What's In Blue

Posted Tue 26 May 2020

Open VTC on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Tomorrow (27 May) Security Council members will hold a high-level open videoconference (VTC) to discuss the Secretary-General’s annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The meeting format is traditionally an open debate. Although Council members will deliver their statements in public, statements from the wider UN membership will be submitted in writing and compiled in a document to be shared at a later date, an adjustment of the Council’s working methods linked to the impact of COVID-19.

Secretary-General António Guterres and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, will provide briefings, as is tradition. Nobel Peace Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—a member of The Elders and the former president of Liberia—will brief as well. The intention is for Sirleaf to give an analysis of the protection of civilians in both conflict and post-conflict contexts, given her experience in Liberia. Johnson Sirleaf is also expected to draw from her experience in dealing with the Ebola epidemic in Liberia to provide insights on how to manage the impact of COVID-19 on civilian populations in conflict and post-conflict settings.

Estonia, as president of the Security Council, circulated a concept note (S/2020/402) on 14 May in preparation for the meeting. The president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, will deliver their statement. The concept note stresses the continued impact of conflict on civilians, including but not limited to forced displacement, damaged and destroyed health facilities, sexual and gender-based violence, and psychological harm. While noting that the Council has been active on this agenda since 1999, the concept note reiterates that implementation remains a challenge. In this regard, it echoes the Secretary-General’s statement from last year’s open debate, when he said, “while the normative framework has been strengthened, compliance has deteriorated”.

The concept note also includes a series of “guiding questions” that Estonia hopes member states will consider in their interventions. The questions include:

  • How can the Security Council, regional organizations and member states strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law by all parties to armed conflict?
  • What are the benefits of national policy frameworks for the protection of civilians and what have been the lessons learned in their development? How can the Security Council assist in the development and implementation of these frameworks?
  • What steps at the national, regional and international levels are necessary to ensure accountability for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law?
  • What are the key challenges to the protection of civilians posed by the COVID-19 pandemic that should be addressed by the Council and member states, as well as all relevant stakeholders?
  • How can the protection needs of women and girls be addressed and how can the full, equal and meaningful participation of women and youth in responding to the pandemic be ensured?

Council members may also wish to respond to the findings of the Secretary-General’s report, which paints a grim picture of the challenges facing civilians in armed conflict. The Secretary-General reported that more than 20,000 civilians had been killed or injured in 2019 as a result of attacks in conflicts in 10 countries alone: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Ukraine, and Yemen. Afghanistan had the highest number of casualties with 10,392. The report notes that in 2019 the World Health Organization documented 1,006 security incidents affecting health care, resulting in 825 casualties across 11 countries and territories. It further notes that over 90 per cent of those killed and injured by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians.

The Secretary-General highlighted several challenges to the protection of civilians, including the need to promote accountability and adherence to international humanitarian and human rights law.  His report offers a number of recommendations to address these challenges, including the following:

  • Continuing to refer to the International Criminal Court situations in which crimes under the jurisdiction of the Court are alleged to have taken place;
  • Insisting that Member States cooperate fully with the International Criminal Court and similar judicial mechanisms;
  • Enforcing such cooperation, as necessary, through targeted measures;
  • Systematically requesting reports on serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law;
  • Mandating commissions of inquiry to examine situations in which concerns exist over such violations, with a view to a view to identifying those responsible and holding them accountable at the national level.

Council members do not have a unified position on using the tools available to them to promote accountability and compliance with international law.  There are, for example, a range of views on the utility of and circumstances under which sanctions should be used.  Similarly, strongly contrasting views colour the Council’s approach to the ICC. EU members and the UK in particular continue to champion the Court’s work at the Council and in other foreign policy venues.  Other members, such as China, Russia, and the US, have a less favourable view of the ICC.

The report also contains information about the impact of COVID-19, and the Secretary-General states in the first paragraph of the report that the virus is “the greatest test that the world has faced since the establishment of the United Nations”. He highlights his 23 March call for a global ceasefire “in order to help create conditions for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, open space for diplomacy and bring hope to those most vulnerable to COVID-19”. The Secretary-General and some member states are expected to echo this call at tomorrow’s meeting, given its very limited implementation by conflict parties on the ground.

Other risks to the protection of civilians are also highlighted in the Secretary-General’s report that will probably be addressed in statements by member states, although there may be differing perceptions of these risks. For example, some member states may commend the inclusion in the report of a section on “civilian suffering compounded by the environmental impact of conflict and climate change”, while others may take the position that climate change and the environmental impact of conflict are not directly relevant to the discussion at hand.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may also be discussed during the meeting.  Some members may note that they can be used as a tool for surveillance and reconnaissance to help peace operations to better understand the challenges faced by civilians, including by the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC. It may also be observed that UAVs can be used for violence and, as noted in the Secretary-General’s report, that enhanced “transparency, oversight and accountability” in their usage would increase “confidence in the adherence to international law, promote common standards to reduce the potential for unlawful acts,…and ensure the provision of more effective protection to civilians”.