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Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (S/2020/366) [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 specific themes in resolutions 2286 (2016), 2417 (2018), 2474 (2019) and 2475 (2019). It is submitted against the backdrop of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which is the greatest test that the world has faced since the establishment of the United Nations, and which has had a severe impact on the protection of civilians, particularly in conflict contexts. The pandemic is a global health crisis with the potential to devastate conflict-affected States and overwhelm already weak health-care systems. The ability of States to prevent the spread of the virus, care for infected people and sustain essential health services for the general population has been severely constrained and varies from one context to another. The COVID-19 crisis has further exacerbated the vulnerability of the least protected in society. Older people, those without access to water and sanitation, and those with pre-existing conditions appear particularly vulnerable to the virus. Women and children face obstacles in their access to health care and to their livelihood, education and other critical support. In addition, their need for protection, including from domestic and gender-based violence, has increased. Access to maternal and reproductive health services has decreased. Persons with disabilities face new hindrances in gaining access to the services and support to which they have a right. COVID-19 also poses a major threat to refugees and internally displaced persons in camps and settlements, which are often overcrowded and lack adequate sanitation and health services. Pre-existing and new access restrictions on humanitarian actors could further undermine response efforts.

  2. Recognizing the unprecedented challenge that the international community faces, on 23 March 2020, I launched an appeal for an immediate global ceasefire in order to help create conditions for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, open space for diplomacy and bring hope to those most vulnerable to COVID-19. The multiple expressions of support have been encouraging, including the endorsement of Member States, regional and subregional organizations, armed groups, civil society and individuals throughout the world. In many contexts, challenges in implementing the ceasefire still need to be overcome, in particular in areas where there are protracted conflicts, often involving multiple armed actors and complex interests at the local, national and international level. The pandemic may create incentives for some parties to conflict to press for an advantage, leading to an increase in violence, while others may see opportunities because the attention of Governments and the international community is absorbed by the health crisis.

  3. In these and other conflict situations, international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international refugee law continue to apply and must be respected by all parties and actors in order to ensure effective protection for conflict-affected populations and an effective response to the pandemic. That could be done, for example, by protecting health-care workers, essential infrastructure and transport; reducing conflict-related injuries among civilians and, in turn, relieving pressure on overstretched health-care systems; facilitating the rapid, unimpeded and safe access of humanitarian assistance; and ensuring that those fleeing violence and persecution have access to protection.

  4. The year 2019 featured striking contrasts in the protection of civilians. It marked the twentieth anniversary of the Security Council’s consideration of the protection of civilians as a thematic agenda item and the seventieth anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions, a cornerstone of international humanitarian law. Throughout 2019, a chorus of Member States, United Nations representatives and others stressed the importance of protecting civilians and their commitment to international humanitarian law. In September 2019, France and Germany presented the call for action to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law and principled humanitarian action, endorsed to date by 43 Member States.1 The year ended with the holding of the thirty-third International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, at which States adopted a road map entitled “Bringing international humanitarian law home: a road map for better national implementation of international humanitarian law”.5. Despite those positive steps, the reality on the ground told a vastly different story. There were instances in which parties to conflict sought to respect international humanitarian law in their operations, but there were also countless situations to the contrary, whereby the rules of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were regularly flouted, as described in section II. The new decade presents both challenges and opportunities with regard to the protection of civilians, some of which are considered in section III. As discussed in section IV, a genuine and concerted effort to implement the three actions presented in the previous two reports (S/2018/462 and S/2019/373) and, in particular to strengthen accountability for serious violations of the law, would signify real progress towards achieving the three actions. That would require, above all, political will to do so.