Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In June, the Council is scheduled to hold its biannual open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, are expected to brief. It is also possible that the Secretary-General will speak.
The debate is likely to focus on the Secretary-General’s recent report on protection of civilians, which was circulated to Council members on 29 May. No outcome is expected.
(For a more detailed analysis of the Council’s recent work on protection of civilians both thematically and in country-specific situations, please refer to our 31 May Cross-Cutting Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.)
Key Recent Developments
The Council held its most recent open debate on the protection of civilians on 9 November 2011. It was chaired by the President of Portugal, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, and featured briefings by the Secretary-General, Pillay, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg and the International Committee of the Red Cross director, Philip Spoerri. Nearly 30 member states also spoke in addition to all Council members.
Ahead of the debate, Portugal and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) co-hosted a workshop on “Accountability and Fact-finding Mechanisms for Violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law: The Role of the Security Council—Past and Future.” Portugal, in its then-capacity as President of the Council, also invited Council members to address in their statements ways to enhance accountability for such violations.
The Secretary-General, in his statement during the debate, recalled the five core challenges identified in his past two reports to the Council on the protection of civilians:
- enhancing compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law;
- more consistent and effective engagement with non-state armed groups in order to improve their compliance with the law;
- strengthening protection by peacekeepers;
- improving humanitarian access; and
- enhancing accountability.
He urged the Council to study the recommendations of the workshop on accountability and also emphasised the importance of prevention of conflict as a means to ensure the protection of civilians.
Pillay focused on the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in a number of country-specific situations, including in Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and the disputed Abyei region between Sudan and South Sudan, highlighting the work of recent commissions of inquiry.
Similarly, Bragg focused her briefing on the protection challenges in specific situations, including Afghanistan, Colombia, Darfur, DRC, Gaza and southern Israel, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and regions affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army, and also highlighted some of the issues discussed at the workshop co-hosted with Portugal, including the possible development of a checklist of issues for the Council to consider when making referrals to the International Criminal Court, Council support for national authorities in conducting investigations and prosecutions, the use of fact-finding missions and reparations mechanisms.
Spoerri raised three major concerns: the growing violence against health-care facilities and personnel, which he characterised as “one of the most serious yet neglected humanitarian issues of the day”; the vulnerability of migrants living in or crossing through countries affected by violence; and the impact on civilians related to the conduct of hostilities. Spoerri also expressed concern about “all measures that effectively hamper contact by humanitarian agencies with organised non-state armed groups.”
Brazil, an elected Council member at the time, introduced “responsibility while protecting” in its statement during the debate as a new concept aimed at further developing the consensus on responsibility to protect with regard to the use of force. More specifically, Brazil proposed a set of principles to guide the international community when exercising its responsibility to protect and called for “enhanced Council procedures” to monitor and assess how resolutions are interpreted and implemented to ensure responsibility while protecting. It circulated a concept note with more details.
On 19 January, the Council held an open debate on the promotion and strengthening of the rule of law in the maintenance of international peace and security and adopted a presidential statement on justice and the rule of law as “an indispensable element for peaceful coexistence and the prevention of armed conflict.” Among other things, the statement recalled resolution 1894 and reiterated the Council’s call on all parties to armed conflict to comply with the obligations applicable to them under international humanitarian law and take all required steps to protect civilians. The Council also reaffirmed its strong opposition to impunity for serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law and stressed states’ responsibility in this regard.
On 23 February, the Council held an open debate on the Secretary-General’s annual report on conflict-related sexual violence. It adopted a presidential statement that commended the work of the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence and among other things, stressed the need for continued data collection under the monitoring, analysis and reporting arrangements on sexual violence in armed conflict and other situations.
The Council’s informal expert group on the protection of civilians continued to meet regularly. While there were no major changes in the way the group operates, it developed one new practice by inviting OCHA, on 7 February, to give its first thematic briefing. This focused on humanitarian access, addressing such issues as the legal framework relating to humanitarian access, key challenges, types of access constraints, most significant recent constraints and global best practices. Two other meetings were held this year: one in March on the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and one in May on the UN Interim Security Force in Abyei.
A key issue for the debate in June is how to respond to the Secretary-General’s report. The report provides an update on progress in responding to the five core protection challenges referred to above and lays out a number of specific recommendations for further action by the Council, UN member states and others.
An additional issue is whether to consider any of the so-called “emerging protection issues”, such as mitigating the impact on civilians of explosive weapons of war, tracking civilian casualties and making amends to victims of lawful combat operations (for more details on these issues, please refer to our 31 May Cross-Cutting Report).
A longer-term issue for the Council is the continued implementation of the existing normative framework on protection of civilians in general, including resolution 1894, in country-specific situations. A related issue is how to ensure that the Council is comprehensive and consistent in its approach to protection challenges. A further related issue is how to make sure thematic principles are translated into actual protection on the ground.
A further issue is the Council’s own working methods and the tools at its disposal, such as the informal expert group on protection, and whether these can be improved.
The main option in June is simply to organise the open debate as an opportunity for Council members and others to express their views on the Secretary-General’s report and other issues, such as:
- key protection challenges in country-specific situations;
- ways to enhance accountability for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law as recommended by the 1 November workshop; and
- the emerging protection issues.
Another option would be to adopt a presidential statement welcoming the Secretary-General’s report and its recommendations, reaffirming the Council’s commitment to the protection of civilians and requesting a report from the Secretary-General in another 18 months.
It seems that the general climate for discussing protection issues in the Council, which deteriorated in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding the implementation of the protection mandate under resolution 1973 on Libya, is still considered difficult.
Because the scope for advancing the thematic agenda is seen as limited, there were no plans at the time of writing to have any outcome from the June debate. Council members who are normally supportive of a more ambitious approach seem concerned that any attempt to advance the normative framework would only result in push-back from those who favour more limited Council involvement and that it would be very difficult to agree on a text. There is also a sense that the real challenge is to ensure implementation on the ground of what has already been agreed at the normative level and that another thematic Council decision would not add much value at this stage.
Members are aware, however, that if the Council wants the Secretary-General to produce another report on the protection of civilians within the normal 18-month timeframe, it will have to agree on a specific request to this effect some time later this year. The previous reports have been requested either through a resolution or a presidential statement.
The UK is the lead country in the Council on protection of civilians and chairs the informal expert group.
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