May 2008 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 April 2008
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Protection of Civilians

Expected Council Action
In May the Council is expected to hold an open debate on protection of civilians in armed conflict. (In recent years, there has been an understanding in the Council that there would be two major public meetings on protection of civilians each year.) Under Secretary-General John Holmes will update the Council on developments since the Secretary-General’s last report on the topic in October. Issues expected to be raised include humanitarian access, impact of hostilities on civilians, sexual violence, forced displacement and accountability for crimes against civilians.

At press time, it was unclear whether Council members would adopt any formal outcome. Agreement on a forum for ongoing discussion of protection issues is a possibility. However, the idea of setting up formally a new working group on protection appears unlikely.

This report provides only a brief snapshot of the protection issue and the Council’s approach. Our forthcoming Cross-cutting Report on protection of civilians in armed conflict will analyse the issues, the Council’s performance in country-specific contexts and the underlying dynamics in much greater detail. This report is expected in mid-year.


While historians disagree about the absolute numbers, there is little disagreement that, in the twentieth century, the number of civilian casualties in conflict not only grew to huge numbers, but also dwarfed that of military casualties. It ranges around 100 to over 200 million people. The estimate of casualties since the formation of the UN ranges from 45-86 million.

Despite this background, the Council historically addressed protection issues only occasionally. Some of the largest humanitarian crises impacting on civilians—such as Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge—were not addressed. Two major exceptions were Southern Rhodesia in 1966 and South Africa in 1977, which led to Council action in the form of arms embargoes and other sanctions. And a humanitarian impulse was certainly a major force in the Secretary-General’s recommendations in 1960 for a UN Operation in the Congo.

With the end of the Cold War, protection issues came into clear view, and Bosnia and Somalia were two early cases. Council action on Bosnia was permeated by a strong concern with the humanitarian dimension. But major divisions within the Council and the political concerns of key players meant that action to protect civilians was hesitant, sometimes ineffective, under-resourced and inconclusive. In Somalia, the impulse for UN involvement was from the beginning a humanitarian one, but the failure there contributed to the Council’s ineffective response to the genocide in Rwanda, and the regional war in the former Zaire.

In the 1990s, the Council began to focus on the linkages between civilian casualties and accountability. Initially, this involved the establishment of the international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to try individuals responsible for violations of international humanitarian law.

By the late 1990s, the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Timor-Leste and Kosovo stimulated enhanced international interest in protection issues. Another important development was the finalisation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the gradually emerging notion of the responsibility to protect, eventually enshrined in the 2005 World Summit Outcome (A/RES/60/1).

In hindsight, it is clear that over the past two decades some progress has been made. Even the Cambodia situation is now being addressed belatedly with accountability trials for Khmer Rouge leaders.

Another important development has been the increasing support for peacekeeping missions with strong and explicit mandates for protection, including authorisation to use force to protect civilians. UN missions have also in addition been tasked with maintaining law and order, monitoring human rights, providing support and training to governments on human rights and justice and accountability, and securing humanitarian assistance and safe refugee returns.

Some specific indicators since the late 1990s reflect this trend:

  • of the fourteen UN peacekeeping missions established since 1999, only one (Ethiopia-Eritrea) does not have a protection-related element in its mandate (this excludes political offices such as in Afghanistan, Nepal and Iraq, which are not physically structured to carry out protection mandates);
  • of those fourteen, even where the UN does not have the lead in terms of military capabilities, such as in Kosovo, Timor-Leste, and Chad/Central African Republic (CAR), the Council authorised multinational deployments with protection mandates;
  • of the fourteen sanctions regimes established since 1997, nine were created as a means of containing violent conflict;
  • all fourteen of those sanctions regimes have consisted of “smart sanctions,” i.e. measures customised to avoid the humanitarian consequences of blunt comprehensive sanctions such as those created in the early 1990s regarding Iraq and the former Yugoslavia; and
  • of the six sanctions regimes created since 2004, three (Côte d’Ivoire, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC) contain provisions for targeted measures linked with violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.

Despite this progress, civilians still face huge problems in conflict situations:

  • in some cases, robust operations (such as those in Darfur, Chad/CAR and the DRC) have met considerable challenges regarding resources, equivocal Council political support, and extremely volatile operational environments;
  • some peacekeeping operations—particularly in Lebanon and southern Sudan—find it extremely difficult for political reasons to exercise the protection elements in their mandates;
  • peacekeeping carried out by regional organisations has little expertise, capacity or resources for protection (for instance, the AU missions in Darfur and Somalia); and
  • sanctions regimes, especially in Somalia, Darfur and the DRC, have been flagrantly violated, and targeted measures are often not implemented.

Political dynamics have also meant that other cases where civilians have been subjected to serious impact from hostilities—such as with the conflicts in Lebanon in 2006 and elsewhere in the Middle East—are not addressed or are instead left to regional neighbours and other international players.

Council Thematic Discussions on Protection of Civilians
The Council’s failures in the mid-1990s to protect civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia, and the renewed challenges in the late 1990s, prompted the Council to start holding periodic thematic debates and seek regular Secretariat reporting on protection of civilians. In a landmark report in 1999, the Secretary-General recommended that the Council: 

  • underscore the need for compliance, ratification and implementation of instruments of international humanitarian law;
  • consider measures for conflict prevention, including greater use of its Chapter VI powers, peacekeeping deployments and a working group;
  • make greater use of targeted sanctions and arms embargoes;
  • take steps to strengthen the UN’s rapid deployment capacity;
  • establish temporary security zones and safe corridors as a last resort and subject to the availability of credible forces;
  • use enforcement measures to protect civilians; and
  • ensure that regional deployments are in accordance with international standards, and effectively monitor those operations.

Initial discussions culminated in resolution 1265 of 17 September 1999, which consolidated key norms of international humanitarian law, humanitarian access, and justice and accountability. The resolution also established a working group to look into the Secretary-General’s recommendations.

Resolution 1296 followed on 19 April 2000 and largely set the tone for the Council’s future thematic involvement on protection of civilians. It emphasised that substantive Council action on protection of civilians would largely proceed on a case-by-case basis. It stated the Council’s intention to ensure that peacekeeping was suitably mandated and resourced for protection purposes, and highlighted the importance of justice and accountability. This approach was largely reflected in resolution 1674 of 28 April 2006. In addition, after much controversy and several months of negotiations, that resolution reaffirmed the responsibility to protect as formulated in the World Summit Outcome document. (For more details, see our December 2005 and 2006 Forecast Reports, as well as our 13 January 2006, 8 March 2006, 20 April 2006 and 18 June 2007 Update Reports.)

Earlier Council discussions also produced an Aide Memoire, adopted by the Council in a presidential statement on 15 March 2002 and revised in 2003, which sets out the Council’s primary objectives on protection-related issues for case-by-case consideration and precedents.

Most recently, issues raised for Council consideration in the reports of the Secretary-General include:

  • complying with international humanitarian law;
  • taking action against sexual violence;
  • ensuring humanitarian access;
  • addressing certain conventional weapons which have significant impact on civilians such as cluster munitions, in addition to the ongoing concerns over the impact of small arms and landmines; and
  • the impact on civilian housing, land and property arising from conflict.

Of those issues, the last two have not really been discussed by the Council at all. Cluster munitions, small arms, land mines and other conventional weapons have largely been the object of a series of negotiations aimed at establishing international regimes and conventions. Particularly regarding cluster munitions, negotiations are ongoing for the adoption of an international convention in 2008; a final negotiating conference is currently scheduled for 19-30 May in Dublin. On housing, land and property issues, it seems that informal discussions are more likely in the context of the Peacebuilding Commission.

The Secretary-General further strongly recommended in late 2007, as a matter of priority, establishing a Council working group to facilitate consideration and analysis of protection issues. (For more details, see our 16 November 2007 Update Report.)

Council and Wider Dynamics
Discussions made significant progress at the thematic level in the first five years after the 1999 report. However, progress seems to have stalled in the past few years. In particular, further development of the normative dimension of protection of civilians has been fraught with huge disagreement.

Council members struggle because there are divisions as to whether the Council should take the lead to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law and to address gaps, particularly in terms of universal commitment to and implementation of existing instruments.

This contrasts with the ongoing progress during the same period within the Council and among the wider UN membership on advancing discussion of another thematic and normative issue, children and armed conflict.

China, Russia and some Council/Non-Aligned Movement members seem to have strong concerns that progressive development of norms by the Council at the thematic level on protection of civilians could impinge upon the prerogatives of governments and in particular their ability to contain rebel movements. They prefer case-by-case responses that emphasise quiet diplomacy and support for political processes, in particular with regional leadership. Concern about widening Council discussions on protection issues also seems to be in the minds of other Council members as well, particularly those whose forces (or whose allies’ forces) may be involved in complex conflict situations.

Members seem to be acquiescing around an approach to protection issues under which more substantive action will in the future proceed on a largely country-specific basis. Myanmar and Kenya are two very recent examples in which the Council has shown its willingness to respond to situations where there is significant violence against civilians. In practice, members seem ready to follow some of the recommendations of the Secretary-General on protection and this is beginning to emerge in Council country-specific practice.

Nevertheless, even at the country-specific level, implementation has often been fraught with difficulties. Political controversy has marred Council action vis-à-vis protection issues in Lebanon and Israel-Palestine, for example.

Some members with a keen interest in protection and human rights—in particular, European and Latin American Council members—appear to have redirected their efforts towards particular issues, especially humanitarian access, justice and accountability, and sexual violence. (The Secretariat seems to be making progress with establishing a mechanism for monitoring humanitarian access, which is expected to provide information to the Council on the causes and consequences of lack of access and enable Council action. A broad study on the implementation of protection mandates by peacekeeping operations is also in the works.)

There has also been some interest in less formal, more flexible approaches to protection of civilians than the high profile open debates of the past. There appears to be support in principle for an informal group, but some also appear concerned about the multiplication of subsidiary bodies. And still others—including Russia and China—appear hesitant.

One option is to formalise the current mood in the Council described above and decide to focus primarily on country-specific action. This may include a statement largely renewing past commitments and requesting a new Secretary-General’s report.

Under this option, another possibility (as part of a compromise) may be to agree to receive humanitarian updates on emerging threats to civilians in informal consultations, perhaps every month or two.

A second option is to preserve the status quo but ask experts to begin an inevitably long discussion at the working level on the Secretary-General’s existing recommendations—including the expert group. One possibility in this regard would be an informal expert group on protection of civilians with flexible working methods. The expert group would receive regular humanitarian updates and would be expected to advise on, inter alia:

  • the establishment, assessment and renewal of peacekeeping missions;
  • language on protection of civilians in draft resolutions and statements; and
  • protection issues in the context of terms of reference for visiting Council missions.

A third option is to maintain the status quo and task experts with working with the Secretariat on an update to the 2003 aide memoire, perhaps including a focus on:

  • ensuring that language regarding threats to civilians is consistently included in relevant Council resolutions and statements as a key issue;
  • including a section on preventive measures, such as support for peacemaking efforts;
  • including suggestions for model language for protection mandates for peacekeeping operations, in particular regarding security for humanitarian assistance and relations with aid organisations;
  • including a section on regional peacekeeping, especially regarding UN support and Council oversight;
  • similarly, suggesting model language for sanctions regimes with targeted measures against violators of international humanitarian law; and
  • including a wider range of measures under justice and accountability, such as commissions of inquiry.

UN Documents

Selected Security Council Resolutions
  • S/RES/1674 (28 April 2006) reaffirmed, inter alia, the responsibility to protect as formulated in the World Summit Outcome (A/RES/60/1).
  • S/RES/1265 (17 September 1999) and S/RES/1296 (19 April 2000) expressed the Council’s willingness to take measures to protect civilians in armed conflict
  • Resolution 418 (4 November 1977) imposed an arms embargo in connection with South Africa.
  • Resolution 232 (16 December 1966) imposed a sanctions regime in connection with Southern Rhodesia.
  • Resolution 143 (17 July 1960) established the UN operation in the Congo.
Selected Presidential Statements
  • S/PRST/2002/6 (15 March 2002) and its update, 2003/27 (15 December 2003) contained the aide-memoire.
Selected Reports of the Secretary-General
  • S/2007/643 (31 October 2007) was the most recent report.
  • S/1999/957 (8 September 1999) was the first landmark report.
Latest Council Meeting Record

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