With civilians now routinely targeted and subjected to indiscriminate brutality in most current conflicts – from the civil war in Syria to ethnic and political strife in Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan – the Security Council joined senior United Nations officials today to once again urge greater protection for the countless men, women and children caught in the crossfire of war.
Holding its first open debate on the topic since the release of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s most recent report, in which he notes sombrely that “the current state of the protection of civilians leaves little room for optimism,” the Security Council sounded the alarm on behalf of desperate civilians and examined the core challenges the international community faces, from enhancing compliance with civilian protection regimes by non-State actors to improving humanitarian access to people in need.
A Presidential Statement adopted by the meeting reaffirmed the Council’s commitment to its range of civilian protection measures initially approved in March 2002. This is the fifth edition of the Aide Memoire and is the result of consultation with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as well as concerned UN departments and agencies, and other relevant humanitarian organizations.
The Council today also reaffirmed that Governments bear the primary responsibility to respect and ensure the human rights of citizens, and that parties to armed conflict bear the primary responsibility to take all feasible steps to ensure the protection of affected civilians.
“The Security Council stresses the need to end impunity for violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of human rights, and reaffirms that those who have committed or are otherwise responsible for such violations and abuses must be brought to justice,” according to the statement by Raimonda Murmokaité, Permanent Representative of Lithuania which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council for February.
Addressing the Council, Hervé Ladsous, the Under-Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations, noted that today’s debate, which comes two months ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, “is proof of how much has changed and how much remains the same”.
More than 95 per cent of peacekeepers now work in missions specifically mandated by the Security Council to protect civilians, he said, addressing the meeting which focused on effective implementation of protection of civilians mandates in UN peacekeeping missions, one of five core protection challenges identified by the Secretary-General.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), peacekeepers have utilized a clear and robust mandate to respond to those who would perpetrate attacks on civilians, and this past November witnessed the surrender of the M23 rebel movement, he said.
While the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has in recent weeks provided unprecedented protection for up to 85,000 civilians fleeing violence.
Soldiers cannot impose peace on warring parties, however, and resolution of protection challenges ultimately requires political solutions, Mr. Ladsous noted.
“Peacekeeping is an expression of the will of the Security Council and troop and police contributing countries,” he said.
“Its success depends on clear, decisive and resolute direction from the Security Council, the commitment of all those that take part in peacekeeping to fully implement the mandate, and the provision of sufficient capabilities and resources to effectively confront the challenges on the ground,” he added.
Implementation of robust protection mandates can lead to tensions between the peacekeeping mission and humanitarian actors, noted Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.
She highlighted the importance of coordination between peacekeepers and aid workers, and the delineation between humanitarian and military or political objectives.
When a peacekeeper’s impartiality is called into question and particularly if the mission is perceived to become a party to the conflict, “its close proximity to civilians, including in pursuit of its protection activities, could place civilians at increased risk of attack,” she said.
Ms. Amos used the opportunity to appear before the Council to reiterate the obligations of States to protect citizens, as detailed in human rights and humanitarian law. Recent examples of Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan bear this out, with parties to conflict failing, sometimes deliberately, to respect and protect civilians, despite their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law.
“Until such a time as parties act accordingly… the state of the protection of civilians will continue to give little cause for optimism but considerable cause for despair, outrage and shame,” she said.
Turning to the situations in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, Ms. Amos denounced the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, a cry echoed by Yves Daccord, Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who also addressed the Council.
“The ICRC joins the Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] in encouraging States to share information on their respective polices, operational practices and lessons learned on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas,” he said.
During his briefing, Mr. Daccord also stressed the importance of humanitarian access and reiterated his appeal to State and non-State parties to respect the provisions of international humanitarian law, including those related to aid access.
“Impunity allows gross human rights violations to thrive,” Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the Council via videoconference from Geneva.
“States must do more to ensure that violations of international human rights and humanitarian law are investigated and their perpetrators are held accountable,” she said, adding that the Council must also do more to systematically condemn violations.
As part of an effort to strengthen UN response to potential and emerging crises, Mr. Ban launched the “Rights Up Front” initiative last year. Among its provisions, it includes training UN staff on the world body’s core purpose of promoting respect for human rights.
The initiative “is strengthening UN efforts with regard to both South Sudan and the CAR, including those of my Office,” Ms. Pillay said.
The day-long debate was also scheduled to hear from all 15 Council members, as well as diplomats from the wider UN membership.