Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In January the Council will hold an open debate (delayed from November) on protection of civilians in armed conflict. It will most likely be preceded by an Arria formula meeting. (It is Council practice to take up this issue twice a year; the last debate was held in May 2008.)
The Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, is expected to present proposals for an update of the aide-memoire on protection of civilians that was endorsed by the Council in its presidential statement of 15 March 2002 and revised in 2003. A likely outcome is a presidential statement approving a revised aide-memoire.
Please see our in depth Cross-Cutting Report on Protection of Civilians of 14 October 2008 for detailed information on the Council’s history of dealing with the issue of protection of civilians both thematically and in country-specific situations.
In May 2008 Holmes gave the Council a briefing that focused on three issues: conduct of hostilities, sexual violence and humanitarian access. The Council adopted a presidential statement that:
Reaffirmed its commitment to implement all its previous resolutions and statements on protection of civilians;
Condemned all violations against international law committed against civilians in armed conflict, and demanded an end to such practices;
Underlined the importance of access of humanitarian personnel to provide assistance to civilians in armed conflict;
Recognised the valuable role of regional organisations and other intergovernmental institutions; and
Requested the Secretary-General to submit his next report on protection of civilians by May 2009, and to include an update on the implementation of protection mandates in UN peacekeeping missions.
Since the open debate in May, protection of civilians has become a constant problem in many country-specific situations under discussion by the Council. In particular, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia the impact on civilian populations has worsened dramatically. Serious problems remain in Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan where civilians continue to suffer and are often deliberately attacked. In some cases the Council has taken action by strengthening protection mandates.
On 22 September the Council adopted a resolution extending the authorisation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan with stronger language on protection of civilians. It called on ISAF and other international forces to take additional robust measures to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. Civilian casualties—especially those caused by the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom—have fueled public anger across Afghanistan. They have also led to tensions between the UN and the coalition as well as between the Afghan government and its western allies. (See our October 2008 Forecast for more information.) The leadership of ISAF has not implemented the Secretary-General’s recommendation to provide specific information on steps taken to ensure protection of civilians during the conduct of hostilities in its quarterly reports to the Council. (This recommendation, presented in the Secretary-General’s latest report on protection of civilians of 31 October 2007, was also addressed to the multinational forces in Iraq.)
On 20 November, in response to the humanitarian crisis in eastern DRC following the outbreak of hostilities, the Council adopted a resolution authorising a temporary increase in the troop level of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) by up to 2,785 military personnel and 300 police. This was intended to enhance MONUC’s capacity to protect civilians and came after the mission was criticised for failing to fulfill its protection mandate during the recent resurgence of violence in the eastern part of DRC. (See our November and December 2008 Forecasts). The crisis led to large-scale population displacement and widespread human rights violations, including targeted killing of civilians.
Protection of civilians also remained a key issue in Sudan, and particularly in Darfur. In its resolution of 31 July 2008 extending the mandate of the AU/UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) for a further 12 months, the Council underlined the need for the mission to make full use of the current mandate and capabilities to protect civilians.
At the thematic level, some progress has been made by the Council in line with recommendations in the Secretary-General’s last report on protection of civilians. These recommendations include:
ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law and protection of civilians in the conduct of hostilities;
taking more robust action against sexual violence;
ensuring humanitarian access;
addressing housing, land and property issues; and
establishing an expert-level Council working group on protection of civilians.
In addition the Secretary-General urged all member states to work to eliminate the impact of cluster munitions on civilians.
The Council addressed the issue of widespread sexual violence in conflict in resolution 1820 of 19 June 2008. The resolution focuses on sexual violence as a tactic of war, and demands that all parties to armed conflict stop all acts of sexual violence against civilians. It also signals the Council’s willingness to consider targeted sanctions against perpetrators, one of the Secretary-General’s recommendations as well. (For more details please see our 21 October 2008 Update Report on Women, Peace and Security.)
On the issue of humanitarian access, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has been working to enhance its capacity to report and analyse access constraints in conflicts. The aim is to develop a tool for the Council to identify appropriate areas for action. Based on pilot studies carried out in several countries, OCHA is planning to present an analysis on access constraints as an annex to the Secretary-General’s next report on protection of civilians.
A significant step forward to eliminate cluster munitions was taken when the Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted on 30 May 2008 by 107 states at a conference in Dublin. The convention prohibits all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions and on 3 December was opened for signature in Oslo, where 125 states participated in the signing ceremony. The convention will enter into force six months after ratification by at least thirty states.
In preparation for the expected open debate on protection of civilians in late 2008 and in response to a request from some Council members, OCHA undertook to update the aide-memoire first adopted in March 2002. The aide-memoire has not been updated since the first revision in 2003, although a December 2002 presidential statement envisaged an annual update. OCHA is seeking to reflect in the aide memoire the changing priorities identified by the Council and to improve and clarify the language to make it more user friendly and action-oriented. It will suggest including a compendium of language on protection of civilians from previous resolutions. At the time of writing, OCHA was still finalising the text based on consultations with Council members. There do not appear to be any major divisions in the Council on the OCHA approach because the updating is mainly a technical exercise, reflecting agreed Council language. The Council is expected to approve the revised aide-memoire at the time of the open debate.
There are also important outstanding general issues related to implementation of protection mandates in UN peacekeeping operations. (For more detailed analysis and discussion please refer to our Cross-Cutting Report on Protection of Civilians of 14 October 2008.) Recent developments in the DRC have demonstrated the urgent need to address these outstanding issues. Most peacekeeping operations now have protection mandates, but significant challenges remain at the practical level. Along with capacity constraints, there seems to be a lack of common understanding of what types of activities fall under protection of civilians. Similar provisions in protection mandates have been interpreted differently by various peacekeeping operations. In addition, the interpretation has varied among different force contingents.
A case in point is MONUC. It has a strong protection mandate, but has been criticised for not doing enough although it is generally agreed that its resources are stretched to the limit and that the mandate needed to be clarified to address the complex situation on the ground. All this in spite of the intention by the Council expressed in resolution 1674, to ensure that mandates include clear guidelines on protection, that protection of civilians is given priority in allocation of resources and that protection mandates are implemented. MONUC’s new mandate adopted on 22 December should respond to these concerns.
The operational issues are unlikely to be taken up by the Council in January. They are now being addressed by an independent study commissioned by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and OCHA, and conducted by outside researchers. The objective is to produce a report analysing the actual impact on the ground of including protection mandates in peacekeeping operations, examining steps taken by relevant actors to implement these mandates, and making recommendations on how the UN can enhance its ability to protect civilians. The study will be based on field trips to Sudan, Haiti, DRC and Côte d’Ivoire, and a final report is expected in May or June.
Another issue is the Council’s past reluctance to discuss the Secretary-General’s existing recommendations on protection of civilians. The Council has largely ignored the recommendation to address more effectively the key civilian related questions of housing, land and property disputes and problems resulting from armed conflict. Moreover it has been unable to agree on even an informal working group at the expert-level to discuss protection of civilians. Related to this last issue are questions on what kind of mechanism would enhance the Council’s effectiveness on protection and how to ensure consistency between thematic and country-specific action. There is also the question of who should participate in an informal working group and whether it should be only humanitarian experts or, especially in discussions on peacekeeping operations, experts on country-specific situations or both.
adopting a presidential statement endorsing the updated aide-memoire presented by OCHA;
establishing an informal working group at the expert-level to help focus on cross-cutting problems under peacekeeping mandates and ensure that appropriate and consistent protection language is included in mandates and to monitor emerging threats to civilians (perhaps via regular briefings); and
starting discussions on the Secretary-General’s existing recommendations on protection of civilians.
There seems to be general agreement that the issue of protection of civilians needs to be advanced in the Council at the country-specific level. However, some countries, both inside and outside the Council, continue to believe that this will be assisted by injecting new political momentum in 2009 at the thematic level as well. The next report of the Secretary-General on protection of civilians (due in May) will roughly coincide with the report on children and armed conflict and a report on sexual violence (the latter due in June). Protection issues seem likely therefore to be prominent on the Council’s agenda in both June and July (under the presidencies of Turkey and Uganda respectively.)
New Council members Japan, Uganda and Mexico seem interested in these issues. Mexico has a record from its most recent tenure on the Council (in 2002-2003) of promoting protection issues. In the open debate in November 2007 Mexico expressed support for the Secretary-General’s proposal to hold an Arria formula meeting on the issue of housing, land and property rights and it will be interesting to see if it will take up this idea again as a Council member.
A number of Council members seem keen to push for agreement on an informal working group fairly soon once the aide-memoire has been updated. The UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire is the first peacekeeping mission requiring renewal by the Council in 2009 as its mandate expires on 31 January. It offers an opportunity to test the water on whether the preference for a country-specific approach to protection is sufficient or whether a more cross-cutting approach could add value, or whether there is scope for both.
Selected Security Council Resolutions
Selected Security Council Presidential Statements
Selected Reports of the Secretary-General on Protection of Civilians
Latest Council Meeting Record