Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In May, the Council is scheduled to receive the Secretary-General’s report on protection of civilians and hold an open video teleconference to discuss it in lieu of the annual open debate, which will not be held because of the precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19. Non-Council members are invited to participate by sending their written statements to the Council. All statements, including those from the briefers, will then be published in a compendium prepared by the president of the Security Council that will be posted on the Council’s website and included in the UN electronic document system. Secretary-General António Guterres and ICRC President Peter Maurer are expected to brief. Estonia, as president of the Council, is also planning to invite a civil society participant.
Key Recent Developments
In the 20 years since the Security Council first took up the protection of civilians as a thematic issue, several broad themes have emerged. In its 2019 occasional policy paper, marking 20 years of the Security Council’s engagement on the protection of civilians, OCHA listed these themes as: enhancing respect for international law in the conduct of hostilities, facilitating access to humanitarian assistance and medical care, preventing and responding to forced displacement, according special protection to children affected by armed conflict, protecting women, and combatting conflict-related sexual violence. According to the UN Department of Peace Operations, more than 95 percent of peacekeeping operations now have mandates that include protection of civilians. For example, the AU–UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur offered physical protection to civilians through 4,720 military patrols, including 1,062 visits to villages and 589 visits to camps for internally displaced persons.
The Security Council’s most recent open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict was held on 23 May 2019. The Secretary-General briefed, as is often the case during this annual debate. Other briefers were Maurer and Federico Borello, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, a US-based NGO known as CIVIC.
In his speech, Guterres observed that “the normative framework has been strengthened, [but] compliance has deteriorated”. Maurer criticised the lack of Council action and said that in some cases it has led to the perception of a “free ride” for parties to a conflict to commit atrocities. Borello spoke about the importance of engaging communities in their own protection. He said that “efforts to protect civilians and resolve conflict will more likely succeed if undertaken in full consultation and partnership with civilians and communities”. Following the briefings, more than 80 delegations participated in the meeting, with the foreign minister of Indonesia presiding as Council president.
Since the May 2019 open debate, Council members have held a number of formal and informal meetings on topics involving protection of civilians. On 11 June 2019, the Council held a briefing on missing persons in armed conflict at the initiative of Kuwait as president for the month. Resolution 2474 on this subject was adopted unanimously during the meeting. The briefing and resolution marked the first time the Council addressed the issue of missing persons in armed conflict as a stand-alone subject. One of Kuwait’s main goals was to shift the focus on missing persons from being a post-conflict issue to one that is addressed from the beginning of conflict in order to prevent critical information on the fate or location of the missing from being lost. The resolution also requested that the Secretary-General’s annual report on the protection of civilians include a section on missing persons.
On 20 June, after five months of difficult negotiations, the Council adopted resolution 2475 on the situation of persons with disabilities in armed conflict. This resolution was an initiative of Poland and the UK and had 68 cosponsors. Similarly to resolution 2474, this was the first stand-alone resolution to address a specific aspect of protection of civilians in conflict, in this case the protection of persons with disabilities. It requested the Secretary-General to expand the information currently included in his annual report to have recommendations on issues of relevance to persons with disabilities. It also expressed the Council’s commitment to inviting briefers with disabilities. On 24 June, Equatorial Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa organised an Arria-formula meeting on “Responding effectively to the needs of refugees, displaced persons and returnees: the role of the United Nations Security Council and its members”.
During its August 2019 Council presidency Poland organised several events concerning protection of civilians. On 13 August, the Council had a briefing on “the promotion and strengthening of the rule of law in the maintenance of international peace and security: international humanitarian law”. On 20 August, the Council adopted a presidential statement, drafted by Poland, focusing on international humanitarian law to mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the universally ratified four Geneva Conventions. Poland also organised an open Arria-formula meeting on 22 August on the subject of “advancing the safety and security of persons belonging to religious minorities in armed conflict”.
Most recently, on 21 April, the Council held a briefing on the protection of civilians from hunger during armed conflict at the initiative of the Dominican Republic. Briefers were Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization; David Beasley, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme; and Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council. The Dominican Republic’s Foreign Minister Miguel Vargas presided virtually over the meeting, which was the first VTC meeting under the COVID-19 measures where Council members’ interventions were webcast live and recorded for future viewing.
It has been a practice since the establishment of the informal expert group for protection of civilians in 2009 to hold meetings ahead of every peacekeeping mission and SPM renewal. In these meetings, Council members discuss key protection recommendations from the latest Secretary-General’s reports and receive briefings from experts in the field. While not all Council members attend these informal meetings, those that do find them useful in planning how to move forward in mandate negotiations.
Key Issues and Options
As president of the Council, Estonia hopes to use the meeting as an opportunity to focus on more consistent implementation of this agenda on the ground. They consider this a high-level event and it seems likely the president of Estonia will attend. To this end, Council members and other member states could touch upon the recently adopted resolutions and review implementation of their terms. Members may also speak about the issue in relation to compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law, the gendered aspect of protection of civilians, the protection of medical personnel and facilities, and humanitarian access, among other pertinent matters. It also seems likely that members will discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected protection of civilians.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Council members and the wider membership are likely to use the broad nature of this open debate to highlight a variety of issues, depending on their priorities. By leaving this year’s debate broad, Estonia hopes to have wider engagement on the issue. Member states’ divergences can be seen in what they choose not to bring up, whether it is human rights or the impact of climate change on civilians. In the past year, the negotiations on resolutions 2474 and 2475 have also illuminated differing positions. China and Russia in particular have been cautious on this issue. For example, during last May’s open debate, the Russian ambassador said, “We should not be distracted by the endless identification of new categories of persons who need special protection under international law”. This is a similar position to some other Council members, who worry that having resolutions on different aspects of protection of civilians will lead to a fragmentation of the overall agenda and make it weaker. Some propose that now is the time for implementation of resolutions already adopted, instead of new ones.
The UK is the penholder on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
UN DOCUMENTS ON PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS
|Security Council Resolutions|
|20 June 2019S/RES/2475||The Council unanimously adopted this resolution on protection of persons with disabilities in conflict.|
|11 June 2019S/RES/2474||This was a resolution on persons reported missing during armed conflict.|
|3 May 2016S/RES/2286||This condemned attacks on health care workers and facilities in armed conflict.|
|Security Council Presidential Statements|
|20 August 2019S/PRST/2019/8||A presidential statement where the Council reaffirms the fundamental importance of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions for the protection of those affected by armed conflict.|
|7 May 2019S/2019/373||This was the Secretary-General’s annual report on protection of civilians, which included a section on “missing persons”.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|13 August 2019S/PV.8596||A briefing on “the 70th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions—upholding humanity in modern conflict”.|
|20 June 2019S/PV.8556||The Council unanimously adopted resolution 2475, co-authored by Poland and the UK, which focused on protection of persons with disabilities in conflict.|
|11 June 2019S/PV.8543||The Council unanimously adopted standalone resolution 2474 on persons reported missing during armed conflict.|
|1 May 2019Building a Culture of Protection: 20 Years of Security Council Engagement on the Protection of Civilians||A publication from OCHA summarising the protection of civilians file since 1999.|