Research Report

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

This is Security Council Report’s sixth Cross-Cutting Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, continuing a series that began with the publication of our first report on the subject in 2008.The entire report can be downloaded in PDF.

The purpose of these reports is to systematically track Security Council involvement in the protection of civilians over the years since this first emerged as a separate thematic agenda item in 1999. The present report covers relevant developments at the thematic level since our May 2012 Cross-Cutting Report and analyses Council action in country-specific situations relating to the protection of civilians, with a special focus on Sudan. It also discusses Council dynamics and outlines some possible options that could help strengthen the Council’s work on this important thematic issue. One of the main conclusions of the report is that a stronger focus is needed on effective follow-up of Council decisions and implementation on the ground of the existing normative framework.

Summary and Conclusions

During the period covered by this report, the Council continued to grapple with a number of serious protection challenges in situations on its agenda, with mixed results. While the Council was able to respond to the crisis in Mali to stabilise the situation there and prevent further attacks against civilians, it remained deadlocked over the situation in Syria, where the killing of civilians continued unabated. (On the humanitarian front, there was some progress this year with the 2 October adoption of a presidential statement on humanitarian access, but its impact on the situation on the ground has so far been limited.) Divisions among Council members also hampered an effective response to continuing protection concerns in Sudan and South Sudan. In other cases, including Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia, the Council was fairly united, but even so, its impact on the ground was sometimes limited. Most recently, the situation in the Central African Republic has emerged as a key protection challenge that the Council is just starting to address seriously. Overall, there continued to be a significant gap between what the Council has committed itself to do in its thematic decisions on the protection of civilians and what it is actually able to do when faced with concrete protection challenges in country-specific situations.

At the thematic level, Council outcomes related to the protection of civilians continued to focus on women- and children-specific issues. The Council adopted a presidential statement (S/PRST/2013/8) and resolution (S/RES/2068) on children and armed conflict and a presidential statement (S/PRST/2012/23) and two resolutions (S/RES/2106 and S/RES/2122) on women, peace and security. The only thematic decision on the protection of civilians was a presidential statement adopted on 12 February (S/PRST/2013/2). In the open debates on the protection of civilians, there was an attempt to limit the scope of the discussions to focus on a more clearly defined set of key protection issues than had been the practice in the past. Both the Republic of Korea, in February, and Argentina, in August, circulated concept notes ahead of the debates they chaired, inviting Council members and other speakers to address such specific issues as accountability and implementation of peacekeeping protection mandates. It was not clear, however, how much impact this had on the discussions.

Other relevant developments at the thematic level included an open debate on 17 October 2012 on the Council’s relations with the International Criminal Court (ICC), under the agenda item justice and the rule of law. On 17 July 2013, the first open debate on the protection of journalists in armed conflict took place. The Council had not considered this issue separately since the adoption of resolution 1738 (2006) on the protection of journalists. There was no outcome in either of these cases, however.

At the country-specific level, our analysis shows that the Council continued to systematically include protection provisions in relevant resolutions and presidential statements adopted over the course of 2012, but for the most part it repeated language from the previous year. There were no significant changes in the protection mandates of existing Council-authorised missions. In 2013, the Council established a new peacekeeping operation with a mandate to protect civilians from physical violence, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali. There are now nine missions with such a mandate. (Please refer to Annex III in the full report for a complete list of these missions and their protection-related mandates.) With regard to the Secretary-General’s reporting on implementation of protection mandates, we found that the Council’s request for benchmarks and indicators to measure progress has not yet been fully implemented.

The Council continued to use targeted sanctions against individuals or groups found to have committed violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, but the practice was inconsistent. In 2012, the 1533 DRC Sanctions Committee listed an additional four individuals and two entities for targeted sanctions based on violations against civilians. These were the only such designations made in 2012, however, despite widespread reports of violations against civilians in other situations where the Council has also imposed sanctions targeting violations against civilians, most notably in Darfur. At press time, no designations related to violations against civilians had been made in 2013.

As a case study, this time we decided to focus on Council action related to Sudan. In particular, we wanted to look specifically at what the Council has done to address the five core protection challenges identified by the Secretary-General in his most recent reports on the protection of civilians, all of which are relevant here: enhancing compliance with applicable international law, enhancing compliance by non-state armed groups, strengthening protection by UN peacekeeping and other missions, ensuring humanitarian access and promoting accountability. We also wanted to assess whether the Council’s approach to the protection of civilians had evolved over time to reflect commitments made at the thematic level.

Our case study finds that the Council initially used all the right tools to strengthen the protection of civilians in Darfur, including referring the situation to the ICC, mandating an international commission of inquiry, imposing targeted sanctions against those responsible for violations against civilians and establishing a peacekeeping operation with a protection mandate. At the same time, however, due to divisions among its members, the Council has been unable to agree on effective follow-up measures to ensure implementation of its decisions. The Council’s effectiveness has also suffered from the absence of a coherent strategy. Concerted efforts to strengthen implementation of the protection mandate of the AU-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur seem to have been undermined by the Council’s failure to act decisively to ensure compliance and promote accountability. More generally, our analysis of Council action in Sudan demonstrates how fundamental differences over national-sovereignty issues continue to hamper the Council’s ability to deal effectively with protection challenges.

The final section of the report presents a list of options for consideration by the Security Council. A constant theme in recent Council debates and other discussions on the protection of civilians has been that the real challenge does not so much lie in developing the normative framework, but rather in ensuring that existing norms are implemented on the ground. When looking ahead at possible options for the Council, we therefore decided to focus on what the Council can do to strengthen its ability to monitor progress on the ground and make sure that parties to conflict comply with their obligations to protect civilians, highlighting in particular the role of its informal expert group on the protection of civilians. Bearing in mind also the importance of political consensus for the Council to be able to act effectively, we suggest some mechanisms that might allow the Council to overcome traditional divisions among its members.