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Presidential Statement on International Humanitarian Law

This afternoon (20 August), the Council is set to adopt a presidential statement drafted by Poland, focusing on international humanitarian law. This is to mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the universally ratified four Geneva Conventions, which regulate the conduct of armed conflict and are considered the cornerstone of international humanitarian law. At first, some Council members questioned the added value of such a statement; however, Poland was of the view that it is important for the Council to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, to support their relevance in armed conflict today, and to unanimously stress the importance of full implementation of international humanitarian law.  Several other members shared this view.

From the outset, Poland intended the presidential statement to be concise and strictly focused on international humanitarian law, an issue the Council has pronounced itself on many times in the past. The short presidential statement consists of five paragraphs and builds mainly on previously agreed language. Nevertheless, negotiations lasted several weeks, and the initial attempt to adopt the statement during the 13 August briefing on “the 70th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions – upholding humanity in modern conflict”, presided over by Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, failed due to a lack of consensus (S/PV.8985).

The main issue of contention throughout the negotiations revolved around references to upholding accountability for grave violations of international humanitarian law.  The final version maintains text from the draft put under silence before the 13 August briefing recalling that, under the Geneva Conventions, states have an obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed grave breaches of these Conventions, and to try them before their own courts, or hand them over for trial to another state, regardless of their nationality.

Other language on accountability did not make it into the final draft, however.  The text put under silence prior to the 13 August briefing recalled the responsibility of states to comply with their respective obligations to end impunity and to investigate and prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or other serious violations of international humanitarian law, and noted that the fight against impunity for the most severe crimes of international concern committed against civilians has been strengthened through the work of international and mixed tribunals, as well as of specialised chambers in national tribunals. Russia broke silence on this part. Despite similar text in resolution 2467 of 23 April on sexual violence in conflict, Russia was of the view that language agreed in one particular context is not necessarily applicable in other contexts. It argued that adopting similar language in the more general context of international humanitarian law expands the scope of the text and the message sent by the Security Council.

Thereafter, further attempts were made to find agreement among all Council members, although some expressed concern that the manner in which the Council was watering down the text would take its position on accountability a step backwards. Eventually, after further attempts at compromise, the agreed presidential statement omits the text under controversy in its entirety.

At the same time, language on accountability and compliance with international humanitarian law was strengthened in other places. Language was added elsewhere to the final text recalling the importance of ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law, ending impunity for violations and abuses, and ensuring accountability. In addition, the presidential statement reaffirms the Council’s strong condemnation of violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to armed conflict, as well as violations and abuses of international human rights law, as applicable, and calls upon all parties to comply with their legal obligations.

On top of addressing accountability, the statement reaffirms the fundamental importance of the Geneva Conventions and recalls the Council’s primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. In this context, it states the need to promote respect for the rules and principles of international humanitarian law, including with respect to the protection of civilians in armed conflict, as well as to address underlying root causes of armed conflicts through dialogue, mediation, consultations and political negotiations.

The statement expresses grave concern about situations where international humanitarian law is not being adhered to, including through indiscriminate attacks and attacks that target civilians and civilian objects such as schools. It also condemns other violations of international humanitarian law.  In this regard, it refers to the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare; the unlawful denial of access to humanitarian assistance and humanitarian personnel; and attacks on medical staff and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, hospitals, and other medical facilities entitled to protection under international humanitarian law.


Adopted on 12 August 1949, the Geneva Conventions established protections for vulnerable groups in armed conflict—the wounded and sick on land and at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians, including civilians living under occupation. The Conventions have been followed up with three additional protocols which are not universally ratified: Protocol I relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (1977); Protocol II relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (1977); and Protocol III, the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem (2005).

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the inclusion of protection of civilians as an item on the Council’s agenda and of the adoption of resolution 1265 of 17 September 1999, the Council’s first resolution on the protection of civilians, which expressed the Council’s deep concern at the erosion of respect for international humanitarian law during armed conflict.

The Council has since reiterated many times the importance of adherence to international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians, and their relevance to the maintenance of international peace and security. The concept note circulated by Poland ahead of the 13 August briefing recalls recent related Council meetings, such as the open debate on upholding international law of 17 May 2018 (S/PV.8262), the briefing on safeguarding humanitarian space of 1 April 2019 (S/PV.8499), and the annual debate on protection of civilians of 23 May 2019 (S/PV.8534).

Briefers at the 13 August meeting were the Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, UN Legal Counsel Miguel de Serpa Soares; ICRC President Peter Maurer (via video teleconference); and Dr Annyssa Bellal, senior research fellow and strategic adviser on international humanitarian law at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.

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