Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflicts - Security Council Open VTC

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27-May-2020 02:22:07
COVID-19 pandemic amplifying, exploiting world’s fragilities, Secretary-General tells Security Council debate on protecting civilians in armed conflict.

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In a world dramatically altered by COVID-19, civilians in conflict hotspots — weakened by fighting, cut off from aid and now facing escalating attacks by parties exploiting the pandemic — require stronger support from Governments and a more unified international response, delegates heard in a 27 May videoconference meeting of the Security Council.

“The pandemic is amplifying and exploiting the fragilities in our world,” said Secretary-General António Guterres, addressing the 15-member Council as they considered in an open debate their agenda item on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. While COVID-19 is causing enormous human suffering and straining health systems, economies and communities, those already weakened by years of conflict are particularly vulnerable. Their protection is becoming even more challenging amid curtailed access to safety and services and as some leaders exploit the pandemic to adopt repressive measures.

Introducing his most recent report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (document S/2020/366), he said COVID-19 also poses a major threat to refugees and internally displaced people in crowded camps and to communities that lack sanitation and health-care facilities. Cases have been confirmed in a refugee camp in Bangladesh and a protection of civilians site in South Sudan, he said, reiterating his call for a global ceasefire aimed at allowing the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to the world’s most vulnerable people. Expressions of support from warring parties have largely not translated into concrete action, and in some cases the pandemic may even create incentives for an escalation of hostilities while international attention is focused elsewhere.

Spotlighting efforts by United Nations peacekeepers to support Governments as they protect civilians, health-care and humanitarian workers amid the pandemic, he detailed the findings of his latest report. It found little progress in 2019 on compliance with international law, with more than 20,000 civilians reported killed or injured in just 10 conflicts — a figure which is just a fraction of the real total. Noting the particularly severe impact of explosive weapons, he urged Governments to make explicit commitments against the use of such weapons in areas populated by civilians. Conflict also severely affects children, women, persons with disabilities and those who go missing in theatres of conflict, and more than half of people suffering from acute food insecurity live in conflict areas. “We expect COVID-19 to cause a sharp increase in this number,” he said.

Turning to attacks against humanitarian actors, he said that the World Health Organization reported 199 health-care workers were killed in more than 1,000 attacks in 2019 — a shocking increase from 2018. A recent attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul amid the COVID-19 pandemic further demonstrates the urgent need for States to protect the provision of medical care in conflict. In 2019, the world marked 20 years since the Council added the protection of civilians to its agenda, and 70 years since the adoption of the Geneva Conventions. While those anniversaries sparked several important commitments — including a Call to Action to bolster respect for international humanitarian law — more compliance and accountability are still needed.

Against that backdrop, he reiterated his call on States to develop national frameworks to strengthen the protection of civilians in armed conflict, while ensuring accountability by prioritizing investigation and prosecution. Governments should rethink their approaches to urban welfare and commit to protecting civilians, including by conditioning arms exports on respect for international humanitarian and human rights law. Efforts are needed to reassert international legal authority over the use of drones, and the legal, moral and ethical implications of new lethal autonomous weapons systems must be addressed. “Machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement must be prohibited by international law,” he stressed, also spotlighting the need to tackle the malicious use of technology to conduct cyberattacks on civilian infrastructure.

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), drew the Council’s attention to the death and destruction wrought by explosive weapons with wide-area effect — such as cluster bombs — when used in populated areas. Stressing that their use raises serious questions about compliance with international law and signals an urgent need for a change of behaviour to protect civilians, he said a strong and unequivocal political declaration committing States to concrete action in that direction would be a good first step. ICRC is currently drawing up a set of recommendations to that end.

However, he said divisions within the Council on critical elements of humanitarian law — notably access to populations in need — are creating greater suffering. While ICRC is responsible for delivering humanitarian services in line with the Geneva Conventions, it is the Council’s responsibility to facilitate such work. “You are obliged to proactively facilitate access, and not to pile mountains of bureaucratic and political obstacles on humanitarian organizations,” he stressed, adding that the Council should not try to tell humanitarian organizations who is in need — a task for neutral and impartial humanitarian actors. International humanitarian law, principles and concepts are designed to protect people, not to score points against political adversaries.

“The COVID-19 crisis is fast threatening to become a protection crisis,” he continued, reporting that ICRC has, since March, recorded 208 coronavirus-related attacks against health-care facilities in more than 13 countries. The manner in which States are responding to the pandemic demonstrates that without checks and balances, emergency health measures can be abused to control population movements or withhold services. “We fear that some groups, perhaps those considered ‘the enemy’, may be excluded from life-saving measures,” he said, emphasizing that any potential vaccines must be distributed equitably.

Describing the pandemic as an opportunity for parties to recommit to humanitarian principles, he pointed to the release of detainees, the regularization of non-documented migrants and the adoption of unilateral ceasefires. “It cannot be overstated — the extreme vulnerability of people in conflict zones to repeated shocks is in large part the result of a disregard of States’ and other belligerents’ legal obligations towards populations under their control,” he said. The Council must ensure that its actions are guided by the utmost respect for the protection of civilians. While consensus is difficult, “human life and dignity cannot be the price of inertia”, and the organ must be stronger both in word and in deed to ensure that people are protected without exception.

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