Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In early May, the Security Council will hold a briefing on attacks on medical facilities and personnel in armed conflict as a part of its protection of civilians agenda. During the meeting, the Council is expected to adopt a resolution condemning attacks on health care workers and facilities and demanding compliance with international humanitarian law with regard to this issue. While yet to be confirmed at press time, it appeared that briefers would include high-level representatives from the UN, the ICRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
The Council has emphasised the importance of protecting humanitarian and UN personnel in various country-specific and thematic resolutions since the adoption of resolution 1265 in 1999, its first thematic resolution on the protection of civilians. Underpinning these efforts is a strong foundation of international law that affirms the safety and protection of humanitarian workers. Relevant international instruments include the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, the 1994 Convention on the Safety of UN and Associated Personnel and the 2005 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Safety of UN and Associated Personnel.
Key Recent Developments
Over the past decade, the world has become a more dangerous place for humanitarian workers. According to Humanitarian Outcomes, a consulting service that works with donor governments and aid organisations on humanitarian issues, major attacks on aid workers such as shootings, kidnappings, bodily assaults and attacks with explosives were highest in 2014 in Afghanistan (54), Syria (26), South Sudan (18) and the Central African Republic (14). Attacks on health care workers and medical facilities have also been a factor in conflicts in Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, among other cases. In addition to the harm caused to health care workers and facilities, such attacks have a devastating impact on people in need whose access to health care and humanitarian assistance is curtailed.
In recent months, hospitals have been bombed or otherwise damaged in several conflict zones, resulting in numerous casualties. On 3 October 2015, 42 people were killed when US forces accidently bombed an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. In Yemen, at least six people died when a projectile struck the Shiara Hospital in the Razeh district in northern Yemen on 10 January. In Syria, missiles struck two hospitals on 15 February, one in Idlid province and one in Aleppo province; at least 25 people reportedly died as a result of these incidents. Following the outbreak of violence on 18 February in the UN’s protection of civilians site in Malakal, South Sudan, one medical facility in the town was looted, while a second was reportedly set on fire.
Recent UN reports have highlighted attacks on health workers and medical facilities as a serious problem facing the UN system and its partners. In his June 2015 report to the Council on the protection of civilians, the Secretary-General described how such attacks undermine humanitarian access to civilians in dire need. In his September 2015 report to the General Assembly, “Safety and security of humanitarian personnel and protection of UN personnel”, the Secretary-General emphasised the importance of protecting humanitarian and health care workers through “legislation and adherence to international humanitarian norms”. Most recently, in his February report on the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, the Secretary-General said, “States and other parties to conflict must ensure that all context-specific political, legal, social and safety measures are put in place and strictly adhered to in order to protect humanitarian and medical personnel and facilities”.
On 19 August 2014, the Council held a briefing on the safety and security of humanitarian workers, coinciding with World Humanitarian Day, which honours the efforts of aid workers and takes place on the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the UN Baghdad compound, in which 22 people were killed. The Council adopted resolution 2175 ten days later, which:
- strongly condemned violence and intimidation against those involved in humanitarian operations;
- urged parties to armed conflict to allow complete and unhindered humanitarian access;
- urged states to ensure that they hold accountable those who commit crimes against humanitarian workers within their respective territories; and
- requested the Secretary-General to include in his reports on country-specific situations and other relevant reports information regarding the safety and security of humanitarian workers and to present recommendations about how to strengthen their protection.
The key issue for the Council is how the draft resolution that is expected to be adopted, which is broadly focused on medical neutrality in all conflict situations, can have a concrete impact on country-specific situations in which medical workers and facilities are attacked. A related question is how the Council can continue to maintain attention on this issue and ensure that its decisions appropriately reflect the imperatives of medical neutrality under international humanitarian law.
The most likely option for the Council is to adopt the draft resolution on medical neutrality that has been negotiated for the past several months. Moving forward, the Council may consider:
- ensuring continuity of focus on this issue through annual briefings;
- calling on the UN system to develop a mechanism to collect data on attacks on medical workers and facilities across conflicts in a standardised way; and
- emphasising the importance of medical neutrality in relevant future Council country-specific decisions.
The protection of humanitarian workers and medical facilities is an issue of growing concern to several Council members. This is largely because of the high number of aid workers who are subjected to violence, the damage to medical facilities in numerous conflict settings, and the negative implications of these attacks on the lives of civilians in need of medical care and humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, there seems to be a rising perception among Council members that parties to conflict in many contexts show little respect for international humanitarian law, which includes protections for aid workers.
The draft resolution on medical neutrality that is expected to be adopted in May was the product of several months of intensive effort by the five penholders—all elected members that collectively reflect the regional diversity of the Council. At press time, it appeared that the penholders were attempting to garner co-sponsorship from a large number of states consisting of the broader UN membership.
UN Documents on the Protection of Civilians
|Security Council Resolution|
|29 August 2014 S/RES/2175||This resolution condemned violence and intimidation against those involved in humanitarian operations.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|19 August 2014 S/PV.7244||This was a briefing on the protection of humanitarian workers in recognition of World Humanitarian Day.|
|18 June 2015 S/2015/453||This was the Secretary-General’s 11th report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.|
|General Assembly Documents|
|2 February 2016 A/70/709||This was the Secretary-General’s report for the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit.|
|21 September 2015 A/70/383||This was the report of the Secretary-General on the “Safety and security of humanitarian personnel and protection of UN personnel.|
Useful Additional Resource
Attacks on Health Care in Armed Conflict: Role of the Security Council, International Peace Institute, Policy Forum, 14 April 2016, video link available at https://www.ipinst.org/2016/04/healthcare-in-armed-conflict#4