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All parties to conflicts must be held to account in protection of civilians – UN official

All parties to conflicts must be held to account in protection of civilians – UN official

Under-Secretary-General John Holmes
Citing the “dreadful beginning” of 2009 for civilians caught up in armed conflict, the top United Nations humanitarian official told the Security Council today that strict respect for international law by all parties to fighting was critical to end the suffering.

“Violations of international humanitarian law by one party to a conflict offer no justification for non-compliance by other parties,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said, as he opened a debate in which some 50 speakers took the floor and which culminated in a statement by the Council’s President condemning violations against civilians during conflict and revising Council guidelines for consideration of the topic to reflect current conditions.

Mr. Holmes stressed in his statement that, “Allegations of violations must be fully investigated and those responsible held to account.”

In addition to the growing number of civilians killed in Gaza and those terrorized by rockets in southern Israel, he spoke of civilians executed, brutalized and displaced by rebels in the eastern DRC, the use of human shields and random fire in Somalia and the 40 per cent increase of civilians killed – for a total of some 2,000 – during hostilities in Afghanistan in 2008.

Regarding the carnage in Gaza, he said constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population in the context of military operations and that neither party seemed to be measuring up to such requirements.

“Can we look at what has been happening in Gaza in the last three weeks and say that either Israel or Hamas has come close to respecting these rules? I think not,” he said.

It was relatively straightforward, if not always easy or productive, for the UN to engage with national or international forces, he said, but humanitarian actors could not only talk to one side in a conflict.

“If we are serious about sparing civilians from the effects of hostilities, about obtaining access to those in need and seeking to ensure that humanitarian workers can operate safely, humanitarian actors must have consistent and sustained dialogue with all parties to a conflict, be it the Taliban, Hamas or Al-Shabaab,” he said, naming groups in Afghanistan, Gaza and Somalia, respectively.

It was important to talk to those groups to explain the requirements of international law, to speak out for their victims or communities they endangered through their mere presence and by storing weapons in homes, schools and places of worship and to call them to account when they violate international humanitarian law.

“It is simply not sufficient to oppose such engagement for fear that it will confer a degree of recognition on these groups,” he said.