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Ministerial-level Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Tomorrow (25 May), the Security Council will hold a ministerial-level open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The meeting is expected to focus broadly on the protection of civilians agenda, as outlined in the Secretary-General’s recent report (S/2017/414), as well as on the implementation of resolution 2286, specifically on the protection of health care in armed conflict, which the Secretary-General is now required to brief on annually. Uruguayan Minister of Foreign Affairs Rodolfo Nin Novoa is expected to preside. Briefers will include Secretary-General António Guterres; Vice President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Christine Beerli; and Deputy Executive Director for Advocacy of Human Rights Watch Bruno Stagno Ugarte. Following the debate, Uruguay is expected to prepare a summary of the interventions by the briefers and by member states.

Briefers will most likely combine an analysis of the broader protection issues addressed in the Secretary-General’s report and the implementation of resolution 2286 in their interventions. According to a concept note circulated by Uruguay, member states are invited to place the issue of the protection of health care in “a broader context, connecting it to overarching PoC issues and to a forward-looking PoC agenda, based on the Secretary-General’s PoC report.”

Guterres will most likely highlight the three main protection priorities he outlined in his report: enhancing respect for international law and promoting good practices by parties to conflict; protecting the humanitarian and medical mission and according priority to the protection of civilians in UN peace operations; and preventing forced displacement and pursuing durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced persons. Regarding the implementation of resolution 2286, Guterres may note that attacks on health care personnel and facilities have continued at a high rate, while outlining measures that are being taken to address this problem. He might elaborate on his vision for protecting civilians. In his report, Guterres calls for “a unified effort to prevent crisis and protect civilians in conflict throughout all aspects of United Nations work,” maintaining that this will require coordinated effort throughout the UN system.

Beerli is likely to emphasise the obligation of states to ensure respect for international humanitarian law in armed conflict, including in relation to the protection of health care in armed conflict. A key point of the Secretary-General’s report that Beerli might highlight is the high incidence of armed conflict in urban areas and the toll that this fighting, including through the use of explosive weapons, is taking on civilian populations. As the Secretary-General notes in his report, and as Beerli may reiterate, urban warfare not only causes immediate civilian casualties, but damages civilian infrastructure such as schools, water and sanitation systems, and hospitals—thus having a deleterious long-term impact on civilians.

Stagno Ugarte may emphasise the importance of the use of Article 99 of the UN Charter in preventing the outbreak of deadly conflict. It is possible that he may underscore the need to more firmly integrate the Human Rights up Front Action Plan into the UN’s work, with its main purpose of ensuring that the UN system does everything in its power to prevent serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law through early coordinated information-sharing and action. Stagno Urgarte may further address the lack of accountability for attacks on health care personnel and facilities.

Council members are acutely aware that more needs to be done to translate advances at the normative level into more effective country-specific measures to protect civilians. However, there are divisions among members regarding the Council’s approach to this issue. Some members, including the P3 and others, tend to advocate accountability measures and sanctions as mechanisms for leveraging compliance from conflict parties to conform with international humanitarian law. By contrast, other members, such as China and Russia, among others, tend to question the effectiveness of such measures and stress the importance of state sovereignty.

The tension regarding the Council’s approach to protection issues has been manifested with regard to then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recommendations on the implementation of resolution 2286, circulated in August 2016 (S/2016/722). While several members are supportive of the recommendations, one controversial issue to some members was the reference to the ICC as an accountability mechanism to prosecute violations of international law in cases where health care is targeted, if national accountability mechanisms are inadequate or insufficient.

Council members remain supportive of resolution 2286. However, a challenge for the implementation of the resolution is the difficult geopolitical environment reflected in Council dynamics. Several permanent members are associated with coalitions responsible for attacks on health care facilities during the past year.

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