Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In May, the Council will hold a ministerial-level open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Uruguayan Minister of Foreign Affairs Rodolfo Nin Novoa will preside. Secretary-General António Guterres and a high-level representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are expected to brief, in addition to a possible civil society briefer. The meeting will focus on the broad array of issues in the Secretary-General’s report on the protection of civilians (expected to be released by 15 May) and on the implementation of resolution 2286 of 3 May 2016, which focused on the protection of health care in armed conflict. No formal outcome is anticipated, although Uruguay has expressed its intention to produce a chair’s summary of the debate.
Key Recent Developments
In the past year, the situation facing civilians has deteriorated in a number of conflict-affected countries, including several on the Council’s agenda. Worldwide, more than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, the highest number ever. As the examples below illustrate, violations of international humanitarian and human rights law continue to have an enormous impact on civilians in conflict zones in various parts of the world.
In 2016, there were 11,418 civilian casualties (3,498 people killed and 7,920 wounded) in the Afghanistan conflict, which is the highest number of casualties in Afghanistan since 2009, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
The security and humanitarian situation in South Sudan has continued to deteriorate as violence has spread to various parts of the country since the outbreak of hostilities in Juba in July 2016. There are now 1.9 million internally displaced persons in South Sudan, and 1.6 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries.
In a 14 March statement, the High Commissioner for Human Rights labelled the conflict in Syria and its consequences “the worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II”, in which the country has become a “torture chamber” for its population.
OCHA estimates that 13.5 million people in Syria require humanitarian assistance, “including 4.6 million people in need trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, where they are exposed to grave protection threats”. Chemical weapons continue to be used in Syria, as recently evidenced by the 4 April attack in the Khan Shaykhun area of Idlib that killed at least 70 people.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been responsible for abductions, killings, recruitment of child soldiers, and enslavement, among other violations of international law, in Iraq and elsewhere.
On 18 August 2016, then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon submitted a letter with his recommendations for the protection of health care in armed conflict to the Security Council, as requested by resolution 2286. Among other things, he called for:
- adherence to international treaties;
- reinforcement of national legislation related to the protection of medical care in armed conflict;
- guarantees that medical personnel engaged solely in medical duties could act in accordance with medical ethics without being punished for doing so;
- adoption, review, revision and implementation of operational precautionary measures, including recording and mapping the location of medical personnel, facilities and equipment; and
- improvement in data collection, analysis and reporting.
On 28 September 2016, the Council held a protection of civilians debate under the New Zealand presidency focusing on health care in armed conflict. The briefers included Ban, President of the ICRC Peter Maurer and International President of Médecins Sans Frontières Joanne Liu. Ban focused his briefing on the recommendations from his 18 August letter while calling on the Council to “take decisive steps” so that protection of health care facilities and workers “moves from aspiration to reality”. Liu said that in the months since its adoption, resolution 2286 had “plainly failed to change anything on the ground” because of the “lack of political will among member states fighting in coalitions and those who enable them”. She said that in Syria and Yemen, “four of the five permanent members of the Council are implicated in these attacks [i.e. on health care]”. Maurer renewed the commitment of the ICRC to “build a more constructive relationship of deep operational engagement, feedback, dialogue and corrective measures with all parties to conflicts on the conduct of hostilities”.
On 15 March 2017, the Council held a ministerial-level open debate on “Trafficking in persons in conflict situations: forced labour, slavery and other similar practices”. Briefers included Secretary-General António Guterres; Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Yury Fedotov; Ilwad Elman, Mogadishu-based Somali human rights activist Ilwad Elman; and UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland. Guterres said that in addition to supporting victims of human trafficking, the UN must work to incorporate “their voices and views as we develop and implement anti-trafficking interventions.” Fedotov emphasised the need to protect and support victims of trafficking and to “continue building capacities to improve criminal justice responses and action to detect, investigate and successfully prosecute cases of human trafficking.” Elman spoke about the impact of human trafficking in Somalia and maintained that “the intent, resources and the strategy for ending” this problem had not been sufficient. Hyland called for improved cross-border efforts to combat human trafficking and for “high-profile convictions of the organizers of trafficking…to serve as a deterrent to others.”
The overarching key issue is whether, and how, discussions about the protection of civilians at the thematic level can be translated into concrete measures to mitigate the suffering of civilians in armed conflicts around the world. 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.
Another issue is how much the debate will focus on broader protection-related issues such as compliance, accountability and displacement, among others, and how much it will focus specifically on the protection of health care in armed conflict.
One option is for the Council president to produce a summary of the meeting that is circulated to the wider membership.
The Council could also consider adopting a resolution or presidential statement that:
- requests that the UN system develop a civilian casualty-tracking process to monitor violations of international law in country-specific cases of conflict;
- condemns the arbitrary refusal of humanitarian access by conflict parties; and
- requests the UN system to develop a mechanism to collect data on attacks on medical workers and facilities across conflicts in a standardised way.
Council members are acutely aware of the devastating impact that armed conflict has had on civilians in recent years; consequently, 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. Some members, including the P3 and others, tend to advocate accountability measures and sanctions as mechanisms for leveraging compliance from conflict parties to conform with international human rights and humanitarian law, whereas other members, such as China and Russia, tend to be distrustful of the effectiveness of such measures and emphasise the importance of state sovereignty. These different views—as well as the fact that many of the major powers are to varying degrees involved in some of the conflicts where civilians are suffering—have hindered the Council’s ability to protect civilians in South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen and other crises.
With regard to health care in armed conflict, Egypt, Japan, and Uruguay are three of the five members that led the drafting of resolution 2286. The other two, New Zealand and Spain, completed their Council terms in 2016.
The UK is the penholder on protection of civilians and on women, peace and security, while the US is the penholder on sexual violence.
UN Documents on Protection of Civilians
|Security Council Resolution|
|3 May 2016 S/RES/2286||This condemned attacks on health care workers and facilities in armed conflict.|
|13 May 2016 S/2016/447||This was the 12th report on the protection of civilians.|
|Security Council Letter|
|18 August 2016 S/2016/722||This letter transmitted the Secretary-General’s recommendations on the protection of health care in armed conflict.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|15 March 2017 S/PV.7898||The UK held a ministerial-level debate on modern slavery, forced labour and conflict.|
|28 September 2016 S/PV.7779||The Council held a briefing on the protection of health care in armed conflict and the Secretary-General’s recommendations on this issue.|