Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In February, the Security Council will hold an open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. It appears that the debate will focus on implementing the protection aspects of UN peacekeeping mandates, one of the five core challenges first outlined in the 2009 Secretary-General’s report on protection of civilians in armed conflict (S/2009/277). (The other four are enhancing compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law, enhancing compliance by non-state armed groups, ensuring humanitarian access and promoting accountability.) Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Edmond Mulet and a high-level ICRC official are the expected briefers.
A presidential statement is the likely outcome.
Key Recent Developments
The Council’s most recent debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict was held on 19 August 2013 (S/PV.7019). The Council was briefed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Pillay, Amos and ICRC Director for International Law and Cooperation Philip Spoerri. In addition to Council members, 38 member states and the EU participated in the debate. There was no outcome.
The Secretary-General issued his tenth report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict on 22 November 2013 asserting that “the current state of the protection of civilians leaves little room for optimism” (S/2013/689). It expressed particular concern about attacks against, and other interference with, health-care facilities, personnel and transport, as well as continuing attacks against journalists. Moreover, it expressed concern about reports of civilian casualties resulting from drone attacks and the lack of transparency surrounding such attacks. The use of autonomous weapons systems, or so-called “killer robots”, was also for the first time raised as an issue that required further consideration.
On 13 December 2013, Council members held an Arria formula meeting on the protection of journalists co-chaired by Ambassadors Gérard Araud (France) and Gert Rosenthal (Guatemala). The meeting featured presentations by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO; Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the ICC; David Rohde, an investigative journalist; Christophe Deloire, Director General of Reporters Without Borders; Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression; and Anne-Marie Capomaccio, of Radio France Internationale. The purpose of the meeting was to take stock of the implementation of resolution 1738, which focused on the protection of journalists and other related personnel in armed conflict. The meeting also addressed such questions as how to ensure a safe environment for journalists, how to strengthen the implementation of norms and mechanisms to protect journalists and how to protect journalists in non-conflict situations.
On 17 December, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson presented the “Rights Up Front” initiative to member states during an informal session of the General Assembly. The initiative is an action plan to implement the recommendations of the November 2012 report of the Internal Review Panel on UN Action in Sri Lanka, which found significant failings by the UN system in addressing human rights violations against civilians in the final stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2008-2009.
The action plan, which was developed by an inter-departmental and inter-agency UN working group, consists of six elements:
- integrating human rights into the lifeblood of staff so that they understand what the UN’s mandates and commitments to human rights mean for their department, agency, fund or programme and for them personally;
- providing member states with candid information with respect to peoples at risk of, or subject to, serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law;
- ensuring coherent strategies of action on the ground and leveraging UN capacities in a concerted manner;
- adopting at Headquarters a “One-UN approach” to facilitate early coordinated action;
- achieving, through better analysis, greater impact in the UN’s human rights protection work; and
- supporting all these activities through an improved system of information management on serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.
During his briefing, Eliasson noted that in order for the “Rights Up Front” agenda to be successful, support from the member states would be required, adding that “any requirements for new resources, or proposals to shift resources would…be discussed and approved by member states through regular budget processes”.
A continuing key issue for the Council is the importance of consolidating and ensuring implementation of the existing normative framework on protection of civilians in country-specific situations.
A related issue is whether and how this debate will result in concrete improvements in how the Council formulates and manages elements related to protection of civilians in peacekeeping mandates.
Also an important issue is whether and how the “Rights Up Front” initiative will impact the work of the Council and the broader UN system on protection issues moving forward. It is clear, for example, that this new agenda has positively informed the Secretariat’s response to the recent crisis in South Sudan.
The most likely option for the Council is to adopt a presidential statement at the open debate. In the statement, the Council might endorse the “Rights Up Front” action plan and adopt a revised version of the aide mémoire (S/PRST/2010/25). (Initially created on 15 March 2002, and last updated on 22 November 2010, the aide mémoire provides guidance on the Council’s work on protection issues).
The Council might also consider supporting some of the recommendations from the Secretary-General’s recent protection of civilians report by including language in the statement that:
- condemns the use of explosive weapons in populated locations;
- requests parties to conflict to develop mechanisms to track civilian casualties;
- requests that UN actors develop a common system to record civilian casualties to strengthen efforts to monitor and report violations of international human rights and humanitarian law;
- urges troop- and police-contributing countries to ensure that their personnel have requisite pre-deployment training in protection issues;
- urges the promotion of accountability for attacks on humanitarian workers, including by encouraging country-level investigations and prosecutions; and
- insists upon member state cooperation with the ICC.
Other options available to the Council include:
- making sure all relevant Council-mandated missions have a strong human rights monitoring mandate and adequate resources to implement that mandate;
- consistently requesting horizon-scanning briefings by the Secretariat and making sure that these include relevant updates on key protection issues;
- mainstreaming protection of civilians concerns through the use of “any other business” in consultations; and
- increasing Council members’ interactions with civil society actors well-attuned to the protection needs of civilians in specific conflict situations.
It appears that the UK, the lead in the Council on protection of civilians, and Lithuania, Council president in February, believe that discussing a particular aspect of the protection of civilians agenda will help to ensure that the debate is focused and constructive. Several members seem to share this perspective, although it has been noted that focusing the debate on the implementation of protection elements of UN peacekeeping mandates could inhibit in-depth discussion of challenging cases such as the situations in the Central African Republic and Syria.
Fundamental fault lines continue to divide the Council on this agenda item, especially in some instances at the country-specific level. Some members, notably China and Russia, emphasise the need to respect national sovereignty as an element in any decision to ensure civilian protection and therefore are generally reluctant to authorise measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, such as sanctions. Others give less weight to the sovereignty argument and thus have a lower threshold for when the Council should act to protect civilians. This divide has undermined Council efforts to protect civilians in Syria and in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states in Sudan.
The new composition of the Council in 2014 may have some impact on the Council’s approach to protection issues. Pakistan and to some extent Azerbaijan, which left the Council at the end of 2013, were perceived by some as reluctant on many protection issues. Of the new members, Chile and Lithuania appear most likely to support the wider protection of civilians agenda, whereas Jordan and Nigeria, both leading troop contributors to UN peacekeeping missions, are likely to pay attention to the need for adequate resources for missions to fulfil their protection mandates. Chad is on the Secretary-General’s list of countries that recruit and use child soldiers, although it has signed an action plan that it is striving to implement in an effort to be delisted.
UN Documents on Protection of Civilians
|Security Council Presidential Statements
|12 February 2013 S/PRST/2013/2
|This presidential statement reconfirmed the Council’s commitment to the protection of civilians.
|22 November 2010 S/PRST/2010/25
|This was on protection of civilians, containing an updated aide-mémoire.
|22 November 2013 S/2013/689
|This was the Secretary-General’s 10th report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
|Security Council Meeting Record
|19 August 2013 S/PV.7019
|The Council held an open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.