Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In May, the Council will hold its annual debate on protection of civilians (POC) in armed conflict via an open videoconference (VTC). Non-Council members are invited to participate and, because of the remote working methods adopted to slow the spread of COVID-19, can submit their statements to the Council. The Council president will then publish a compendium of all submissions on the Council’s website and include it in the UN electronic document system.
Secretary-General António Guterres and ICRC President Peter Maurer, who are the regular briefers for the debate, are expected to brief. China, as Council President during May, may choose to invite additional briefers. Council members are expected to receive the Secretary-General’s annual POC report by 4 May. This year’s open debate will most likely focus on the protection of medical workers, which is expected to be a major feature of this year’s POC report.
Key Recent Developments
The thematic focus of the debate coincides with the five-year anniversary of resolution 2286, which addressed the protection of the wounded or sick, and of medical and humanitarian personnel carrying out medical duties in a conflict setting. It called on parties to armed conflicts to ensure unhindered passage of medical personnel and the safe transport of necessary supplies. The resolution also drew attention to the long-term adverse effects on the local population of attacks on national health care systems and workers. Citing WHO figures, the 2020 report of the Secretary-General on POC referenced 1,006 security incidents affecting health care, 825 of which resulted in casualties. Incidents included destruction of medical facilities, attacks on medical transport, military use of medical facilities, and the removal of medical items from humanitarian convoys. The report further noted that the conflict-related disruption of medical services resulted in thousands of hours lost in providing medical care and medical consultations.
The Secretary-General’s upcoming POC report is also likely to take stock of the status of several related topics, including responses to his March 2020 call for a global ceasefire to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and to allow necessary medical interventions to take place safely. In this context, the report may also explore how the pandemic has affected POC measures. Other topics likely to be featured are the state of protection trends in terms of humanitarian access, the use of explosives in populated areas, counter-terrorism measures in a POC context, and specific country situations.
Council members and the wider UN membership will have just considered the destruction of medical infrastructure, among other issues, during an open high-level debate organised by Viet Nam on 27 April, covering the protection of critical infrastructure in armed conflicts. The debate focused on safeguarding essential civilian objects from direct or indiscriminate attacks on facilities such as homes, schools, places of worship, markets, infrastructure, such as agricultural assets; drinking water installations and supplies; irrigation works; wastewater management and sanitary systems; as well as energy systems, and medical facilities. On the same day, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 2573, condemning attacks against civilians and civilian objects in situations of armed conflict and demanding that all parties to conflict cease such practices; encouraging efforts to protect objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, and stressing the need to facilitate the unhindered delivery and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in areas of armed conflict.
As Council president in March, the US convened a high-level debate on 10 March on conflict and food security, recalling resolution 2417 on conflict-induced food insecurity. The debate centred around the effects of conflict, including displacement; destruction of crops or pastures; destruction of relevant infrastructure; and disruption of local economies, but the resolution also referenced the need to protect medical personnel and humanitarian workers engaged in medical duties.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, briefed the Council on 18 June 2020 on the situation of refugees, covering several country situations, addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on refugee populations, and stressing the need to implement the Global Compact on Refugees. The compact provides guidance to the international community on how to support refugees and meet their needs in ways that benefit them and their host communities.
The last open debate on POC took place on 27 May 2020, organised as a high-level VTC event by Estonia as Council President. In his remarks, Guterres highlighted UN peacekeeping operations as one of the most effective means to protect civilians in conflict situations. Currently, POC is included in the mandates of seven peacekeeping missions.
Key Issues and Options
Since the adoption of resolution 1265 in 1999, an elaborate POC ecosystem has been developed. However, there continues to be a gap between theoretical and practical protection and compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law. The implementation of POC mandates in peace operations and accountability for serious violations also remains an issue. Council members may wish to stress the importance of closing this gap in their statements.
A related issue is the implementation of resolution 2286 and the urgent need to ensure adequate protection of health care services and facilities in a number of issues on the Council’s agenda. Council members may call for more attention to be paid to the obstacles to providing protection in these situations.
Emerging issues include the fragmentation of the agenda as members choose to focus on newer aspects of the protection of civilians in conflict, including persons with disabilities, hunger and conflict, and weapons technology. Many of these issues are relevant in conflict situations on the Council’s agenda, but how to retain a holistic approach to POC across the board, and avoid the uneven distribution of attention and resources, remain an open question. Council members may choose to request the informal working group on POC to take up this issue for further discussion.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Member states are likely to use the debate to highlight their individual protection priorities. While Council members may interpret and highlight some of the newer issues, including climate change and its impact on POC, others may wish to keep within the already-established normative framework.
Some member states may use the debate to draw attention to conflict situations not currently on the formal agenda of the Council. In recent months, some Council and non-Council member states have used thematic debates to make public statements about the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which has hitherto been addressed solely under the agenda item “any other business”.
Member states’ views also diverge regarding the applicability of different frameworks regarding the provision of humanitarian assistance. Resolution 2286 reaffirms “the need for all parties to armed conflict to respect the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence in the provision of humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance”. In recent years, several Council members, in particular China and Russia, have started to emphasise the UN guiding principles for humanitarian assistance adopted by the General Assembly in 1991, which stress state sovereignty and consent of the concerned member state. These increasingly divergent views on the content of humanitarian principles have affected the negotiations of a number of recent Council products, resulting in the inclusion of both approaches to humanitarian principles or, at times, neither.
UN DOCUMENTS ON PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS
|Security Council Resolutions|
|27 April 2021S/RES/2573||The Council unanimously condemned attacks on civilian infrastructure in conflict.|
|20 June 2019S/RES/2475||The Council unanimously adopted this resolution on protection of persons with disabilities in conflict.|
|3 May 2016S/RES/2286||This condemned attacks on health care workers and facilities in armed conflict.|
|6 May 2020S/2020/366||This was the Secretary-General’s annual report on protection of civilians in 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 Letters|
|3 March 2021S/2021/217||This is the concept note for the 11 March 2021 open debate on conflict and food security.|
|21 September 2020S/2020/930||This contained the record of the briefings and statements made during the 17 September videoconference on conflict-induced food insecurity and the risk of famine.|
|14 May 2020S/2020/402||Estonia presented this concept note ahead of the open VTC on protection of civilians, held on 27 May.|