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Despite Call for Global Ceasefire to Combat Pandemic, Deadly Conflicts Continue, Humanitarian Chief Tells Security Council Debate on Protecting Civilians

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SC/14530 25 MAY 2021

Women, Children, Minorities ‘Hit Hardest’, International Red Cross Head Stresses

The Security Council heard today that anemic implementation of its resolutions and international law designed to protect civilians in armed conflict has collided with the COVID-19 pandemic to exacerbate the humanitarian situation of vulnerable populations around the world, as briefers from the Organization and civil society urged the 15-member organ to take action.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed the Council on the Secretary-General’s report concerning the protection of civilians in armed conflict (document S/2021/423, pointing out that — despite the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in 2020 to focus on ending the pandemic — deadly conflicts have continued in many places and emerged in others, frustrating efforts to control the spread of the virus and to care for the infected.

“We have all seen multiple reports of atrocities,” he said, detailing a recent attack on a high school in Afghanistan, reports of mass rapes and killings in Ethiopia and civilian deaths and damaged infrastructure in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In 2020, conflicts contributed to a rise in the number of forcibly displaced people — 80 million in total by mid-year — and insecurity, sanctions, counter-terrorism measures and administrative hurdles hindered humanitarian operations, which were further limited by the pandemic.

By the end of 2020, nearly 100 million people faced crisis or worse levels of food insecurity as a result of conflict — up from 77 million in 2019 — and the threat of famine re-emerged in north-east Nigeria, parts of the Sahel, South Sudan and Yemen, he continued. Conflict causes hunger in both direct and indirect ways, displacing civilians from agricultural land, grazing areas and fishing grounds. Further, commercial food systems and markets are disrupted and parties to conflict destroy food stocks, raising prices and limiting families’ ability to buy food. “Member States need to take more effective action to tackle these challenges,” he urged.

Turning to the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities, he pointed out that almost 90 per cent of people killed when such weapons are used in urban areas are civilians — compared to 20 per cent when these arun scms are used in rural areas. The year 2020 saw high numbers of civilian casualties resulting from the use of explosive weapons in countries including Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen, and they have disrupted almost every essential resource or public service in the latter country. He called on fighting parties to change their choice of weapons and tactics.

Further damage to civilian populations occurs, he observed, as “medical personnel, transportation and facilities continue to come under attack”. In 2020, attacks on health-care facilities across 22 conflict-affected countries killed 182 health workers, with the highest number of such fatalities in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Syria. A South Sudanese doctor was killed on 21 May inside a health facility in South Sudan while a humanitarian convoy was shot at a few kilometres away. In Myanmar alone, 109 incidents of violence against health-care workers were documented in a two-month period in 2021. He stressed that the consequences of such attacks are catastrophic — “when medical care stops, lives are lost”.

Noting that some States have taken practical steps to protect medical staff and facilities — most importantly, ensuring that military rules-of-engagement respect international humanitarian law — he further called for all humanitarian and medical activities to be excluded from counter-terrorism and sanctions measures. Unless the international community confronts the way belligerents behave in conflict, the scale of humanitarian need will continue to increase.

While detailing several measures States can adopt to this end — including improved training for armed forces and modernized policies to avoid civilian harm — he emphasized the critical importance of accountability. “What is not punished is encouraged,” he observed, noting that the international community has the laws and tools to protect civilians from harm in armed conflicts —“it is time that all States and parties to conflict apply them.”

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, next briefed the Council by pointing out that global fragility is deepening due to the converging challenges of armed conflict, the pandemic, economic downturn, rising inequality and climate change. Due to the privatization of warfare, widespread availability of weapons and urban violence, violence within and between States and non-State armed groups is becoming even more complex. Highlighting the Committee’s recent report on the systemic impacts of COVID-19 on communities shouldering the twin burdens of war and disease, he said “those already at the back of the queue — women, children, people with disabilities, minorities, the elderly — are hit hardest.”

The pandemic is not just a health crisis, he added, noting its impact on children, detainees, migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons who are excluded from State-run health-care and social protection systems. While the need for robust health-care systems has perhaps never been greater, paradoxically they are under attack, he pointed out, noting also an increase in cyberattacks against health-care facilities. Calling for political solidarity and more substantive support for humanitarian action, he said that Council decisions — or lack of them — can have enormous and devastating humanitarian outcomes around the world.

Stressing that parties to conflict, and all those with influence over them, must respect international law and protect civilians, he noted that the destruction of health systems and essential services has led to large-scale displacement. Calling for rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access to populations in need, he added that while humanitarian organizations must respect national and international legal rules, States have the obligation to facilitate their work — not hinder them with dubious and vague references to sovereignty and security. Calling on States to prioritize the full implementation of resolution 2286 (2016) by taking concrete steps to protect health care, he underscored the importance of national policies and military doctrine that protects health care in conflict, including in partnered military operations.

“We won’t see better respect of the law if members of the Council continue to call out others while excluding themselves and their allies and proxies from critical review,” he cautioned. Council members engage directly or indirectly in military operations around the world where there are violations of international humanitarian law. Also encouraging States to invest in local responses and prioritize community engagement and trust-building before, during and after crises, he called for equitable access to vaccines and medicines — both between countries and within them — so that no population is excluded. Further, States must strengthen health, water and sanitation services, and protect them at all times in accordance with the rules of international humanitarian law.

Calling on all parties to armed conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas, he voiced support for the ongoing diplomatic process to adopt a political declaration to strengthen the protection of civilians from the use of these weapons. The international community must build on the good practices and progressive ideas emerging from the pandemic to create longer-lasting policies that address individual and systemic drivers of vulnerability, he stressed.

Orzala Nemat, Director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent research institute, also briefed the Council, providing a civil-society perspective on today’s discussion. Noting that the role of media and women-led organizations has become more salient in Afghan civil society over the last two decades, she said years of conflict have rendered Afghanistan one of the worst countries in the world for ordinary people trying to live their daily lives. Civilians remain prime targets of Taliban attacks and are used as human shields by multiple armed groups.

Noting that even international forces have been known to bomb civilian sites, she said anti-Government elements continue to be responsible for most civilian casualties. Recent data shows a 43 per cent increase in civilian casualties at the hands of Taliban fighters in the first quarter of 2021. Those have included an attack at a maternity hospital that killed two dozen people — including women in active labour — whose perpetrators remain at large. A recent increase in killings of civil-society workers has stoked fear and despair, she said, noting that targets have included academics, vaccinators, human-rights activists and female judges with the Afghan Supreme Court.

During Ramadan, she said, a car bombing exploded at a guest house near a health centre, killing more than 30 people. Another bomb at a primary school for girls killed more than 85 people. Describing the too-common reactions to such ruthless attacks, both locally and globally, she said they are almost always limited to mere words of condemnation. As civilian losses continue to be used as a psychological weapon, she called on the Council to support an independent investigation of such attacks in Afghanistan, as well as for more global attention to the landmines still being planted by several insurgent groups across the country.

In addition, she said, there is a question of whether the decision by some Member States to meet with the Taliban is emboldening their actions. Afghanistan’s partners must ensure that all relevant parties have protection-of-civilian mechanisms in place. Describing Afghanistan’s continued humanitarian plight and ongoing challenges to its peace process, she said that — while talks remain the only path to end the conflict — the current peace process is “in urgent need of a boost”. Council members, especially the United States, currently have significant leverage to increase pressure on the Taliban to come to the table for a political settlement, with a ceasefire as a crucial first step, she said.

In the ensuing debate, Council members stressed the need for all parties to conflict to implement relevant Council resolutions and international law concerning the protection of civilians. Many expressed concern over the civilian consequences of the recent escalation in Gaza, reports of atrocities in Tigray and deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, calling on the Council to ensure full humanitarian access and hold those responsible for attacks against civilians to account. Further, United Nations missions must support national efforts to protect civilian populations and, when peacekeeping missions transition away from conflict zones, this process must ensure the safety of those left behind. Other members, however, cautioned against the politicization of humanitarian intervention, stressing that the primary responsibility to protect civilians lies with national Governments.

The representative of the United Kingdom stated the urgent need to address the impacts of conflict on access to health care in light of the current pandemic as, despite the adoption of resolution 2286 (2016), attacks on medical and humanitarian personnel are still being used as a method of warfare. Expressing concern over the impact of recent violence on the humanitarian situation in Gaza, she stressed that humanitarian workers should be able to operate safely therein with access to vital medical supplies and equipment. She also condemned the recent killing of a South Sudanese aid worker in South Sudan and the targeting of a clearly marked humanitarian convoy nearby. Turning to the current situation in Tigray — where a growing risk of famine conditions are emerging, similar to those in Yemen, north-east Nigeria and parts of South Sudan — she said that the Council should receive swift reporting under resolution 2417 (2018) when the risk of conflict-induced famine occurs so that it can take action. When its resolutions are violated, the Council must use the tools at its disposal — including the use of sanctions — to ensure those responsible are held accountable.

The representative of the United States urged the Council to uphold its demand on parties to allow full humanitarian access, as well as the unhindered delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, to civilians. Emphasizing that full respect for international humanitarian law is essential for the protection of civilians, he recalled that in Syria the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been launching attacks that kill and maim civilians, humanitarian actors and health workers for years. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, reports continue to emerge of human rights violations against men, women and children, which must cease immediately. The international community should take action, as the United States has done, to hold accountable those responsible.

Stressing that all parties — not just those in power — must respect their international obligations, he said the Taliban must end its undeclared spring offensive and cease its attacks on civilian-populated parts of Afghanistan. In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Palestinians and Israelis — like all people — have the rights to life, liberty and security. Describing prevention of conflict as another crucial part of protecting civilians, he said the United States Early Warning Task Force works to identify areas of concern before conflicts flare. Finally, as peacekeeping is one of the Council’s most effective tools to protect civilians, missions must have the political support and resources needed to prevent violence, protect civilians and help communities feel safe, he said.

The representative of Viet Nam, noting the large number of civilian deaths and injuries in recent conflicts, stressed the importance of respecting international humanitarian law. All parties to armed conflict must fully respect the principles of distinction, precautions and proportionality and refrain from attacking, destroying or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Voicing concern about reported attacks against health-care facilities and medical personnel, he reiterated support for the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire to facilitate humanitarian assistance and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. As important as humanitarian assistance is, he added, it cannot replace a comprehensive approach to build national capacity, improve livelihoods and enhance local people’s resilience to challenges including climate change, natural hazards and economic shocks.

The representative of India expressed concern that, despite the development of international humanitarian law and Council mandates, attacks on civilians and critical civilian infrastructure continue. The onus for protecting civilians lies fundamentally with Governments, and there can be no substitute for national efforts in creating an environment where civilians are secure. Describing terrorism as the gravest threat to humankind, he said its devastating impact on civilians cannot be left out of today’s discussion. The implementation of instruments adopted to protect civilians “is not matching expectations”, he said, emphasizing that respect for the Charter of the United Nations should remain the basis for all actions taken by the Council for the protection of civilians. “Any decision to intervene that is associated with political motives distracts from the fundamental principles and runs the risk of being counter-productive,” he said, adding that interventions that cannot be avoided must be proportionate to the threat, use appropriate methods and be based on credible information. The United Nations should support States to build national accountability mechanisms to end impunity for serious violations of international humanitarian law and avoid any politicization of humanitarian work, he added.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, also speaking for Kenya, Niger and Tunisia, expressed concern over the loss of civilian lives resulting from the recent escalation of violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. She welcomed the ceasefire agreement, called on all parties to uphold the same and highlighted the immediate need to provide humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Gaza. She also expressed concern over the living conditions of migrants and refugees — notably those intercepted at sea and disembarked in Libya — where migrant women face violations of all kinds in overcrowded detention centres. In that light, it is necessary to review the disembarkation policy as the presence of foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya further jeopardizes stabilization efforts.

Turning to the global health crisis, she pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the long-term civilian consequences of attacks on health, education and other critical infrastructure. The international community, in line with resolution 2286 (2016), must strengthen its efforts to prevent and redress attacks against the wounded and sick, medical and humanitarian personnel, medical transport and equipment and hospitals and other medical facilities. Further, implementation of resolution 2565 (2021) must be accelerated, which requires increased international support to regional institutions and Governments to ensure inclusive vaccination and expanded production capacity in developing countries. She also called for increased unarmed approaches to civilian protection — drawing on success stories in countries like the Central African Republic, Mali and South Sudan — and for local and national ownership of conflict-resolution mechanisms and mediation, supported by United Nations missions, to facilitate long-term success.

The representative of Estonia, referencing the Secretary-General’s report, said that conflicts are increasingly crises of protection, where the most vulnerable and marginalized — including women, children, refugees and the displaced — are most at risk. COVID-19 has not only added to these risks but has also limited the means to protect and assist such individuals. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, there are allegations of mass killings, sexual and gender-based violence, destruction, looting, abductions and forced displacement. Further demonstrating the risks faced by civilians, Afghanistan saw a 43 per cent increase in civilian death from non-suicide improvised explosive devices in 2020. In Syria, millions have been deprived of their homes and protected facilities — such as schools and hospitals — have been deliberately attacked, while cross-line humanitarian assistance remains dysfunctional, irregular and unreliable. Pointing out that attacks against civilians also include violence against medical care in contravention of resolution 2286 (2016), he stressed that risks to civilians must inform transitions of United Nations presence to ensure that the Organization’s capacity to protect these individuals is sustained.

The representative of Mexico said it is unacceptable that nearly 100 million people living in conflict zones suffer from food insecurity, marking an upward trend. “This requires the immediate attention of the Council,” she stressed, calling for a gender-based focus and priority to the most vulnerable. Direct attacks against food stock and agricultural lands, as seen recently in Ethiopia and elsewhere, are indefensible and constitute war crimes. Similarly, the use of improvised explosive devices requires accelerated national measures to avoid the precursors of such weapons from reaching the hands of armed groups who would use them. Also underlining the need to protect medical personnel and civilian infrastructure, she noted that Mexico recently signed onto the Safe Schools Declaration and stressed that the measures taken to combat terrorism have at times gone so far as to restrict or persecute humanitarian or medical workers. Concluding, she echoed previous calls to accelerate the equitable delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to all people, noting that Africa has so far received just 2 per cent of the global doses available.

The representative of the Russian Federation said that while the protection of civilians requires the Council’s continued attention, “we shouldn’t get carried away in designing new international concepts” aimed at filling in gaps in existing law. Nor should the global community attempt to invent new categories of people entitled to legal protections, which can actually weaken protections for all. Voicing concern about the situation in Afghanistan and about casualties on both sides of the recent escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he added that civilians continue to die in Ukraine, where the Kyiv authorities have carried out an undeclared war on their own people for years. Accountability for serious crimes must be carried out in line with international law and should never be an instrument of political manipulation.

Noting that terrorist groups pose a particular challenge to civilians — as witnessed in Iraq and Syria — he called for strengthened international cooperation in fighting terrorism under the auspice of the United Nations. He also warned against the politicization of humanitarian work, which runs counter to efforts to protect civilian populations, and rejected the use of the “humanitarian excuse” to help terrorists or spread misinformation. It is also hypocritical for some States to speak about the protection of civilians while they continue to impose illegal, unilateral economic sanctions aimed at strangling disloyal Governments, which cause direct harm to civilian populations, he stressed.

The representative of Norway said that the extent to which civilians are protected during a conflict can determine the ability to achieve sustainable peace and reconciliation in its aftermath, urging all parties to armed conflicts to comply with their obligations under international law. Calling for the full implementation of resolutions 2286 (2016) and 2565 (2021), she also condemned attacks on education and expressed concern that the pandemic has fueled absenteeism and school closures, exposing children to a wide range of threats such as child marriage, child labour, sexual and gender-based violence, and recruitment and use by armed forces and groups. Noting the convergence of COVID-19, famine, conflict, environmental degradation and climate risks in 2020, she called on the Council to shift its focus from recognition to action and on all parties to spare the infrastructure needed for food production and distribution. Further, the capacity of United Nations peace operations to protect civilians must be strengthened, and missions must receive adequate resources to deliver on protection mandates.

The representative of Ireland expressed regret that, five years on from the adoption of resolution 2286 (2016), deplorable attacks on medical facilities and personnel continue with devastating impacts on local populations. Also sounding alarm over grave violations against children and the use of explosive weapons, she recalled that Ireland is leading consultations in Geneva on a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas. As peacekeeping missions prepare to transition away from conflict zones, the Council must ensure that the process places the needs of civilians at its core and measures are in place to protect conflict-affected civilians from harm. Noting that conflict remains the top driver of hunger worldwide and starvation is too often used as a weapon of war, she said the unanimous adoption of resolution 2417 (2018) was a testament to the Council’s unity on the need to counter conflict-induced hunger, providing the tools needed to tackle that scourge. She went on to voice concern over the protection crisis unfolding in Tigray, Ethiopia, stressing that allegations of mass killings, horrific conflict-related sexual violence, destruction and looting, forced displacement and the forcible returns of refugees must be addressed by the Council.

The representative of France said little has changed over recent years in the lives of civilians in many conflict zones around the world. Meanwhile, the pandemic has only exacerbated risks, driven additional forced displacement and further restricted humanitarian access. Attacks against members of the press remain at a high level. Emphasizing that equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is crucial — as those trapped in conflicts are at serious risk of being left behind — she said United Nations peace operations must have the ability to respond to the threats facing civilians. Similarly, attacks against humanitarian workers amid the pandemic are even more concerning, as “civilians need them more than ever”. Among other things, she called on the Council to strengthen its fight against impunity, including through fact-finding missions and instruments of the criminal justice system, led by the International Court for the most serious crimes. It should also use targeted sanctions against those responsible for crimes against civilians, she said.

The representative of China, Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity to highlight that resolution 2286 (2016) and international law designed to protect civilians have yet to be effectively implemented, and these individuals still bear the brunt of armed conflict. The recent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulted in more than 200 civilian casualties, thousands of displacements and severe damage to schools and medical facilities, including the destruction of the only COVID-19 testing lab in the Gaza Strip by air strike. He urged all parties to abide by international humanitarian law and implement relevant Council resolutions to fully protect civilians and provide safe, unhindered access for humanitarian relief operations. The Council must also fulfil its primary responsibility of maintaining peace and security by addressing the root causes of conflict and seeking political resolution of the same. He added that the responsibility to protect civilians lies primarily with the Government concerned, and humanitarian action must be carried out with impartiality, objectivity, neutrality and avoid politicization.

For information media. Not an official record.