8499th Security Council Meeting: International Humanitarian Law

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01-Apr-2019 02:20:53
Aid operations under increasing threat as state, non-state combatants ignore international law, Humanitarian Affairs Chief warns Security Council at 8499th meeting.

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The humanitarian space is increasingly under threat as conflicts become more complex and State and non-State combatants ignore international law, target civilians, resort to siege and starvation as a tactic of war while deliberately hindering aid operations, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs told the Security Council today.

Briefing the 15-nation organ, Mark Lowcock, who is also the Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that 139 million people worldwide are in acute humanitarian need, most of them because of armed conflict. More so, today’s conflicts are also marked by more direct attacks against humanitarian and medical workers, as well as their facilities. “Let us not forget that accountability is required by international law,” he stressed, also adding: “Garnering greater respect for international humanitarian law is one of the most effective ways to safeguard humanitarian space.”

Many countries have signed up to the relevant treaties prohibiting or restricting weapons and enshrining international criminal law, he observed, emphasizing the importance of promoting policies and practices that strengthen adherence to international humanitarian law. Broadening the understanding of existing rules, including the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols, along with providing training for armed forces and non-State armed groups on how to respect humanitarian law, is vital. Sanctions imposed by the Council can be a powerful tool to promote compliance, as well.

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), underscored that the Geneva Conventions are not up for negotiation. The license for humanitarian workers to operate should not be up for debate; it has already been guaranteed. He called on the international community to fight any attempt to manipulate or politicize principled humanitarian action. The humanitarian space is about respecting the law. “When the principles of impartiality are breached, and humanitarian action is curtailed, families — like the ones I meet — go hungry, they go sick, they are left vulnerable to abuse,” he said.

Naz K. Modirzadeh, Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School, said that, when the regime of international humanitarian law crosses with counter-terrorism frameworks, tensions emerge. For instance, humanitarian actors may provide impartial care to wounded fighters under international humanitarian law, but several counter-terrorism frameworks would characterize these activities as illegitimate and unlawful. “In my view, the question is not whether counter‑terrorism measures might adversely affect principled humanitarian action, but the scope and scale of the impact,” she said. Citing recent research findings of a Harvard study showing that 69 per cent of respondents indicated that such initiatives had curtailed their humanitarian work, she called on the Council to prioritize its efforts to safeguard principled humanitarian action. “Far too much is at stake,” she said.

In the ensuing debate, Council members stressed the need to protect aid workers and ensure that the humanitarian space remains impartial, neutral and free from politicization.

The Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany and Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, emphasizing the need to help humanitarian actors impart the necessary know-how about international humanitarian law, especially at a time when more and more non‑State parties are involved in conflicts. “Humanitarian aid workers need clarity about the legal framework within which they are operating,” he added.

The Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, said the Council can play a role in ensuring that humanitarian workers are protected and are free to do their jobs without being arrested. On accountability, he expressed support for efforts to apprehend perpetrators of war crimes, noting that France and Germany have worked together to serve warrants on former members of the Government of Syria.

The representative of the Russian Federation said that humanism on the field of battle is a hallmark of civilized behaviour. Yet, some 70 years after the Geneva Conventions, the Council still has to address the issue of strengthening international humanitarian law principles and institutions. He also expressed concern over so-called medical and humanitarian organizations openly aiding terrorist organizations, as in the case with the White Helmets in Syria. This undermines the work of real humanitarians, he added.

The United States representative expressed grave concern over the accusations made by the Russian Federation against the White Helmets. As the single largest humanitarian donor, the United States has consistently called on the Syrian regime to abide by relevant Security Council resolutions and allow the passage of aid workers to reach those in need.

The representative of Equatorial Guinea said that the politicization of humanitarian action remains one of the most serious current challenges to promoting international law. Root causes of armed conflict must also be addressed, including the unjust international economic order, inequality and exclusion.

“Responsibility lies with us all to ensure that our actions are people‑centred,” said the representative of the Dominican Republic, adding that “impunity is a sign of indifference which can only lead to more suffering”.

Also speaking today were representatives of Kuwait, Poland, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, South Africa, Belgium, United Kingdom and Peru.

The meeting began at 3:07 p.m. and ended at 5:28 p.m.

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