian staff and the killing of one NGO and one UN staff member and ten African Union personnel. Certain agencies and NGOs contributing to providing some measure of protection to the displaced and drawing attention to abuses have been harassed by the authorities. The Joint UN-Government of Sudan communiqué agreed in April has begun to produce some results in terms of reductions of other so-called bureaucratic obstacles, which is most welcome, but there remains a long way to go.

In Sri Lanka, over 600,000 inhabitants of the Jaffna peninsula have faced shortages of basic necessities since August of last year when the Government and LTTE restricted access to the peninsula by road and by sea respectively. In Iraq, access for UN agencies and international NGOs is extremely limited throughout the country due to the high level of insecurity. If we are to do more to tackle the growing humanitarian crisis within the country, it will be important to establish an understanding with the parties to the conflict, regional actors and key Member States on the fundamental importance and inviolability of access and security for humanitarian workers.

Elsewhere too, we continue to see deliberate and unacceptable attacks on aid workers. This month alone, we have seen the killing of two staff of the Lebanese Red Cross at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, the scene of fighting between Lebanese forces and Fatah al-Islam militants; the killing of a staff member of Medecins Sans Frontiers in the Central African Republic after her vehicle was shot at, apparently by members of the Popular Army for the Restoration of Democracy; the killing in West Darfur of a staff member of Action by Churches Together-Caritas; and the murder of two workers from the Sri Lankan Red Cross. And let us remember in 2006, 24 aid workers were killed in Sri Lanka, including 17 staff of Action Contre Le Faim in a single horrifying act. The perpetrators of all these crimes are yet to be brought to account.

Killing humanitarian staff and arbitrarily denying access violates international humanitarian law. It also threatens the lifeline to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people. I propose that we should follow and assess more systematically the reasons for and consequences of such denials or restrictions and report instances of grave concern back to this Council, in accordance with resolution 1674.


Mr. President, in conclusion, if I have portrayed a somewhat bleak picture in this briefing, the reason is that there is still a lot to be bleak about, and no room for this Council or anyone else to be remotely complacent about what has been achieved so far. Nevertheless, as I have also tried to suggest, the picture is not devoid of progress or even of a certain degree of hope. The humanitarian community continues to work hard to improve its performance in protection on the ground, through its focus on the issue, its monitoring and advocacy, awareness raising and capacity-building, and devotion of specific staff to this cause. International presence on the ground, even an unarmed presence, can make a huge difference in inhibiting violence against civilians, which is why access, and a keen interest in protection from those who have access, are so vital.

This Council has taken important steps towards better protection for civilians through its actions and resolutions, the dividends of which are for example being seen in terms of more robust peacekeeping, and more strategic and protection-related deployment of peacekeepers in DRC. I suggest that it may also be useful to take a systematic look at the practical effect that the inclusion of protection of civilians in a number of peacekeeping mandates has had on the ground, to draw the right lessons for future deployments.

And if there is one thing we need to do above all, it is to end the culture of impunity which underlies so many abuses. Rule of law and judicial redress are crucial and should be emphasized in everything we do. In the case of sexual violence, more involvement of women in all aspects of protection, including peacekeeping itself, would make a real difference to attitudes.

More broadly, while humanitarians can ensure survival and dignity to a certain degree, while peacekeepers can enhance the safety and security of affected populations, and while together we can help create a climate conducive to reconciliation, it is worth repeating again that only political solutions can end the vast majority of conflicts. The UN, including this Council and the Member States, must decide once and for all to invest more in conflict prevention, in facilitating political solutions through increased mediation capacity and support to help resolve conflict, and in immediate post-conflict measures to prevent rapid relapse into conflict.

For my part, I will continue to work with colleagues from DPA and DPKO to ensure that protection concerns are fully integrated into our mediation and peace-keeping efforts. I will also continue to engage the Council and Member States in seeking improved implementation of the resolutions on protection of civilians and more systematic inclusion of protection of civilians concerns in the work of the Council. I will also continue to bring situations of grave humanitarian concern to the Council's attention, through briefings, through the reports of the Secretary-General, or where necessary, and pursuant to resolution 1674, directly through the Secretary-General. Because only where the international community is united and resolute can we hope to protect the defenceless as we have the obligation to do.

Thank you.


UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.