Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock Remarks to Security Council on Safeguarding Humanitarian Space

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 01 Apr 2019

Thank you very much, Mr. President.

Though sometimes we forget it, the last 70 years have been relatively peaceful. The late Hans Rosling pointed out that one reason is that – short of self-defense – war between States became illegal. Because of the Charter of the United Nations.

But where conflict persists, it is civilians who now bear the brunt.

Wars have forced nearly 70 million people to flee their homes.

As combatants have increasingly resorted to siege and starvation as weapons of war, and as conflict has prevented farmers from reaping their harvests, has destroyed vital infrastructure, and has disrupted commercial trade, hunger levels have increased again, after decades of decline.

Some 60 per cent of people affected by food crises are living in conflict-affected countries.

Today’s conflicts are marked by more direct attacks against humanitarian workers and against medical workers and their facilities.

The aid worker security database reported 317 attacks against aid workers last year, resulting in 113 deaths.

The World Health Organization reported 388 attacks against health personnel or facilities in 2018, resulting in more than 300 deaths and 400 injuries.

In some places, medical workers also now face criminal prosecution simply for doing their job of treating sick or wounded fighters.

Increasingly, we see the deliberate and organized use of rape as a weapon of war. One in five displaced women asked, say they have experienced sexual violence.

Children are recruited into armed groups; forced into early marriage; used as suicide bombers; and barred from education as their schools are attacked or taken over.

More than 21,000 grave violations of children’s rights were verified by the United Nations in 2017.

In towns and cities, belligerents use explosive weapons designed for open battlefields, resulting in mass civilian casualties, enormous destruction of infrastructure, and long-term disruption of essential services.

Impact on humanitarian operations

All of these things Mr. President are having a big impact on humanitarian operations.

First, protracted conflict and chronic crises have caused humanitarian needs to spiral. This year, 139 million people are in acute humanitarian need, most of them because of armed conflict. That is three times as many as a decade ago.

Combatants deliberately hinder humanitarian operations, slowing them down, driving up costs and blocking aid from reaching people in need.

Violence against humanitarian workers, including killing and maiming, kidnapping and abductions, likewise hinders humanitarian operations.

International humanitarian law is designed to minimize human suffering in war, including by safeguarding humanitarian activities. So, garnering greater respect for international humanitarian law is one of the most effective ways to safeguard humanitarian space.

This year we mark the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, which are complemented in important ways by their Additional Protocols.

Many countries have also signed up to treaties prohibiting or restricting weapons and enshrining international criminal law.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the protection of civilians at the UN Security Council.

The Council in the past has taken practical steps to safeguard humanitarian action.

UN peace operations that you mandate, support and enable humanitarian access, and apply sanctions against those who obstruct it.

Resolution 2286 covers the protection of medical personnel and facilities in armed conflict.

So, we have a strong legal framework to safeguard humanitarian activity in conflict. The problem is, fighting parties and their backers do not always follow it. And this has grave consequences.

I want to offer proposals in five areas, which could generate greater respect for international humanitarian law and safeguard humanitarian space.

First, promoting policies and practices to strengthen adherence to IHL.

This includes endorsing political commitments like the Safe Schools Declaration, and the French Declaration on the Protection of Medical Care in Conflict. You could seek much wider endorsement for such commitments.

It also includes developing policy frameworks that establish which authorities are responsible for the protection of civilians.

And reviewing policies and practical measures to implement IHL. For instance, by establishing civilian casualty mitigation measures. Or developing policies to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Or by conditioning arms exports on respect for IHL.

Second, broadening and deepening understanding and acceptance of existing rules, including the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.

Experience has shown that often, fighting parties have an incomplete understanding of IHL. Providing training for armed forces and members of non-State armed groups on how to respect humanitarian law can help.

Member States should help humanitarian organizations to spread such knowledge.

Third, enabling humanitarian and medical activities.

All parties should adopt clear and simplified procedures to facilitate humanitarian access. They should establish civil-military coordination platforms or humanitarian notification systems to facilitate parties’ respect for humanitarian operations.

You and other Member States could do more to advocate for rapid and unimpeded access to people in need, including by adopting clear, simple, expedited procedures.

And by supporting humanitarian organizations to engage with armed groups for humanitarian purposes.

States can also take practical measures to minimize the impact of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian action. You are about to hear a very important presentation by Prof. Naz Modirzadeh on this.

And they could adopt measures to protect medical care, in line with the Secretary-General’s recommendations on Security Council resolution 2286.

Those recommendations include for example, ensuring legal protection for medical personnel when they are acting in line with medical ethics.

And adopting preventative measures to minimize the impact of hostilities on medical care.

Fourth, compliance

States, and the Security Council, could promote the universalization of international humanitarian law and human rights treaties.

The right kinds of incentives and penalties can boost compliance.

For example, sanctions imposed by the Security Council can be a powerful tool to promote compliance.

And States can exert their diplomatic, political and economic influence over parties to conflict to strengthen their compliance.

And finally, accountability.

Mr. President, States really need to do much better in holding individuals to account when they commit serious violations of IHL.

For example, by adopting legislation encompassing the full range of international crimes and jurisdiction over them.

And by strengthening national capacity to carry out impartial, independent investigations into allegations of war crimes and then crucially, to prosecute suspects when the evidence justifies that.

And where national accountability systems are insufficient, there should be more support for international or hybrid accountability mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court.

Supporting – financially or otherwise – the systematic collection, analysis and documentation of evidence of violations of IHL is very important as part of this process.

Finally, Mr. President, let us never forget that accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law is required by law.

Thank you.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:
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