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Security Council urges greater protection of civilians in armed conflict

Security Council urges greater protection of civilians in armed conflict

Johan Verbeke
The United Nations Security Council today called for greater protection for civilians, who continue to account for the majority of casualties in situations of armed conflict.

In a press statement following an open debate, the 15-member Council expressed its “grave concern” at the suffering of civilians and underscored that parties to armed conflict are primarily responsible for making efforts to ensure that civilians are protected.

The statement, which was read out by Council President Ambassador Johan C. Verbeke of Belgium, noted that international humanitarian law obliges sides to shield civilians from harm, and “urged all concerned parties to allow full, safe and unimpeded access by humanitarian personnel to civilians in need of assistance in situations of armed conflict.”

Addressing the Council, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said that “if there is one thing we need to do above all, it is to end the culture of impunity which underlies so many abuses.”

He cited rule of law and judicial redress as key, and noted that greater participation by women in all aspects of protection – including peacekeeping – would substantially improve attitudes regarding sexual violence.

Since taking office four months ago, Mr. Holmes has visited such areas as Darfur, 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,” he said, adding that many thousands have been “killed, injured, maimed, assaulted, humiliated, ignored and treated as less than human.”

He mentioned three main areas of concern: the targeting of civilians, forced displacement and access and security for humanitarian workers.

“Civilians bear the brunt of indiscriminate firing and violence in populated areas, including cities, where warring parties fail to distinguish, or even try to distinguish, between combatants and the civilian population,” Mr. Holmes, who also serves as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Council.

He cited Somalia, where hostilities between March and early May killed 400 civilians and wounded more than 700, as well as the fighting in the occupied Palestinian territory and violence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Civilians are too often deliberately targeted in order to create a climate of fear and to destabilize populations,” he said, mentioning Janjaweed attacks on innocent villagers in Darfur and Chad as examples.

Mr. Holmes voiced concern over continued forced displacement of civilians due to – “or sometimes as the very purpose of” – conflict.

For the first time since 2002, the number of refugees worldwide has increased, surging to 9.9 million at the end of 2006 primarily because of refugee flows from Iraq.

To remedy the situation, the Emergency Relief Coordinator appealed for attention to the right to voluntary and safe return in his address to the Council debate, which saw the participation of more than two dozen countries.

“To do otherwise is to condemn millions to lasting misery and degradation,” he said.

He also pointed out that targeting aid workers threatens the survival of those trapped in conflict.

“Killing humanitarian staff and arbitrarily denying access violates international humanitarian law,” Mr. Holmes said. “It also threatens the lifeline to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.”