Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In May, the Council will hold its annual open debate on the protection of civilians (PoC) in armed conflict. Council members are expected to receive the Secretary-General’s annual PoC report by mid-May.
Key Recent Developments
The last annual debate on PoC in armed conflict was held on 25 May 2021 with a particular focus on the protection of medical care. The meeting coincided with the five-year anniversary of resolution 2286 of 3 May 2016, which addressed the protection of the sick or wounded and of medical and humanitarian personnel carrying out medical duties in a conflict setting. The Secretary-General’s annual report on PoC, which provided updates on the state of protection of medical care in armed conflict five years after the adoption of resolution 2286, formed the basis for discussion.
As Council president in January, Norway convened a high-level open debate on PoC under the theme “Wars in cities: protection of civilians in urban settings”. During the meeting, several speakers highlighted the devastating effect of urban warfare in conflict situations around the world and the need for effective action to end impunity and improve humanitarian response. Norway had sought agreement on a presidential statement as a possible outcome of the debate. However, Russia objected to language in the draft calling on states to take action to ensure the protection of civilians in urban settings, saying that this infringed upon the sovereignty of states and suggesting that the draft text limit itself to agreed language on international humanitarian law. Because of this, the draft could not achieve the necessary consensus to be adopted.
The Secretary-General’s upcoming PoC report is expected to take stock of the status of several related topics, including the state of PoC in armed conflict; the issue of principled humanitarian action and access; the links between PoC and priorities such as the Secretary-General’s Common Agenda, climate change and others; the impact of urban warfare; PoC in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the use of explosives in populated areas. The report is expected to cover the period from January to December 2021 and highlight PoC trends in the context of country situations. In this regard, the situation in Ukraine may be mentioned, but the report is unlikely to provide detailed information on events that occurred after the reporting period. A senior UN official who will brief the Council might reference Ukraine and other country situations to illustrate the current state of PoC in armed conflicts.
The images of civilians killed in Bucha, a Ukrainian town on the outskirts of the capital city Kyiv, which became public following the withdrawal of Russian forces from the area in early April, sparked strong reactions from the UN. In her 4 April statement on the situation in Bucha, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that this raised “serious and disturbing questions about possible war crimes, grave breaches of international humanitarian law and serious violations of international human rights law”. Speaking at the 5 April Security Council meeting on Ukraine, Guterres expressed deep shock at the images of the civilians killed in Bucha and called for an independent investigation to guarantee effective accountability. During a special emergency session on the war in Ukraine on 7 April, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution suspending Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.
On 11 April, the Security Council held a briefing session on Ukraine, during which the impact of the war on women and children was discussed, among other matters. The meeting was prompted by mounting reports of atrocities in the ongoing conflict, including killing and torture of civilians, conflict-related sexual violence and attacks against civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.
Other country situations such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, Mali, and the Sahel are likely to feature in the open debate.
Key Issues and Options
The annual open debate provides the opportunity for Council members and the wider UN membership to discuss PoC as a thematic issue and highlight their priorities in this regard. Council members and others could:
- underscore the need to prevent and address the devastating effect of conflicts on civilians, particularly on vulnerable sections of society such as women and children, and reiterate their call on all parties to conflict, including state and non-state actors, to comply fully with international humanitarian law;
- stress the need to promote accountability and justice for crimes and atrocities committed against civilians and urge a thorough investigation of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law to hold those responsible accountable;
- strongly condemn the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, including schools and medical facilities, and emphasise the need for the full and effective implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions on the protection of civilian infrastructure;
- draw attention to the protection challenge of those displaced by armed conflict and the need to address the increasing concerns over attacks against internally displaced persons’ sites;
- underline the need to respond to the unprecedented number of attacks against humanitarian workers, which has made the delivery of humanitarian assistance extremely difficult; and
- stress the need to address acute food insecurity and prevent famine in conflict situations—which has become a major challenge, particularly considering the developments in some country situations under discussion by the Council, such as Ethiopia and Ukraine—and reaffirm the importance of implementing resolution 2317 on conflict and hunger.
Council and Wider Dynamics
There has been a broad consensus in the Council on the concept of PoC, but differences are emerging over some aspects of the agenda, and discussions may also be affected by the difficult Council dynamics around the situation in Ukraine. There also seems to be concern that May’s open debate, intended as a thematic discussion that allows member states to reaffirm their commitment to the PoC agenda, could be overshadowed by a particular focus on the situation in Ukraine.
During the annual open debate, some Council members tend to highlight their particular protection priorities. However, Council members such as Russia have argued that this can lead to the fragmentation of the PoC agenda. PoC has been a major priority for Ireland and Norway. Norway has highlighted attacks against schools and the impact of urban warfare, while Ireland has focused on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Other members have drawn attention to PoC in peacekeeping and the issue of accountability, and the impact of gender-based violence as well as conflict and hunger. Kenya has raised the issue of sanctions and their humanitarian implications in discussions on the situation in Ukraine.
There have been sharp disagreements over how humanitarian principles should be referenced in Council products related to PoC. Resolution 2286, adopted in May 2016, reaffirmed “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, however, China and Russia have insisted on including reference to 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 divisions have affected the negotiations of several recent Council products.
Council members remain divided over other aspects related to the PoC agenda, including accountability mechanisms and emerging threats to peace and security. Russia has previously objected to including references to international tribunals and international prosecution in PoC-related Council products. Several Council members have also objected to specific language on emerging threats, such as climate change, in PoC products.
UN DOCUMENTS ON PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS
|Security Council Resolution|
|27 April 2021S/RES/2573||The Council unanimously condemned attacks on civilian infrastructure in conflict.|
|3 May 2021S/2021/423||This was the latest report of the Secretary-General on protection of civilians.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|25 January 2022S/PV.8953||This was the open debate on protection of civilians in armed conflict.|