Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict - Security Council VTC Open Debate

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25-May-2021 01:56:09
Despite call for global ceasefire to combat pandemic, deadly conflicts continue, humanitarian chief tells Security Council debate on protecting civilians.

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Women, Children, Minorities ‘Hit Hardest’, International Red Cross Head Stresses

The Security Council heard today that anemic implementation of its resolutions and international law designed to protect civilians in armed conflict has collided with the COVID-19 pandemic to exacerbate the humanitarian situation of vulnerable populations around the world, as briefers from the Organization and civil society urged the 15-member organ to take action.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed the Council on the Secretary-General’s report concerning the protection of civilians in armed conflict (document S/2021/423), pointing out that — despite the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in 2020 to focus on ending the pandemic — deadly conflicts have continued in many places and emerged in others, frustrating efforts to control the spread of the virus and to care for the infected.

“We have all seen multiple reports of atrocities,” he said, detailing a recent attack on a high school in Afghanistan, reports of mass rapes and killings in Ethiopia and civilian deaths and damaged infrastructure in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In 2020, conflicts contributed to a rise in the number of forcibly displaced people — 80 million in total by mid-year — and insecurity, sanctions, counter-terrorism measures and administrative hurdles hindered humanitarian operations, which were further limited by the pandemic.

By the end of 2020, nearly 100 million people faced crisis or worse levels of food insecurity as a result of conflict — up from 77 million in 2019 — and the threat of famine re-emerged in north-east Nigeria, parts of the Sahel, South Sudan and Yemen, he continued. Conflict causes hunger in both direct and indirect ways, displacing civilians from agricultural land, grazing areas and fishing grounds. Further, commercial food systems and markets are disrupted and parties to conflict destroy food stocks, raising prices and limiting families’ ability to buy food. “Member States need to take more effective action to tackle these challenges,” he urged.

Turning to the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities, he pointed out that almost 90 per cent of people killed when such weapons are used in urban areas are civilians — compared to 20 per cent when these arms are used in rural areas. The year 2020 saw high numbers of civilian casualties resulting from the use of explosive weapons in countries including Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen, and they have disrupted almost every essential resource or public service in the latter country. He called on fighting parties to change their choice of weapons and tactics.

Further damage to civilian populations occurs, he observed, as “medical personnel, transportation and facilities continue to come under attack”. In 2020, attacks on health-care facilities across 22 conflict-affected countries killed 182 health workers, with the highest number of such fatalities in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Syria. A South Sudanese doctor was killed on 21 May inside a health facility in South Sudan while a humanitarian convoy was shot at a few kilometres away. In Myanmar alone, 109 incidents of violence against health-care workers were documented in a two-month period in 2021. He stressed that the consequences of such attacks are catastrophic — “when medical care stops, lives are lost”.

Noting that some States have taken practical steps to protect medical staff and facilities — most importantly, ensuring that military rules-of-engagement respect international humanitarian law — he further called for all humanitarian and medical activities to be excluded from counter-terrorism and sanctions measures. Unless the international community confronts the way belligerents behave in conflict, the scale of humanitarian need will continue to increase.

While detailing several measures States can adopt to this end — including improved training for armed forces and modernized policies to avoid civilian harm — he emphasized the critical importance of accountability. “What is not punished is encouraged,” he observed, noting that the international community has the laws and tools to protect civilians from harm in armed conflicts —“it is time that all States and parties to conflict apply them.”

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, next briefed the Council by pointing out that global fragility is deepening due to the converging challenges of armed conflict, the pandemic, economic downturn, rising inequality and climate change. Due to the privatization of warfare, widespread availability of weapons and urban violence, violence within and between States and non-State armed groups is becoming even more complex. Highlighting the Committee’s recent report on the systemic impacts of COVID-19 on communities shouldering the twin burdens of war and disease, he said “those already at the back of the queue — women, children, people with disabilities, minorities, the elderly — are hit hardest.”

The pandemic is not just a health crisis, he added, noting its impact on children, detainees, migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons who are excluded from State-run health-care and social protection systems. While the need for robust health-care systems has perhaps never been greater, paradoxically they are under attack, he pointed out, noting also an increase in cyberattacks against health-care facilities. Calling for political solidarity and more substantive support for humanitarian action, he said that Council decisions — or lack of them — can have enormous and devastating humanitarian outcomes around the world.

Stressing that parties to conflict, and all those with influence over them, must respect international law and protect civilians, he noted that the destruction of health systems and essential services has led to large-scale displacement. Calling for rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access to populations in need, he added that while humanitarian organizations must respect national and international legal rules, States have the obligation to facilitate their work — not hinder them with dubious and vague references to sovereignty and security. Calling on States to prioritize the full implementation of resolution 2286 (2016) by taking concrete steps to protect health care, he underscored the importance of national policies and military doctrine that protects health care in conflict, including in partnered military operations.

“We won’t see better respect of the law if members of the Council continue to call out others while excluding themselves and their allies and proxies from critical review,” he cautioned. Council members engage directly or indirectly in military operations around the world where there are violations of international humanitarian law. Also encouraging States to invest in local responses and prioritize community engagement and trust-building before, during and after crises, he called for equitable access to vaccines and medicines — both between countries and within them — so that no population is excluded. Further, States must strengthen health, water and sanitation services, and protect them at all times in accordance with the rules of international humanitarian law.

Calling on all parties to armed conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas, he voiced support for the ongoing diplomatic process to adopt a political declaration to strengthen the protection of civilians from the use of these weapons. The international community must build on the good practices and progressive ideas emerging from the pandemic to create longer-lasting policies that address individual and systemic drivers of vulnerability, he stressed.

Orzala Nemat, Director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent research institute, also briefed the Council, providing a civil-society perspective on today’s discussion. Noting that the role of media and women-led organizations has become more salient in Afghan civil society over the last two decades, she said years of conflict have rendered Afghanistan one of the worst countries in the world for ordinary people trying to live their daily lives. Civilians remain prime targets of Taliban attacks and are used as human shields by multiple armed groups.

Noting that even international forces have been known to bomb civilian sites, she said anti-Government elements continue to be responsible for most civilian casualties. Recent data shows a 43 per cent increase in civilian casualties at the hands of Taliban fighters in the first quarter of 2021. Those have included an attack at a maternity hospital that killed two dozen people — including women in active labour — whose perpetrators remain at large. A recent increase in killings of civil-society workers has stoked fear and despair, she said, noting that targets have included academics, vaccinators, human-rights activists and female judges with the Afghan Supreme Court.

During Ramadan, she said, a car bombing exploded at a guest house near a health centre, killing more than 30 people. Another bomb at a primary school for girls killed more than 85 people. Describing the too-common reactions to such ruthless attacks, both locally and globally, she said they are almost always limited to mere words of condemnation. As civilian losses continue to be used as a psychological weapon, she called on the Council to support an independent investigation of such attacks in Afghanistan, as well as for more global attention to the landmines still being planted by several insurgent groups across the country.

In addition, she said, there is a question of whether the decision by some Member States to meet with the Taliban is emboldening their actions. Afghanistan’s partners must ensure that all relevant parties have protection-of-civilian mechanisms in place. Describing Afghanistan’s continued humanitarian plight and ongoing challenges to its peace process, she said that — while talks remain the only path to end the conflict — the current peace process is “in urgent need of a boost”. Council members, especially the United States, currently have significant leverage to increase pressure on the Taliban to come to the table for a political settlement, with a ceasefire as a crucial first step, she said.

In the ensuing debate, Council members stressed the need for all parties to conflict to implement relevant Council resolutions and international law concerning the protection of civilians. Many expressed concern over the civilian consequences of the recent escalation in Gaza, reports of atrocities in Tigray and deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, calling on the Council to ensure full humanitarian access and hold those responsible for attacks against civilians to account. Further, United Nations missions must support national efforts to protect civilian populations and, when peacekeeping missions transition away from conflict zones, this process must ensure the safety of those left behind. Other members, however, cautioned against the politicization of humanitarian intervention, stressing that the primary responsibility to protect civilians lies with national Governments.

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