Rule of Law/International Humanitarian Law/Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In April, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is expected to preside over a briefing on strengthening respect for international humanitarian law. The anticipated briefers are International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Peter Maurer, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, and Naz Modirzadeh, founding Director of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict.
The meeting is scheduled to follow an Arria-formula meeting on protecting humanitarian and medical personnel, organised by France earlier on the same day.
Background and Recent Developments
At the end of 2018, the scope of the challenges facing civilians in conflict-affected countries, including several on the Council’s agenda, has remained significant. According to the Global Humanitarian Overview 2019 published by OCHA, at least “2 billion people worldwide live in areas affected by fragility, conflict and violence”. More people are being displaced by conflict than in previous years, with the number of forcibly displaced people rising from 59.5 million in 2014 to 68.5 million in 2017. Natural disasters and climate change also have severe impact, with disasters affecting 350 million people on average each year and causing billions of dollars in damage.
OCHA expects that in 2019, nearly 132 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection, the majority because of the impact of conflict. One clear trend is the current protracted nature of humanitarian crises, with “nearly three-quarters of people targeted to receive assistance in 2018 located in countries that have been affected by a humanitarian crisis for seven years or more.” One such situation, Yemen, significantly worsened in 2018. In 2019, some 24 million people in that country are expected to need humanitarian assistance and protection, making Yemen once again the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to OCHA. In Syria, an estimated 13 million people are likely to require humanitarian assistance and protection in 2019. As the Syria crisis enters its ninth year, there are more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
In addition, the use of siege and the denial of basic humanitarian needs, as form of warfare, have become increasingly common, including in these two countries, with appalling effects. On 24 May 2018, the Council adopted resolution 2417 on the link between armed conflict and food insecurity. The resolution strongly condemned the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, as well as the unlawful denial of humanitarian access, and urged all parties to protect civilian infrastructure critical to the delivery of aid and to ensure the proper functioning of food systems.
On top of the protracted nature of some conflicts with a humanitarian aspect, the environment for humanitarian action has worsened in recent years amid an increasing number of armed conflicts, according to the ICRC. It has noted that the characteristics of these armed conflicts have changed dramatically, a common thread being the increase in the number of parties involved in each conflict. In its report The Roots of Restraint in War, published in June 2018, the ICRC estimated that only one-third of conflicts today are between two belligerents. Almost half of the world’s conflicts involved between three and nine parties, and 22 percent have more than ten belligerents, most of them non-state actors. According to the ICRC, this trend is detrimental to the delivery of humanitarian assistance as ensuring access becomes more complicated, involving armed actors that are uninformed or unwilling to abide by international humanitarian law.
In addition, in certain situations, some of the belligerents may be considered terrorist organisations by the host state or listed as such by the 1267/1989/2253 Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee, complicating humanitarian assistance that requires coordination with such groups in areas under their control.
The Council has addressed this issue repeatedly over the years. In resolution 1502 of 2003, the Council reaffirmed the need to comply with obligations set forth in international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Regulations, related to the protection of humanitarian personnel. It urged those concerned to allow full unimpeded access by humanitarian personnel to all people in need of assistance and to promote the safety, security and freedom of movement of humanitarian personnel. The resolution further expressed the Council’s determination to take appropriate steps in order to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian personnel.
More recently, in resolution 2175 of 2014, it 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. Resolution 2286 of 2016 emphasised the unacceptability of violations of international humanitarian law arising from attacks against humanitarian and medical workers and medical facilities.
Yet despite the existence of legal norms to protect humanitarian workers, they are at greater risk than ever before. Countries such as Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali are particularly dangerous for humanitarian workers while many other conflict areas considered safe in the past are becoming increasingly dangerous for humanitarian efforts. According to the September 2018 Secretary-General’s report to the General Assembly on the safety and security of humanitarian personnel and protection of UN personnel, 60 employees of NGOs working in cooperation with UN were killed from January 2017 to June 2018, 96 were injured, and 113 were abducted, each figure an increase from previous periods. Similarly, as at 18 March, the World Health Organisation had recorded 729 attacks on medical personnel or infrastructure since January 2018, causing 170 deaths and injuring over 900.
The Arria-formula meeting, which is supposed to be attended at the ministerial level, will focus on finding ways to support better implementation of existing obligations under international law and identifying best practices in this regard.
Key Issues and Options
The overarching issue is whether, and how, thematic discussions about the protection of civilians 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 focus greater attention on, and galvanise support for, addressing the needs of civilians in conflict-affected countries.
Another issue is to see if there is a way to take advantage of the important anniversaries coming up in 2019 to strengthen follow-up and engagement on protection issues. The 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions is in August and this year’s annual open debate on protection of civilians (expected in May) will mark the 20th anniversary of including protection of civilians on the Council’s agenda.
Council and Wider Dynamics
There is general awareness among Council members of the devastating impact that armed conflict has had on civilians in recent years. Beyond reaffirming existing commitments under international humanitarian law, Germany and France have initiated this briefing as part of their “twin presidencies” initiative in March and April, to highlight the current negative trends and the need for heightened attention to the issue, and to identify tangible ways of improving implementation of humanitarian obligations.
Despite general agreement on the overarching objective, divisions among members affect discussions and approaches towards the protection of civilians in the context of specific conflicts. The P3 and other members tend to stress accountability measures and sanctions as mechanisms for leveraging compliance with international humanitarian law whereas other members, such as China and Russia, tend to be more circumspect about using such enforcement measures in light of their emphasis on state sovereignty. China, Russia and the US (despite its general support for accountability measures), as well as some other member states, have been particularly reluctant to use the power given to the Security Council in the ICC statute to refer situations to the Court and have pushed to minimise references to the ICC in Council outcomes.
Differences in perspectives have also surfaced with respect to the protection mandate of peace operations. For example, when Russia endorsed the Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping Operations—initiated by the Secretary-General in 2018 and endorsed by 151 member states and four international organisations—it expressed its reservation over the paragraph saying that peacekeeping operations can contribute to international efforts to protect civilians and to promote and protect human rights.
In addition, political differences and alliances with opposing belligerents among Council members, particularly among the P5, have hindered the Council’s ability to play an effective role in protecting civilians in conflicts on the Council’s agenda, including in Syria and Yemen.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS
|Security Council Resolutions|
|3 May 2016S/RES/2286||This condemned attacks on health care workers and facilities in armed conflict.|
|29 August 2014S/RES/2175||This resolution condemned violence and intimidation against those involved in humanitarian operations.|
|26 August 2003S/RES/1502||This resolution condemned all violence against humanitarian and UN and associated personnel, recalled obligations to protect such personnel under international humanitarian, refugee and human rights law, and called for unimpeded humanitarian access.|
|Security Council Letters|
|31 August 2018S/2018/815||This was a letter from Russia addressed to the Secretary-General on the “Declaration of Shared Commitments on United Nations Peacekeeping Operations”.|
|General Assembly Documents|
|28 September 2018A/73/292||This was the report of the Secretary-General titled Safety and security of humanitarian personnel and protection of UN personnel.|