Civilians still bear the brunt of armed conflicts, top UN official warns

27 May 2008
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes

Millions of civilians worldwide are still victims of armed conflicts – losing their lives, being forced to flee their homes and becoming victims of physical and sexual violence – despite recent progress in some countries, the top United Nations humanitarian official told the Security Council today.

In a briefing to the 15-member body, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes cited positive steps taken in places such as Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Nepal, Timor-Leste to prevent war, secure peace or at least protect civilians.

Additionally, he pointed to a meeting of over 100 States currently under way in Dublin which seeks to negotiate a treaty banning deadly cluster munitions.

“Important though this progress is, the stark reality remains that in conflicts throughout the world, countless civilians continue to see their hopes shattered by violence and displacement; their lives blown apart by suicide bombers or ground down by physical and sexual violence, deprivation and neglect,” Mr. Holmes said at the open meeting, which heard from over three dozen speakers.

He pointed to three particularly acute issues regarding current conflicts: the conduct of hostilities, sexual violence and humanitarian access.

Civilians comprise the majority of casualties in armed conflict, often in contravention of international humanitarian law.

The Under-Secretary-General gave the example of the Sudanese region of Darfur, where “civilians remain the principal victims of attacks by Sudanese Armed Forces and the Janjaweed militia.”

Regarding sexual violence, Mr. Holmes – who also serves as UN Emergency Relief Coordinator – called for vigorous measures to both prevent and respond to it.

“Anything less risks condemning current and future generations of women and girls, and boys and men, to indescribable humiliation and cruelty followed by, for those who survive or who are born from such violence, a life defined by pain, stigma and rejection,” he said.

Mr. Holmes also noted the need to boost efforts to make “zero tolerance” of sexual violence a reality by reversing the “continued failure of the police and judiciary to take sexual violence seriously.” He also urged an end to ineffective investigations, minimal prosecutions, and interference by the military and other officials in the administration of justice.

“They are an affront to the rights of victims and serve only to reinforce the culture of impunity on which sexual violence has thrived for so long.”

On humanitarian access, the Emergency Relief Coordinator cited examples of how aid workers have been impeded in providing assistance due to conflict, restrictions on the movement of staff and goods, checkpoints and roadblocks and bureaucratic requirements.

He appealed for the establishment of a Security Council group of experts on the protection of civilians, which would serve as an informal forum bringing together all of the Council’s Member States.

Mr. Holmes told today’s meeting that while the Council has made strides in addressing civilian protection, he believed the body “could go further” if it adopted a more consistent approach to integrating the issue into its work.

In a presidential statement read out by Ambassador John Sawers of the United Kingdom, which holds the rotating presidency this month, the Council expressed “its deepest concern that civilians continue to account for the majority of victims of acts of violence committed by parties to armed conflicts, including as a result of deliberate targeting, indiscriminate and excessive use of force and of sexual and gender-based violence.”

The body spoke out against “all violations of international law, including international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law committed against civilians in situations of armed conflict,” underscoring that parties to armed conflict are primarily responsible for taking measures to protect affected citizens, particularly women and children.

The statement called on States to fulfill their obligations to end impunity and to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, among other violations. It also stressed the importance of safe and unhindered access of aid workers, underlining the need to uphold and respect the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

 

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