What's In Blue

Posted Mon 24 May 2021

Open Debate via VTC on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Tomorrow afternoon (25 May), the Security Council will hold its annual open debate on the protection of civilians (POC) in armed conflict via videoconference (VTC). The expected briefers are Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Peter Maurer, and Orzala Nemat, Director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU). Statements from non-Council members will be submitted in writing and compiled in a public document to be published at a later date.

This year’s debate is expected to focus on the implementation of resolution 2286 of 3 May 2016, which addresses the protection of health care workers, humanitarian personnel involved in healthcare activities and healthcare facilities. The structure of the debate will reflect this year’s Secretary-General’s report on POC (S/2021/423), which has two sections: one addressing the state of the POC agenda as a whole, and the other on the implementation of resolution 2286. The report was submitted to Council members on 3 May and covers developments from 1 January to 31 December 2020.

The concept note prepared by Council president China ahead of the debate notes that the debate can serve as a platform to draw attention to the global state of the protection of civilians, with a focus on the protection of medical care. It proposes several issues for discussion, including:

  • how the international community can better support the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire in light of the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • how to address the root causes of conflict;
  • how to improve the implementation of resolution 2286 to protect the provision of medical care and facilitate the equitable, safe and unhindered delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine;
  • what are good practices in building capacity of states to better protect their civilian population and to increase the resilience of affected populations; and
  • how to break the cycle of food insecurity and address its multiple drivers.

Lowcock is likely to provide an overview of the key findings of the Secretary-General’s annual POC report. The report notes that civilian casualties were reported in several armed conflict situations, including in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Libya, Mozambique, and Somalia. During 2020, the conflict in Afghanistan resulted in 8,820 civilian casualties; 977 civilian casualties were reported in Yemen; and in Syria, at least 2,095 civilians were killed or wounded.

The report examines drivers and tactics of conflict, which may also be a focus of Lowcock’s briefing. In this regard, high levels of food insecurity have affected at least 99 million persons in 2020; over 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced as at mid-2020; and tens of thousands of children were killed, maimed, subjected to sexual violence, abduction, or recruitment and use during the year (with the highest incidence for those acts reported in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen).

Lowcock may point to empirical research described in the report that suggests that the presence of UN peacekeepers helps to contain conflict and reduce violent acts perpetrated against civilians, while special political missions also play an important role by using their good offices.

At tomorrow’s meeting, several Council members are likely to draw attention to specific country situations that are not currently on the Council’s agenda. For example, several Council members, including Ireland and the US, may raise the situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The Secretary-General’s report referenced the situation in the Tigray region and expressed grave concern over allegations of mass killings, sexual and gender-based violence, destruction and looting, abductions, forced displacement, and forcible returns of refugees amid critical levels of food insecurity and malnutrition.

Some members might discuss the situation in Myanmar, an issue that has faced increased Council scrutiny since the military take-over in early February.  The Secretary-General’s report references Myanmar, noting the challenges to humanitarian access and threats and violence against healthcare workers engaged in COVID-19 response in the country.

The Secretary-General’s report comments on the adverse effects of conflict on climate and the environment, stating that conflict often triggers unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and destruction of installations or structures that cause contamination to land, soil, air, and water. In this respect, Council members may use the meeting to highlight thematic priorities not generally viewed within the POC normative framework. The impact of climate change on security issues is a priority for some, including for the African and European members of the Council and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Members such as Niger and Viet Nam may also express concern over environmental degradation in conflict settings.

Another likely area of discussion at tomorrow’s meeting is the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The Secretary-General’s report highlights the disproportionate impact of such weapons on the civilian population and calls for a political declaration of member states to commit to avoiding their use in populated areas. Work on such a declaration has commenced at the UN in Geneva, spearheaded by Ireland and with the support of several Council members, including Norway.

Resolution 2286, which was adopted unanimously and co-sponsored by over 80 member states, appears to continue to enjoy broad support five years after its 2016 adoption. However, the Secretary-General’s report notes continued attacks against medical personnel, transport and facilities, in a time when medical assistance and already weakened healthcare systems in conflict settings are under additional pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the need to ensure access and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. In 2020, as attacks on medical facilities gravely weakened the functioning of healthcare systems, 182 healthcare workers from 22 countries had reportedly been killed, and healthcare workers faced criminalisation, violence, harassment, and stigmatisation. Faced with these violations, the Council may explore options to improve compliance and increase accountability. While seemingly united in acknowledging the need for the improved implementation of resolution 2286, the Council appears to be divided over the relationship between humanitarian access and state sovereignty. Some members, such as Russia, tend to highlight the importance of host country consent in the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Several Council members are likely to draw attention to the need to strengthen the implementation of the current normative POC framework in specific situations. This includes, for example, improving the rule of law in countries affected by conflict to bring violators to justice and building the capacity of national actors to adhere to international law in conflict situations. Some members may note that unarmed approaches to the protection of civilians by peacekeeping missions can be a useful tool in some cases on the Council’s agenda. This can include conflict resolution activities at the national and local level, capacity building of local protection actors, and sustaining peace through community engagement. In December 2017, Uruguay, Senegal, Sweden, and the UK organised an Arria-formula meeting on unarmed approaches for the protection of civilians. On 24 May, Indonesia, Uruguay and the UK organised a side event on the matter together with the UN Department of Peace Operations.

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