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. Prior to the debate, it expects to receive the Secretary-General’s report on this topic. Themes expected to be raised in the report—and inform the debate—include measures to enhance compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law and the protection of health care in armed conflict. Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz of Poland, the Council president this month, will chair the meeting. Briefers are expected to include Secretary-General António Guterres; Yves Daccord, the Director-General of the ICRC; and a civil society representative.
A chair’s summary of the meeting that captures concrete proposals for possible Council follow-up is expected to be circulated to the Council and the wider UN membership.
Key Recent Developments
In the past year, the scope of the challenges facing civilians in a number of conflict-affected countries, including several on the Council’s agenda, has remained significant. In addition to those civilians wounded or killed in conflict, statistics provided by OCHA paint a bleak picture of the humanitarian impacts of warfare. In Yemen, 22.2 million people require humanitarian assistance, including 8.4 million people who are severely food-insecure. In Syria, 13.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, 12.2 million people have been forcibly displaced by the fighting, and 6.3 million people are food-insecure. With regard to South Sudan, 4.3 million people are now either internally displaced or refugees living in neighbouring countries, and 5.1 million people are food-insecure. In South Sudan—as in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali—UN peacekeepers continue to struggle to provide effective protection to civilian populations in complex environments.
The Security Council held its most recent open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict on 25 May 2017. This meeting focused broadly on the protection of civilians agenda, as outlined in the Secretary-General’s report (S/2017/414), and on the implementation of resolution 2286, specifically on the protection of health care in armed conflict, which the Secretary-General is required to brief on annually. (The Secretary-General will address this issue at the debate again this month.) In addition to Council members, 48 other member states participated in the 27 May 2017 debate.
Briefers included Guterres, ICRC Vice President Christine Beerli, and Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Executive Director for Advocacy Bruno Stagno Ugarte. Guterres highlighted three ways to strengthen the protection of civilians in armed conflict: ensuring “greater respect for international humanitarian and human rights law”; protecting health care personnel and facilities in armed conflict; and “prevent[ing[ forced displacement and find[ing] durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced people”. Beerli discussed the difficulties of civilian protection in urban environments, noting that the ICRC “advocates that all parties should avoid using explosive weapons that have a wide-impact area in populated places”. Stagno Ugarte recommended that “the Secretary-General commit to alerting the Council of all future attacks on health-care facilities on an ongoing, rather than an annual basis”, and that the “United Nations system…prioritize the collection of information about such attacks wherever they happen, push States to hold perpetrators responsible and recommend avenues for accountability”.
Since the May 2017 open debate, there have been several thematic discussions relevant to the protection agenda in the Council:
- on 13 June 2017, at the initiative of Bolivia, a meeting was held on a “Comprehensive Approach to Mine Action and Explosive Hazard Threat Mitigation”, featuring briefings from the Assistant Secretary-General for Rule of Law and Security Institutions in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Alexander Zuev, and Nathalie Ochoa Niño, a mine action worker from the UN Mine Action Service in Colombia;
- a meeting on conflict and hunger was convened on 23 March at the initiative of the Netherlands, which featured briefings by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and David Beasley, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), on behalf of the Rome-based agencies WFP, the Food and Agricultural Organization, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development; and
- during the past year, there have also been Arria-formula meetings on attacks on schools (13 October 2017), particularly in relation to the protection of children in armed conflict, and unarmed approaches to the protection of civilians (30 November 2017).
Another notable meeting with regard to the protection agenda, held on 12 October 2017, was the briefing to the Council by the Secretary-General on the risk of famine in four countries—Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen—as called for by the August presidential statement on the issue.
Key Issues and Options
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 conflict-affected countries.
One option is for member states to ensure that their statements focus on how the protection of civilians can be enhanced in country-specific contexts with regard to compliance with international law and accountability, the protection of medical facilities and personnel, and humanitarian access, among other relevant issues.
Another key issue is the need to ensure that there continues to be follow-up and engagement on protection issues in the aftermath of the debate. Capturing concrete proposals in a chair’s summary as proposed by Poland is one option.
An additional possibility could be to produce a presidential statement that:
- emphasises the importance of the Secretary-General using his article 99 powers to inform the Council and provide it with recommendations for action when large-scale attacks on civilians are anticipated or unfolding;
- calls on UN country teams to negotiate commitments from armed non-state actors to adhere to international human rights and humanitarian law;
- 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.
A related option would be to listen to the ideas of Council members and the wider membership during the open debate and to use these ideas to help inform an outcome to be produced in the weeks after the debate.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Council members (and the wider membership) are acutely aware of the devastating impact that armed conflict has had on civilians in recent years, and the debate affords an opportunity to reaffirm commitments to international human rights and humanitarian law in armed conflict situations. At the same time, member states realise that more needs to be done to translate advances at the normative level into effective country-specific strategies.
Political differences among permanent members have hindered the Council’s ability to play an effective role in protecting civilians in some situations on the Council’s agenda, including in Burundi, Syria, and Yemen.
There are further 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 more circumspect about using such measures and emphasise the importance of state sovereignty.
The need to implement resolution 2286 on the protection of health care in armed conflict is an ongoing concern to several member states, both on and off of the Council. Canada and Switzerland currently co-chair an informal group of friends working to implement the resolution. Since the resolution’s adoption, one challenge has been that some of the permanent members of the Council have either been involved in armed conflicts or provide military support to conflict parties in which attacks on health care have been reported.
Some members may also use the opportunity to emphasise their commitment to the Kigali principles, which were articulated in 2015 to provide guidance to peacekeepers regarding the protection of civilians.
The UK is the penholder on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
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 Statement|
|9 August 2017 S/PRST/2017/14||This was on the threat of famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and north-east Nigeria.|
|10 May 2017 S/2017/414||This was the Secretary-General’s report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.|
|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|
|23 March 2018 S/PV.8213||This was a briefing on conflict and hunger in which Netherlands Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag chaired the session.|
|12 October 2017 S/PV.8069||Secretary-General António Guterres briefed the Council on “country-specific impediments to an effective response to the risk of famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria”.|
|13 June 2017 S/PV.7966||This was a briefing on a “Comprehensive Approach to Mine Action and Explosive Hazard Threat Mitigation.”|
|25 May 2017 S/PV.7951||This was an open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.|