What's In Blue

Posted Thu 29 Jan 2015

Protection of Civilians Open Debate Focused on Women and Girls

Tomorrow morning (30 January), the Security Council is scheduled to hold an open debate on the protection of civilians with a particular focus on the protection challenges of women and girls in conflict and post-conflict settings. Expected briefers include a high-level representative from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Director of International Law and Policy for the International Committee of the Red Cross Helen Durham, and Ilwad Elman, a Somali women’s rights activist. No Council product is anticipated. The debate had originally been planned for 27 January, but was postponed because of inclement weather. (As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was scheduled to brief on the 27th, is unavailable for tomorrow’s debate due to travel, OCHA was asked to brief instead.)

Chile has circulated a concept paper in preparation for the debate that outlines a series of objectives for the discussion. It emphasises that the debate will provide an opportunity to exchange views on how to implement international humanitarian law more consistently and combat the impact of violent extremism, particularly with regard to the impact of these challenges on women and girls. It also notes that the meeting will offer a chance to discuss how to ensure that women’s empowerment plays an integral role in efforts to address the protection needs and threats facing women and girls in conflict settings. Among the areas covered in the concept paper that may be taken up by members during the debate is how to integrate the protection concerns and needs of women and girls into the various UN reviews (i.e: those on peacekeeping, peacebuilding, sanctions, the protection cluster, and the implementation of resolution 1325). The paper also suggests that the discussion could include consideration of how to promote gender balance in appointments to groups of experts of sanctions committees and how to expand relevant sanctions designation criteria to include gross violations of the rights of women and girls and attacks against women and girls. In addition it suggests that ensuring more consistent participation of women and girls in conflict prevention and resolution in cases on the Council’s agenda may be an issue worth considering.

Among Council members, there is widespread understanding of the importance of addressing the protection needs and challenges of women and girls in conflict and post-conflict situations. As the Council recognised in its 28 October 2014 presidential statement (S/PRST/2014/21), internally displaced and refugee girls and women are at heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence, as violent extremists often targets girls and women through abductions, hostage-taking, rape, human trafficking and sexual slavery. In an era in which displacement is at its highest level since the end of World War II and in which violent extremism is having a devastating impact on populations in Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Syria and elsewhere, the focus of tomorrow’s discussion is highly relevant to the current international security environment. On the other hand, it seems that some members believe that the topic of debate, while important, may have been more relevant to the “Women, Peace and Security” agenda, particularly with regard to issues such as gender equality and women’s participation in conflict resolution. While the focus of the discussion will be on the protection challenges of women and girls, it is also possible that there may be some reference in the debate to the relevance of the current review of peacekeeping operations or the “Human Rights Up Front” initiative to the broader protection of civilians’ agenda. With regard to peace operations, some members may also raise the issue of how the Council could provide better guidance to Council-mandated peacekeeping and political missions to enhance the protection of women and girls on the ground.

Tomorrow’s open debate is the first one on protection of civilians since 12 February 2014, nearly one year ago. This is noteworthy because these debates are typically held twice a year, although other relevant protection topics were discussed in different meeting formats in 2014. (For example, the Council held an Arria-formula meeting on 30 May 2014 on the protection of internally displaced persons, a briefing on the prevention and fight against genocide on 16 April in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, and a briefing on the protection of humanitarian workers on 19 August 2014 to mark World Humanitarian Day.)

Tomorrow also represents a departure from the standard practice of having the High Commissioner for Human Rights (or another high-level UN human rights representative) brief; a UN human rights official has addressed the Council in every protection of civilians open debate since November 2009. It appears that some members would have welcomed having the High Commissioner (or the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights) among the briefers. On the other hand, before the postponement of the debate (i.e. when Ban was among the scheduled briefers), it had been argued by some Council members that, as the highest-level UN official, the Secretary-General speaks on behalf of the entire UN system and that his presence would add importance and weight to the proceedings.

While great progress has been made on the normative front with regard to the Council’s work on protection of civilians in recent years, fundamental fault lines continue to divide the Council on this agenda item, particularly in some instances at the country-specific level. Some members, notably China and Russia, emphasise the need to respect national sovereignty as an element in any decision to ensure civilian protection and therefore are generally reluctant to authorise measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, such as sanctions. Others give less weight to the sovereignty argument and thus have a lower threshold for determining when the Council should act to protect civilians. This divide has undermined Council efforts to protect civilians in South Sudan, Sudan and Syria, among other cases.