Open Debate: Protection of Civilians
On Tuesday (19 January), the Security Council will hold an open debate on the protection of civilians, which will be chaired by José Luis Cancela, Uruguay’s Vice-Minister for External Relations. UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, International Committee of the Red Cross Vice President Christine Beerli and Oxfam Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor Eveline Rooijmans will brief. Eliasson will cover the elements relevant to the protection of civilians in the June 2015 report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) and the September 2015 follow-up implementation report of the Secretary-General, as well as broader protection concerns underscored in the Secretary-General’s June 2015 report. Beerli is expected to focus her briefing on the difficulties in implementing international humanitarian law in armed conflicts and how to address these difficulties. Rooijmans will emphasise the importance of community engagement in peace operations and underscore the need to implement the arms trade treaty. While an outcome in the form of a resolution or presidential statement is not anticipated, Uruguay may circulate an informal summary of the key points made by member states.
It has been seven months since the Secretary-General’s thematic report on the protection of civilians was released. As none of the Council presidents in the second half of 2015 chose to organise a debate around the report, current Council president Uruguay decided to take it up. This time lag in considering the Secretary-General’s report may explain why the Council requested the Secretary-General to submit his future reports on the protection of civilians in May of each year, for consideration by the Council within the same General Assembly session (i.e., by September). This request was made in its 25 November 2015 presidential statement, which recognised the updated Aide Memoire, a document designed to facilitate the Council’s consideration of protection of civilians language in country-specific situations.
This will be the Council’s first open debate on the protection of civilians as a thematic issue since May 2015, when the Council convened to discuss the protection of journalists during the Lithuanian presidency. The other open debate on this issue in 2015 took place in January under the Chilean presidency, and focused on the protection challenges of women and girls in conflict and post-conflict settings. These debates were constructive discussions on specific elements of the protection agenda. However, as Uruguay noted in a concept paper circulated in preparation for the debate, Tuesday’s meeting will provide an opportunity to more broadly “address core and overarching issues for protection of civilians in armed conflict.”
In its concept paper, Uruguay underscored several of these issues, which largely correspond to challenges highlighted in the Secretary-General’s June report on the protection of civilians. These include, inter-alia, limitations on humanitarian access; attacks on humanitarian and healthcare workers and facilities; displacement; and questions related to the conduct of hostilities (e.g., the Secretary-General’s report discussed at length the impact of explosive weapons on civilians). The paper further argued that the debate will provide an opportunity to restore “the centrality of international humanitarian law to international efforts to protect civilians and in energizing compliance and accountability measures.”
A key element of Tuesday’s meeting will be the ways in which UN peace operations can promote the protection of civilians. In keeping with the findings of the HIPPO report and the Secretary-General’s implementation report, the debate is expected to explore ways in which the Council can exert political leverage to help resolve conflicts where peace operations are deployed, strengthen the capacity of peace operations to fulfill their mandates, and improve dialogue with troop and police-contributing countries (TCCs/PCCs) in an effort to strengthen protection of civilians activities. The need for enhanced communication among the Council, TCCs/PCCs, and the Secretariat for improved mandate implementation was the main focus of the Council’s most recent presidential statement on peace operations, adopted on 31 December 2015.
Members may make the point, consistent with the view expressed in the two reports on peace operations, that protection of civilians is a mission-wide responsibility that extends beyond armed strategies. The HIPPO report, for example, noted that unarmed measures such as human rights monitoring and advocacy, rule of law development, and political engagement should be central to the UN’s protection efforts.
Council members are acutely aware of the devastating impact that armed conflict has had on civilians in recent years. As a result, they realise that more needs to be done to translate advances at the normative level into effective strategies at the country-specific level. However, there are divisions among members regarding the Council’s approach to protecting civilians. These differences have hindered the Council’s ability to protect civilians in South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and other crises. They also affected the negotiations on the 25 November presidential statement, when a permanent member expressed reservations about the revised Aide Memoire, referring in particular to language in the document on small arms, the ICC and sanctions.