posted on Mon 21 May 2018 5:04 PM
Protection of Civilians: Ministerial-level Open Debate

Tomorrow (22 May), the Security Council will hold a ministerial-level open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The debate will be chaired by Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz of Poland, which holds the presidency of the Council this month. Briefers will include Secretary-General António Guterres; the Director-General of the ICRC, Yves Daccord; and a female civil society representative from Iraq. Poland is planning to produce a summary of the meeting that includes concrete proposals for potential follow-up.

While a broad range of protection issues will be raised in the debate, the meeting is expected to focus on practical measures to improve respect for international law, including international humanitarian law and human rights law, in order to enhance the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The meeting is also expected to address the protection of health care in armed conflict, which the Secretary-General is required to brief on annually in accordance with resolution 2286 of 3 May 2016.

Guterres will most likely highlight efforts to promote good practice with regard to enhancing respect for international law in conflict situations. In his recent report on the protection of civilians (S/2018/462), Guterres maintained that more “could be done to…strengthen the collection of data; to facilitate exchanges on good practices in implementing resolution 2286;…and to ensure that the protection of medical care is included in the capacity-building of partner forces and in military doctrine and training”. He may urge member states to develop national policy frameworks to enhance the protection of civilians, emphasise the need for non-state armed groups to respect international law, and underscore the importance of global advocacy to promote the protection of civilians and hold accountable those who violate international law in conflict situations. With regard to the implementation of resolution 2286, Guterres may note that attacks on health care personnel and facilities have continued at a high rate, and outline measures that can be taken to address this problem more effectively.

Daccord is expected to express concern about the negative trend regarding violations of international humanitarian law, and the devastating impact that this is having on civilians. He may urge states to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, to counter threats to health care facilities and personnel in conflict, and to ensure that detainees in conflict situations are treated humanely.

In a concept note prepared for tomorrow’s debate, Poland has raised questions for consideration to help guide the discussion. Among others, these include:

  • What actions can the Council take to prevent and respond to violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in conflict situations?
  • How can member states take more effective steps to enhance respect for international law by parties to conflict?
  • What steps can member states take to promote adherence to commitments made by non-state armed groups to protect civilians?
  • How can the Security Council support peacekeeping missions in better preventing threats to civilians?
  • How can the Council and the wider UN membership enhance implementation of resolution 2286 on the protection of health care in armed conflict?

Tomorrow’s debate affords Council members (and the wider UN membership) an opportunity to reaffirm commitments to international human rights and humanitarian law in conflict situations. In member state interventions, there will most likely be references to the need for parties to conflict to take special care to avoid civilian casualties, to improve humanitarian access, and to strengthen accountability for attacks against civilians. Some speakers will note efforts to enhance the protection of civilians in peace operations, and may refer to the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians, which provide guidance for enhancing protection in peacekeeping operations. Concerns will most likely be expressed about the long-term, as well as immediate, impacts on civilian populations of attacks on civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools.

There has been considerable advocacy and strategising with regard to protection issues in recent weeks within the UN community in New York. Spain, one of the five co-penholders on resolution 2286 (along with Egypt, Japan, New Zealand, and Uruguay), launched an annual retreat focused on promoting international humanitarian law on 25 April at the Greentree Foundation on Long Island. This is intended to focus on a different aspect of international humanitarian law every year. The theme of the inaugural retreat was the protection of health care in armed conflict. Twelve current Security Council members and a cross-regional group of 15 additional member states took part in the meeting, along with field practitioners, humanitarian and legal experts, UN officials, and civil society representatives.

In addition, several member states, non-governmental organisations and UN entities have planned side-events on 23 and 24 May on protection-related topics to build on the momentum created by tomorrow’s debate.

Meetings are planned for 23 May on:

  • “The protection of civilians in counterterrorism contexts: safeguarding the space for principled humanitarian action”, organised by the International Peace Institute, Switzerland, Germany, Peru, and the Netherlands;
  • “Protecting and caring for the wounded and sick in armed conflict”, organised by OCHA, Afghanistan, France, Poland, Switzerland, the World Health Organization, and the Safeguarding Healthcare in Conflict Coalition;
  • “Protect health care – save more lives! Practical measures for armed forces to respect and protect healthcare in armed conflict”, organised by Sweden, Côte d’Ivoire, Spain and the ICRC;
  • “Protecting civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas”, organised by Austria, Ireland, Mexico, Mozambique, and the International Network on Explosive Weapons; and
  • “Obstructing aid, impacting civilians: the practical implications of denial of humanitarian access”, organised by the UK.

Meetings are planned for 24 May on:

  • “Sustaining peace and preventing violence through unarmed civilian protection”, organised by Australia, Uruguay, and the Nonviolent Peace Force;
  • “The primacy of politics and the protection of civilians in UN peacekeeping operations”, organised by the International Peace Institute and the Netherlands;
  • “Impact on children of attacks on healthcare and the denial of humanitarian access”, organised by Canada; and
  • “Data-driven protection: how civilian casualty recording and civilian harm tracking can strengthen the protection of civilians”, organised by Austria, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OCHA, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, and the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

While Council members consistently state their support for the protection of civilians in armed conflict, there is a recognition that more needs to be done to translate advances at the normative level into effective country-specific strategies. This has been challenging, especially in recent years, given the difficult dynamics among Council members. Political differences among permanent members have hindered the Council’s ability to play an effective role in protecting civilians in situations on the Council’s agenda such as Syria and Yemen, among others.

There are further divisions among members regarding the Council’s approach to protecting civilians. Some members, including the P3, tend to advocate accountability measures and sanctions on parties to conflict as mechanisms for leveraging their compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law, whereas other members, such as China and Russia, tend to be more circumspect about using such measures and to emphasise the importance of national sovereignty.