What's In Blue

Posted Mon 26 Apr 2021

Protection of Civilians: High-level Open VTC Debate on Protection of Critical Infrastructure*

Tomorrow morning (27 April), the Security Council is expected to hold an open debate via videoconference (VTC) on “Critical Infrastructure: The Protection of Objects Indispensable to the Survival of the Civilian Population” under the protection of civilians agenda item. Viet Nam’s Foreign Minister, Bùi Thanh Sơn, will chair the meeting. The expected briefers are Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, ICRC President Peter Maurer, and Chair of the International Peace Institute Board of Directors Kevin Rudd.

A resolution spearheaded by Viet Nam, which highlights the humanitarian impact of the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, is the expected outcome of the debate. The 24-hour written voting procedure on the draft resolution commenced today (26 April) at 9:30 am and is expected to conclude at 9:30 am tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s Debate

The concept note circulated by Viet Nam ahead of tomorrow’s debate highlights the indirect effects of armed conflict on civilians through attacks on such infrastructure as agricultural assets, drinking water installations and supplies, irrigation works, wastewater management and sanitary systems, energy systems, and medical facilities. The concept note also indicates that more civilians are dying from indirect effects of armed conflict—for example, food insecurity, malnutrition, unmet medical needs, lack of access to safe water and sanitation, or contamination of water—than from violence. According to the concept note, the meeting will serve as “an opportunity to highlight the experiences, challenges and recommendations regarding the protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population in armed conflict, in the context of urbanization, new technologies, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic”.

The concept note outlines several questions that briefers and member states may wish to address in their interventions, which include:

  • What are best practices and examples that can be shared by member states regarding the protection of objects indispensable to the survival of civilian population and the delivery of essential services to civilians in situations of armed conflict?
  • What are policy and practical measures to build the capacity of states to fulfil their obligation to protect the civilian population under their control and to protect objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population?
  • How can the UN system, international and regional organisations, donors, and nongovernmental organisations play an enhanced role in supporting a holistic approach to rehabilitate, build back better and strengthen the resilience of civilian infrastructure and essential services?
  • How can the Security Council better employ its existing tools and mechanisms and play an enhanced role in protecting objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population and preventing the disruption of essential services?

While it is rare for the Council to focus on this issue at the thematic level, the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population has been mentioned numerous times in the Secretary-General’s annual protection of civilians report, in country-specific Security Council resolutions and in connection with other thematic agenda items.

At tomorrow’s meeting, the briefers and several Council members are likely to frame their remarks around accountability and compliance with an enforcement of international humanitarian law. Some speakers and Council members are also likely to condemn the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and echo the Secretary-General’s call for states and all parties to armed conflict to avoid the use of such weapons in populated areas.

Lowcock is likely to raise the issue of conflict and hunger in his statement and refer to resolution 2417, which “recalls the link between armed conflict and violence and conflict-induced food insecurity and the threat of famine”. The resolution also addresses objects that are indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Lowcock may mention regions and countries at risk of famine, such as Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Yemen, the Sahel region, north-east Nigeria, and Burkina Faso.

In his statement at tomorrow’s meeting, Rudd might focus on the long-term impact of armed conflict on development and peace and may provide recommendations for the UN on such issues as prevention and the protection of critical infrastructure in the context of UN peacekeeping operations. He may also note the necessity to engage with all parties to the conflict, including non-state armed groups and the need to encourage cooperation around civilian infrastructure and natural resources.

Some Council members may take stock of the implementation of resolution 2286 of 3 May 2016, which addresses the protection of health care in armed conflict. Some may reference the situation in Syria, where hospitals have been attacked numerous times during a decade of conflict. The most recent attack occurred on 21 March, when a Syrian military artillery strike on the Al Atareb Surgical Hospital in Aleppo governorate killed six patients and injured 16 civilians, including five medical staff. The issue of the implementation of resolution 2286 is likely to feature in the upcoming Secretary-General’s annual protection of civilians report, which will be issued at the beginning of May.

Council members such as Kenya, Norway and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have identified climate change as a priority during their term at the Security Council and are likely to discuss links to climate change and environmental degradation. However, other Council members such as China and Russia have expressed concern about discussing issues relating to climate change at the Security Council.

Negotiations on the Draft Resolution

The draft text in blue condemns attacks against civilians and civilian objects in situations of armed conflict and demands that all parties to conflict cease such practices. It further encourages efforts to protect objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. The draft text stresses the need to facilitate the unhindered delivery and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in areas of armed conflict. It also requests the Secretary-General to include a sub-item on the protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population in his reports on the protection of civilians.

Viet Nam circulated a zero draft of the resolution on 19 April. Council members subsequently held an informal virtual round of negotiations, followed by a series of bilateral discussions. The draft text was placed under silence on Friday (23 April) and passed silence today (26 April).

Members proposed a number of amendments to the initial text. While the draft resolution in blue refers to accountability, it appears that Russia objected to having references to international tribunals and international prosecution. As a compromise, the draft text in blue includes language on violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, without referring to international tribunals and prosecution.

Reference to war crimes also appears to have initially been an issue during negotiations, as India noted that it is not party to the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions (1977). The draft text, however, mentions that the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime. It seems that some Council members such as India and Russia did not agree to a reference to climate change. As a compromise, the draft resolution instead mentions “severe weather events” and their possible impact on the humanitarian situation in armed conflict.


*Post-script: After the meeting on 27 April, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2573. The resolution highlights the humanitarian impact of the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.