Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In June, the Council will hold a ministerial-level open debate on the protection of civilians in the context of peacekeeping operations. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French minister of foreign affairs and international development, will preside. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic and ICRC President Peter Maurer (via video teleconference) are expected to address the Council. At press time, no immediate Council outcome was anticipated.
Key Recent Developments
In mid-May, the Secretary-General issued his most recent report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Covering the 2015 calendar year, the report paints a grim picture of the current needs of civilians in armed conflict, noting that humanitarian needs are at their highest level ever and that more than 60 million people have been displaced by conflict. It describes the patterns of violence against civilians in several country-specific cases, including Afghanistan, Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, among others. In the report, the Secretary-General outlines several priorities with regard to the protection of civilians, including strengthening compliance with international law, promoting accountability for violations, enhancing efforts to protect civilians from explosive weapons in densely populated areas, improving humanitarian access and strengthening collective efforts to address displacement.
With regard to peace operations, the Secretary-General specifically references the observation in the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report and in his own follow-on report that the protection of civilians has military, police and civilian elements. He says that he directed the deployment of dedicated senior protection-of-civilians advisors “in all missions with explicit protection mandates, with a direct reporting line to the Head of Mission, to advise on the development of protection-of-civilians strategies and coordinate implementation”. The Secretary-General further highlights the importance of community engagement in promoting the protection of civilians, noting the usefulness of community alert networks and community liaison assistants “in understanding perceptions of threat at the community level, including how communities seek to reduce risk and how peace operations can address them”. He further underscores the need for peacekeepers to act when civilians are under threat.
On 19 January, the Security Council held an open debate on the protection of civilians, which was intended to focus on themes underscored in the Secretary-General’s June 2015 report on the protection of civilians, as well as the HIPPO report and the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of the HIPPO recommendations. Briefers included Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, ICRC Vice-President Christine Beerli and Oxfam Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor Eveline Rooijmans. Statements were made by 64 member states and two regional organisations.
Eliasson said that peacekeeping operations must respond quickly and with determination when civilians are threatened. Beerli underscored the need for parties in conflict situations to uphold international humanitarian law. Roojimans said that troop- and police-contributing countries “must fully subscribe to and implement their mandate and be willing and allowed to act, and use force if need be, in the face of threats to civilians”.
The Council held a briefing on health care in armed conflict on 3 May. The briefers included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Peter Maurer, the president of the ICRC; and Joanne Liu, the president of Médecins Sans Frontières. During the debate, the Council adopted resolution 2286, which emphasises the unacceptability of violations of international humanitarian law arising from attacks against medical and humanitarian workers exclusively engaged in medical duties in conflict situations.
Key issues for the Council with regard to this debate include the following:
- how to ensure that protection of civilians mandates provide sufficient clarity and guidance to peacekeeping missions;
- how to ensure that there is adequate discussion among the Secretariat, the troop-contributing countries and the Council in the design and implementation of protection mandates;
- how to improve the Council’s monitoring of the implementation of protection mandates;
- how to ensure that the Council can quickly adapt to changing circumstances by, for example, ensuring that mandates are reconfigured accordingly when there is a heightened threat to civilians in environments in which UN peace operations are employed;
- how to ensure that non-military protection tools—including political engagement, human rights monitoring and advocacy and rule-of-law development—are adequately integrated into relevant mandates; and
- how to protect civilians in contexts in which the armed forces of the host government are responsible for attacking civilians.
One option is for the Council to adopt a resolution or presidential statement that:
- urges troop- and police-contributing countries to ensure that their personnel have requisite pre-deployment training in protection issues and that they are not restricted by additional caveats beyond any explicitly accepted by the Secretariat before deployment;
- requests the development of a common system to record civilian casualties to strengthen efforts to monitor and report violations of international human rights and humanitarian law; and
- condemns the use of explosive weapons in populated locations.
Another option would be to consider using the informal expert group on the protection of civilians to monitor the implementation of protection mandates and make suggestions on adapting these mandates as necessary. Currently, the expert group meets prior to mandate renewals, but it could also meet on a less predictable basis, as dictated by evolving conditions in country-specific situations in which the protection environment deteriorates.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Council members are acutely aware of the devastating impact that armed conflict has had on civilians in recent years. As a result, they realise that more needs to be done to translate advances at the normative level into effective country-specific strategies. However, there are divisions among members regarding the Council’s approach to protecting civilians. These differences have hindered the Council’s ability to protect civilians in South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and other crises. They also affected the negotiations on the 25 November 2015 presidential statement when a permanent member expressed reservations about the revised Aide Memoire, referring in particular to language in the document on small arms, the ICC and sanctions.
While there is widespread appreciation that the protection of civilians is a holistic concept with military, police and civilian elements, there are different views among Council members and troop- and police-contributing countries regarding the appropriate use of force. Some tend to emphasise the importance of upholding the long-standing principles of peacekeeping, which include the use of force only for self-defence or in defence of the mandate, as well as host country consent and impartiality. Others, while espousing these principles, tend to have a more flexible interpretation of protection of civilians mandates, emphasising that the use of force is required to protect civilians when they are under attack or threatened with attack.
The UK is the penholder on the protection of civilians.
UN Documents on the Protection of Civilians
|Security Council Resolution|
|3 May 2016 S/RES/2286||This condemned attacks on health care workers and facilities in armed conflict.|
|Security Council Presidential Statements|
|31 December 2015 S/PRST/2015/26||This underscored the importance of sustained cooperation among the Council, the Secretariat and troop- and police-contributing countries on peacekeeping.|
|25 November 2015 S/PRST/2015/23||This was a presidential statement on the protection of civilians.|
|25 November 2015 S/PRST/2015/22||The Council took note of the recommendations of the HIPPO report and the Secretary-General’s implementation report.|
|13 May 2016 S/2016/447||This was the 12th report on the protection of civilians.|
|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|
|3 May 2016 S/PV.7685||This was a briefing on the protection of health care in armed conflict.|
|19 January 2016 S/PV.7606||Uruguay, which held the presidency for the month, prepared a concept paper in preparation for this open debate on protection of civilians, highlighting themes underscored in the Secretary-General’s most recent report on the protection of civilians, as well as the report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations and the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of the High-Level Panel’s recommendations. Briefers included Deputy-Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, ICRC Vice-President Christine Beerli and Oxfam Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor Eveline Rooijmans. Statements were made by 64 member states and two regional organisations.|