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Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (S/2019/373) [EN/AR/RU]

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I. Introduction

  1. The present report is submitted pursuant to the request contained in the statement by the President of the Security Council of 21 September 2018 (S/PRST/2018/18). It also responds to the Council’s requests for reporting on the protection of medical care and on conflict and food insecurity, contained in resolutions 2286 (2016) and 2417 (2018), respectively.

  2. The year 2019 marks the seventieth anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions, a cornerstone of international humanitarian law. Their adoption in the aftermath of the Second World War firmly established that those who are not or no longer taking a direct part in hostilities – the wounded and sick, prisoners of war and civilians, including civilians living under occupation – must be protected and their life and dignity upheld without adverse distinction.

  3. 2019 also marks the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of resolution 1265 (1999) and the Security Council’s inclusion of the protection of civilians as an item in its agenda – a decision motivated, inter alia, by the Council’s “deep concern” at the erosion of respect for international humanitarian law during armed conflict (resolution 1265 (1999)). Since then, the protection of civilians has become “one of the core issues” on the Council’s agenda (S/PRST/2015/23). It has permeated the situation-specific deliberations and decisions of the Council and resulted in practical actions intended to strengthen the protection of civilian women, girls, boys and men affected by armed conflict. It has contributed to building and consolidating a culture of awareness within the Council and among Member States and the broader international community of the need to prevent and respond to violations and other protection concerns.

  4. It is the cause of considerable concern, then, that the state of the protection of civilians today is tragically similar to that of 20 years ago. In September 2018, the Security Council expressed “outrage” that civilians continue to account for the vast majority of casualties in conflict; and at the short- and long-term impact of conflict on civilians, including forced displacement; the use of starvation as a method of warfare; unlawful denial of humanitarian access; attacks on humanitarian and medical personnel, hospitals, and other medical facilities; sexual and gender-based violence; and intentional damage and unlawful destruction of civilian infrastructure, property and livelihoods (S/PRST/2018/18) – to which I would add other damage and destruction of civilian infrastructure, property and livelihoods which may not necessarily be intentional or unlawful but the consequences of which are equally devastating for civilians.

  5. Such acts have been inflicted upon millions of conflict-affected civilians every day throughout, and prior to, the past 20 years. They will continue for another 20 years, and beyond, without urgent action to grapple with the central challenge of enhancing and ensuring respect for international humanitarian law and international human rights law, in particular in the conduct of hostilities. The failure of parties to take constant care to spare civilians in the conduct of military operations and to take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event minimize, civilian casualties initiates a downward spiral characterized by the death, injury and maiming of hundreds of civilians in conflicts every month, and by the displacement of thousands more, forced to flee their homes, communities and livelihoods towards a very uncertain and tragic fate.

  6. As requested by the Council, the present report, in section II, provides a summary of achievements and challenges to the United Nations work on protecting civilians over the past 20 years. Section III reviews the current state of the protection of civilians and emphasizes the enduring relevance of the protection agenda 20 years on. Section IV focuses on the central challenge of enhancing respect for the law – the first of three protection priorities identified in my report of 2017 (S/2017/414) and discussed in my report of 2018 (S/2018/462) – with a particular focus on the conduct of hostilities. Section V discusses how the Council and Member States can rise to meet this challenge and, moreover, strengthen the practical impact of the protection agenda in the years ahead.