Protection of Civilians: Protecting Critical Infrastructure
Expected Council Action
In April, Viet Nam plans to hold an open debate via videoconference (VTC) on “Critical Infrastructure: The Protection of Objects Indispensable to the Survival of the Civilian Population”, as one of the signature events of its presidency. Viet Nam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Pham Binh Minh, is expected to chair the meeting, and Secretary-General António Guterres may brief the Council. Other briefers will include ICRC President Peter Maurer and a representative of the International Peace Institute. The Council may adopt a resolution.
One of Viet Nam’s priorities during its Security Council term (2020-2021) is the protection of civilians and essential infrastructure in conflict areas. The objective of the debate is to consider the current state of the protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Article 54 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions (1977) states: “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population…for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse party”. The prohibition applies to food products, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works. According to article 54, these objects cannot be denied “for whatever motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive”. In the context of the Security Council open debate, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population will include those mentioned in the Geneva Conventions.
While it is rare for the Council to focus on this issue at the thematic level, the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population has been mentioned numerous times in the Secretary-General’s annual protection of civilians report, in country–specific Security Council resolutions and in connection with other thematic agenda items. In a briefing to the Security Council on 27 May 2020, Secretary-General Guterres said that his latest protection of civilians report published that month “showed little progress on the protection of civilians, and on compliance with international law in 2019”. The report noted that direct or indiscriminate attacks by parties to conflict had damaged or destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, markets, places of worship, and essential civilian infrastructure, such as electrical and water systems. He added that protracted armed conflicts undermine efforts to repair and maintain infrastructure such as water facilities, which can also affect the environment and the ecosystem of water resources. In his report, the Secretary-General welcomed the increased attention paid by member states, international organisations and civil society to environmental damage caused by armed conflicts, and mentioned the open Arria-formula meeting held in December 2019 on the “Protection of the Environment during Armed Conflict” hosted by Estonia, Germany, Kuwait, and Peru.
The latest protection of civilians report also indicated that in many situations of conflict, attacks on schools included the burning of facilities and the destruction of school equipment. According to UNICEF, after ten years of war in Syria, one in three schools can no longer be used because they have been destroyed, damaged or are being used for military purposes; such attacks impede long-term development and have an impact on an entire generation’s access to education.
During its presidency of the Security Council in February 2017, Ukraine held an open debate on the protection of critical infrastructure against terrorist attacks, which was a priority issue for the country. The objective of the open debate was to raise awareness about vulnerabilities and the impact of terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure—including international airports, nuclear plants, water supplies, and health facilities—while promoting discussion of preventive measures. At the beginning of the open debate, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 2341 on the protection of critical infrastructure against terrorist threats. A key element of the resolution is enhancing international and regional cooperation to protect critical infrastructure.
Despite the Secretary-General’s appeal for an immediate global ceasefire on 23 March 2020 to fight COVID-19 in conflict-affected countries, conflicts continue to rage across the world. During the April meeting, Council members are likely to reiterate the importance of protecting civilian populations and infrastructure, as well as humanitarian and health workers, medical facilities, and hospitals that continue to come under attack.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS
|Security Council Resolution|
|13 February 2017S/RES/2341||This was a resolution on the protection of critical infrastructure against terrorist threats.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|13 February 2017S/PV.7882||This was a meeting on the protection of critical infrastructure against terrorist attacks.|
|6 May 2020S/2020/366||This was the Secretary-General’s annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.|