Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Indispensable Civilian Objects - Security Council Open Debate

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27-Apr-2021 02:22:34
Security Council strongly condemns attacks against critical civilian infrastructure, unanimously adopting resolution 2573 (2021).

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The Security Council strongly condemned today attacks in situations of armed conflicts directed against civilians and other protected persons that deprive them of objects indispensable to their survival.

Unanimously adopting resolution 2573 (2021) — “Protection of Objects Indispensable to the Survival of the Civilian Population” — the Council also strongly condemned the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, which may constitute a war crime.

The Council also condemned acts of violence in conflict areas, whether deliberate or not, that threaten or harm civilian populations and essential infrastructure. Describing such acts as flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, the Council demanded that all parties to armed conflict immediately end such practices. It further demanded that all parties comply fully with their obligations under international humanitarian law.

It urged all parties to protect civilian infrastructure and reiterated its demand that they immediately enact a durable humanitarian pause to facilitate assistance, including equitable, safe and unhindered delivery and distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations in conflict-affected areas.

Briefing the Council earlier, Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the world is “grappling with the biggest battle of our lifetime” in COVID-19, making the present moment the one to end all other conflicts. The last 30 years have witnessed some progress in terms of compliance with international humanitarian law to protect civilians and the things upon which they rely to survive, such as food, medicines, hospitals and water installations, he added.

“But it has not been enough,” he emphasized. Citing the emergence of transnational terrorist groups using “nihilistic ideologies to justify unspeakable violence”, he said they do not even pretend to subscribe to international norms and regard civilians, including aid workers, as legitimate targets. At the same time, major Powers are reorienting their military planning and spending to defeat enemy States, which other States, as well as non-State actors, then see as an invitation to do the same. Expressing concern over the direct impact of conflict on food security, including the destruction of stocks and agricultural assets, he recalled an attack against a rice farm on the outskirts of Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria, in which more than 110 farmers were killed.

South Sudan and Yemen have been victimized by the pillaging of livestock and air strikes against fishing boats, respectively, he continued, stressing: “Any attacks on food supplies and food infrastructure are unacceptable.” He warned of the looming risk of famine in Yemen, South Sudan, north-east Nigeria and elsewhere unless urgent action is taken. Water supplies have been targeted in Syria, with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) cutting off supplies and affecting 2 million people in Aleppo, he said, underlining that even a day’s disruption of water supply can bring on the risk of cholera.

Meanwhile, violence, attacks and threats against medical care significantly weaken the ability of health systems to function, he said, adding that it is “particularly hard to stomach” the systematic attacks against such facilities. The World Health Organization (WHO) counted 250 attacks between 2018 and 2020 alone, with 1,000 health-care workers killed over the past decade, he noted, warning that such attacks also threaten the COVID-19 response, with quarantine centres targeted and medical staff fleeing and leaving millions without access to health care. Only half of the 113 hospitals in Syria were functioning fully at the last check, he said.

Condemning the use of rape and sexual violence in pursuit of military goals, he said he will never forget stories told by Myanmar’s Rohingya people of systematically organized rape by men in uniform, in front of families and children. Other egregious tactics include the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which devastate essential services and result in 88 per cent civilian injuries and fatalities, and cyberattacks that disrupt electrical grids and jeopardize health-care services, even in developed States.

Turning to potential solutions, he called for increased compliance with international law by improving the identification of indispensable objects and regularly updating “no-strike” lists. Political dialogue, sanctions and decisions on arms transfers must also be leveraged, as must adherence to the Secretary-General’s repeated call to avoid using explosive weapons in populated areas. Citing progress on “good practices” in Afghanistan and Somalia, he nonetheless stressed that without accountability, miscreants draw the lesson that crime pays. The power of the United Nations is “the power of persuasion, but we cannot order countries to do what they must do”, he said. That requires the political will on the part of Member States to respect the rules and do the right thing, he added.

Echoing those concerns, Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), warned that without urgent action to protect essential services in conflict zones, there will be a humanitarian disaster on a vast scale. The ICRC has become too familiar with the severe effects of conflict-damaged essential services on civilian populations, from Aden to Mosul and beyond, he said, emphasizing that vulnerable populations are most affected. In protracted conflicts, children under the age of five are 20 times more likely to die from diseases linked to unsafe water and sanitation than from violence, he pointed out.

Recalling the ICRC’s efforts to reduce suffering during the long years of war when political solutions are absent, he said the Committee is working to prevent critical infrastructure that is “too big to fail” from collapsing and forcing millions into crisis. That requires repair and rehabilitation of infrastructure, providing parts, training and building the capacity of local service providers, with the ICRC seeking to mitigate humanitarian consequences, strengthen the resilience of essential services, and prevent reversal of the Sustainable Development Goals, he explained.

Calling upon the Council to take action, he highlighted five areas: ensuring all parties better respect international humanitarian law; adopting an “avoidance policy” regarding the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas; ensuring that sanctions and counter-terrorism measures are in compliance with international humanitarian law; adopting policies that minimize the impact of military operations on the environment and dependent civilians; and adopting measures to ensure health care and interconnected services such as water, sanitation and electricity are protected to safeguard against public health risks.

He said the ICRC has developed a body of practice-based knowledge to support its expertise in the law. While humanitarian organizations are adept at directing assistance towards the most vulnerable, it is alarming that an entire population could be in need if an essential service system fails, he added, cautioning that in such a case, the scale of consequences far exceeds what can be addressed by humanitarian action alone. Recognizing the need to respond at scale has led ICRC to forge new relationships, including with such development actors as the World Bank and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), he said. “In the face of this urgent situation, my call is for us to work together, and critically, for the Council to show leadership so that the suffering of the women, men and children who have already lived through the horrors of wars is not compounded.”

In similar vein, Kevin Rudd, Chair of the Board of Directors of the International Peace Institute, said it is “a shocking indictment on us all” that deliberate and inadvertent attacks against vital human infrastructure remain a daily reality, despite the Council repeatedly recalling the obligation to protect it, including its adoption of resolution 2565 (2021) on access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Citing repeated attacks against medical facilities and water infrastructure in Yemen and in the central Sahel, theft of cattle and destruction of sanitation projects in South Sudan, and the cutting of water supplies in Somalia, he noted that attacks are not confined to a single context or perpetrator. Rather, they occur in international and national conflicts, urban and rural settings, disrupting access to essential goods and services.

In 2021, he continued, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recorded more than 160 attacks against health care — more than an attack a day. In Yemen, more than 40 attacks between 2018 and 2020 have damaged water infrastructure, potentially restricting supplies for 185,000 households and exposing the population, especially children, to preventable disease and possible malnutrition. “Humanitarian crises turn into development crises”, requiring reconstruction and rehabilitation of infrastructure, he emphasized. However, in places like Afghanistan and Syria, protracted armed violence constrains the scope for rebuilding and attacks on vital infrastructure render the Sustainable Development Goals unattainable for millions. He also cautioned that membership in armed groups sometimes provides the best local livelihood opportunities.

He emphasized, however, that the United Nations system can take action in several areas, beginning with prevention. The Council could further request that the Secretariat consider systematic monitoring of attacks against all types of essential infrastructure, medical facilities, humanitarian workers and schools, he suggested, saying that such a repository of data would enable Member States to learn from the failure of military operations and to document atrocities. The United Nations should also continue to work with international, regional and national partners to coordinate a holistic approach to rehabilitation and reconstruction, with its agencies, funds and programmes building a comprehensive picture of the direct and indirect consequences of disruptions to essential human infrastructure and natural resources.

In the ensuing debate, several speakers echoed calls for urgent action in relation to the ongoing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, with Niger’s representative citing the resurgence of “cowardly and gratuitous attacks” on civilian populations in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, said it is a damning indictment when the Council has to remind parties to conflict of the strictures of international law and plead with them not to deprive populations of basic infrastructure required for daily existence. Eva-Maria Liimets, Estonia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, declared: “We are not doing enough.”

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