Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In January, the Council is planning to hold an open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The debate is expected to focus on the Secretary-General’s June 2015 report on the protection of civilians and the recommendations in the June 2015 report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) relevant to the protection of civilians.
Although unclear at press time, a presidential statement could be a possible outcome.
Key Recent Developments
Conflict continues to have a devastating impact on civilians. There are approximately 59.5 million refugees, internally displaced persons or asylum seekers worldwide—the highest level ever recorded. At press time, the UN Refugee Agency estimated that more than 950,000 refugees and migrants had arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, with the “vast majority of those attempting this…crossing…in need of international protection, fleeing war, violence and persecution in their country of origin”. Approximately 6.6 million people are now internally displaced in Syria, and approximately 4.3 million Syrians have fled to other countries. More than 250,000 people have died in the conflict since it started in 2011. In 2015, displacement, killings, sexual violence and other human rights violations continued to be features of conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR), Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, South Sudan and Syria, among others.
On 18 June 2015, the Secretary-General issued his most recent report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. He argued that in spite of “some progress on the normative level in the past 18 months, the general state of protection on the ground remains bleak”. Protection concerns were highlighted with regard to several specific cases: Afghanistan, the CAR, Colombia, the DRC, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.
Among other issues, the report underscored three key challenges with regard to the protection of civilians: limited humanitarian access, attacks on humanitarian and health-care workers and facilities and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The Secretary-General noted that “the denial of access prolongs suffering and kills people”. He enumerated many impediments to access, including “active hostilities, attacks against humanitarian workers and facilities, bureaucratic restrictions and interference in the delivery of assistance”. With regard to explosive weapons, he argued that “the development of policy standards to curb or limit the use of explosive weapons in populated areas…could significantly strengthen the protection of civilians”, citing as precedents how the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and the AU Mission in Somalia “place[d] limits on the use of certain explosive weapons in certain locations where civilians tend to be present, in order to minimize the impact of military operations on civilians”.
The Secretary-General’s report further highlighted the plight of internally displaced persons, noting that they “often have limited access to basic services…and…are at increased risk of discrimination and exploitation”, while “many lack legal documentation and struggle to find employment or reclaim property”. The report argued that there needs to be better coordination among humanitarian organisations to help governments and development actors meet the needs of the internally displaced. It emphasised the importance of sustainable development in combatting long-term displacement.
Also in June 2015, the Secretary-General sent to the Security Council and the General Assembly the report of the HIPPO, Uniting Our Strengths for Peace, Partnership and People. The report emphasised that mandates to protect civilians need to be connected to an overarching political strategy.
While arguing that unarmed strategies—e.g. human rights monitoring and advocacy, rule of law development and political engagement—should be central to the UN’s protection efforts, the Panel said that peacekeeping missions with the mandate and capacity to use force must do so to protect civilians facing imminent physical threat. Although the Panel endorsed the three main principles of UN peacekeeping—host country consent, impartiality and the use of force in self-defence or in defence of the mandate—it said that adherence to these principles should not be “an excuse for failure to protect civilians or defend the mission proactively” and that there should be “a flexible and progressive interpretation of these principles”.
On 2 September 2015, the Secretary-General issued an implementation report responding to the recommendations of the Panel and setting an agenda to take forward these recommendations. The report argued that all UN peace operations are responsible for advocating the protection of civilians. Like the HIPPO, the Secretary-General highlighted a range of non-military protection tools in his report, including “strong political advocacy, credible reporting and liaison with communities.” Also in keeping with the HIPPO’s recommendations, he argued that when “missions have an explicit mandate to protect civilians, uniformed personnel must play their part, including, where necessary, through the use of force.” When the Secretary-General briefed the Council on his implementation report on 20 November 2015, he reiterated that “all tools, including, where necessary, the use of force” must be used in peace operations with a mandate to protect civilians.
The Council adopted a presidential statement on 25 November taking note of the recommendations of the HIPPO report and the Secretary-General’s implementation report. The statement further welcomed the Secretary-General’s commitment to keep the Council informed “of situations of escalating risk to civilians…where United Nations peace missions are deployed, [of] serious shortfalls in the capability of missions to fulfill their mandates and of any incident in which a mission…fails…to implement [its] mandate…”.
On 25 November 2015, the Council adopted a presidential statement recognising the contribution of the updated Aide Memoire, a document designed to facilitate the Council’s consideration of language about protection of civilians in country-specific situations. (This marked the sixth edition of the Aide Memoire since the Council first adopted it in March 2002.) The statement requested the Secretary-General to submit his next report on the protection of civilians to the Council by 15 May 2016 and to submit future reports every 12 months thereafter. This represents a departure from previous practice, which had been for a report on this issue to be submitted to the Council every 18 months. Furthermore, the statement requested that the Council formally consider these reports each year within the same General Assembly session. Thus, a report submitted in May would need to be considered before the September opening of the next General Assembly session every year.
The Council discussed the protection of civilians at the thematic level on 27 May 2015 under Lithuania’s presidency of the Council. It held an open debate on the protection of journalists in armed conflict, chaired by Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius, and with briefings by Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders Christophe Deloire and Mariane Pearl, the widow of Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan in early 2002. During the debate, the Council adopted resolution 2222, which affirmed that UN peace operations should include information on violence against journalists, media professionals and associated personnel in their mandated reporting.
An Arria-formula meeting on the responsibility to protect and non-state actors was convened on 14 December 2015 at the initiative of Chile and Spain. Panellists included Jennifer Welsh, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect; Edward Luck, International Advisory Board member of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect; and Luis Peral, Senior Analyst of Global and Strategic Affairs, Club de Madrid, an organisation committed to promoting democracy. In their interventions, a number of Council members highlighted the importance of receiving timely briefings from the Secretariat on crisis situations and political will as important parts of the Council’s ability to address atrocity crimes. Some members expressed ongoing concerns that the responsibility to protect could be used to undermine state sovereignty.
An overarching key issue is whether and how discussions about the protection of civilians at the thematic level can be translated into concrete measures to ameliorate the suffering of civilians in armed conflict. In this sense, it is important for the Council to consider how the open debate can galvanise greater attention to and support for addressing the needs of civilians in armed conflict.
A related matter is ensuring that the Council receives timely and high-quality analysis of the protection needs of civilians in country-specific contexts and acts on this information in meaningful ways. As the high-level panel noted in its recent report, this entails working to ensure that resources and capabilities are compatible with mandates in situations where UN peace operations are deployed, that adjustments are made when they are not compatible with mandates and that the Council has access to regularly updated assessments of the needs of peace operations.
One option is to invite the Deputy Secretary-General to brief on elements of the Secretary-General’s implementation report on the HIPPO recommendations relevant to the protection of civilians. Other briefers could include the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (The two open debates in 2015 broke with the consistent practice since November 2009 of having a high-level UN human rights official brief the Council during debates about protection of civilians.)
The Council could also consider adopting a resolution or statement that:
- urges conflict parties to develop policies on the use of explosive weapons, that reduce their risk to civilians;
- requests that the UN system develop a civilian casualty tracking process to monitor violations of international law in country-specific contexts; and
- condemns the arbitrary refusal of humanitarian access.
In recent months, competing priorities have pulled the Council’s attention away from protection of civilians at the thematic level. The most recent report of the Secretary-General on this matter was issued more than six months ago (June). Yet until this month, none of the monthly Council presidents elected to take up the report. Members are acutely aware of the devastating and worsening impact that armed conflict has had on civilians in recent years. As a result, they realise that much more needs to be done to ensure that advances at the normative level are translated into the implementation of effective strategies at the country-specific level.
In some instances at the country-specific level, one ongoing hindrance to the Council’s work is the differing views of state sovereignty among its members. Some members emphasise the need to respect state sovereignty as an element in decisions to ensure civilian protection. 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 complicated Council efforts to protect civilians in South Sudan, Sudan and Syria, among other cases.
The UK is the penholder on the protection of civilians.
UN Documents on Protection of Civilians
|Security Council Resolution|
|27 May 2015 S/RES/2222||This was a resolution on the protection of journalists that focused on the need to combat impunity for attacks against journalists, enhance reporting on violence against journalists and improve international coordination to strengthen the protection of journalists.|
|Security Council Presidential Statement|
|25 November 2015 S/PRST/2015/22||This took note of the recommendations of the HIPPO report and the Secretary-General’s implementation report.|
|2 September 2015 S/2015/682||This was the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations’ recommendations.|
|17 June 2015 S/2015/446||This was the report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations.|
|18 June 2015 S/2015/453||This was the Secretary-General’s 11th report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|20 November 2015 S/PV.7564||This was a briefing by the Secretary-General on his report “The future of United Nations peace operations: implementation of the recommendations of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations”.|
|27 May 2015 S/PV.7450||This was an open debate on the protection of journalists.|
|30 January 2015 S/PV.7374||This was the open debate on the protection of civilians with a particular focus on the protection challenges of women and girls in conflict and post-conflict settings.|