What's In Blue

Posted Wed 22 May 2019

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Open Debate

Tomorrow (23 May), the Security Council will hold its annual open debate on the “Protection of civilians in armed conflict”. The open debate, which will be chaired by Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Retno Marsudi, is expected to be at ministerial level. Secretary-General António Guterres, President of the ICRC Peter Maurer, and Executive Director Federico Borello of the Center for Civilians in Conflict are expected to brief.

Tomorrow’s open debate follows the publication of the Secretary-General’s report on the protection of civilians on 7 May (S/2019/373). The report is divided into four main sections. First, it summarises the main achievements and challenges of the UN in protecting civilians since this issue came on the Council’s agenda 20 years ago. Second, the report reviews the impact of conflict on civilians in several country situations while emphasising the continued relevance of the protection agenda in an era marked by asymmetric warfare and a proliferation of non-state armed groups. Third, it focuses on the central challenge of enhancing respect for the law during the conduct of hostilities. Fourth, the report discusses how the Council and the wider UN membership can strengthen efforts to protect civilians in today’s conflicts. The Secretary-General provides ten recommendations on how to do this.  For the Council, these include, inter-alia, addressing protection concerns in a “systematic, comprehensive and consistent” manner; calling for measures to protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons; and proactively “seeking accountability where progress at the national level is unreasonably slow or non-existent”. With regard to member states, and at the national level, the Secretary-General recommends actions that can be taken: developing national policy frameworks on the protection of civilians, enhancing compliance by non-State armed groups, and promoting compliance through advocacy and accountability.

Indonesia is planning to focus the debate on community engagement as a means of enhancing the protection of civilians. In a concept note circulated ahead of the open debate, Indonesia has suggested ways for Council members and others participating in the open debate to incorporate community engagement in their remarks. The concept note suggests that this debate could re-emphasise and strengthen the importance of the protection of civilians’ agenda in the Council through sharing lessons learned and experiences in promoting the implementation of protection of civilians’ issues and international humanitarian law. Member states are asked to pay particular attention to their experiences with “the involvement of local and affected communities in the design and implementation of a range of tailored, context-specific and effective protection of civilians measures; the Protection of Civilians mandates in Peacekeeping Operations; [and] the mechanisms established by member states to prevent the escalation of armed conflict within their territory.”

The concept note lists several questions that it believes could guide discussion. They include:

  • What examples or best practices can be shared regarding the implementation of the protection of civilians’ agenda at the national level?
  • What practical steps can be taken to promote and strengthen the implementation of the protection of civilians’ agenda?
  • What can Council members do to ensure sufficient coordination across its main working groups and subsidiary bodies on protection-related issues?
  • What good practices and examples can be shared to promote and strengthen the involvement of local communities in the design and implementation of protection of civilians’ measures and mandates?
  • What measures can parties to conflict, the UN and non-governmental organisations adopt to support the promotion and strengthening of the protection of civilians’ agenda and to support the engagement with local communities in the design and implementation of measures towards their own protection?

Indonesia has chosen not to have a formal outcome from this debate, and it seems that this approach was agreeable to most Council members.  It will, however, create a chair’s summary to record the main themes highlighted in the discussion. Since this year marks 20 years since the Council first began discussing this issue, the chair’s summary could be a useful stock-taking tool.

The protection of health care in armed conflict and the link between armed conflict and food insecurity will likely be discussed in the open debate. On 3 May 2016, the Council adopted resolution 2286, which strongly condemned attacks on hospitals and health care workers, and on 24 May 2018, it adopted resolution 2417 which strongly condemned the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, as well as the unlawful denial of humanitarian access. The open debate provides Guterres with an opportunity to update member states on the matters raised in these resolutions, as they both request the Secretary-General to brief the Council on their implementation every twelve months. The protection of medical care in armed conflict was the subject of an open Arria-formula, organised by then-Council member Sweden, in partnership with Belgium, Côte d’Ivoire, France, Germany, and Peru on 20 December 2018.

Another important issue that may be addressed in the meeting is the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on persons with disabilities. On 3 December 2018, Poland, in partnership with Côte d’Ivoire, Germany, Kuwait and Peru, and with the cooperation of OHCHR, UNICEF, and the International Disability Alliance, convened an open Arria-formula meeting on this issue.

Member states may also decide to emphasise how protection can be enhanced in country-specific cases with respect to compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law. Other topics could also include the increased number of attacks on religious sites and the use of explosive weapons and their uneven impact on civilians.

Given that it is the 20th anniversary of the first protection of civilians meeting in the Council, held by Canada during its presidency of the Council in 1999, speakers may take stock of developments on this issue over the past two decades, underscoring that more needs to be done to translate advances at the normative level into effective country-specific strategies.

In addition to the open debate, there are several protection of civilians side events taking place throughout the UN this week, similar to last year, when the protection of civilians open debate was held during Poland’s May 2018 Council presidency. These events focus on the “successes, challenges, and new frontiers” of protecting civilians in UN peacekeeping, the implementation of resolution 2417 on the link between armed conflict and food insecurity, the protection of journalists, and the G5 Sahel Human Rights Compliance Framework, among other issues.