Ukraine: Briefing on Humanitarian Developments*
This afternoon (17 March), the Security Council will hold a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. The meeting was requested by Albania, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, Assistant High Commissioner for Operations at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Raouf Mazou, and Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus are expected to brief. Ukraine is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.
This will be the fifth time that the Council has held a briefing on the situation in Ukraine since Russia launched its military assault on 24 February. Previous meetings addressed the humanitarian situation (on 28 February and 7 March), the safety of nuclear sites (on 4 March), and allegations about military biological activities (on 11 March). (For more information, see our 5 March and 11 March What’s in Blue stories.) In addition, developments in Ukraine were a significant focus of the 14 March briefing on the activities of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). (For more information, see our 13 March What’s in Blue story.)
Three weeks into Russia’s military offensive, Ukraine faces a dire humanitarian crisis. Intensified attacks have led to a surge in casualties and humanitarian needs across the country. As at 15 March, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had documented 1,900 civilian casualties, including 726 deaths, while noting that true figures are likely to be considerably higher, as many reported casualties have yet to be confirmed. Most casualties have been attributed to the use of explosive weapons with a wide-impact area, such as shelling from heavy artillery, the use of multiple rocket launch systems, and air attacks.
According to media reports, Russian forces have increasingly relied on long-range artillery and other forms of shelling and bombardment to circumvent Ukraine’s entrenched defences. At the 14 March OSCE briefing, DiCarlo cited credible reports received by OHCHR of Russian forces using cluster munitions, including in populated areas.
According to a 16 March OCHA humanitarian impact situation report, heavy fighting in major cities such as Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv, and Mykolaiv, as well as in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, has left hundreds of thousands of people without water and electricity. Food and medical supplies have become particularly depleted in cities under heavy bombardment, such as Mariupol and Volnovakha. A growing number of people have been left stranded in cities under siege, as breached ceasefires and repeated delays in establishing safe passage corridors have impeded mass evacuations in certain areas.
OCHA estimates that over 350,000 people remain trapped in Mariupol, despite a 15 March evacuation corridor that allowed roughly 20,000 people to flee the city. Yesterday (16 March), Russian forces bombed a theatre in Mariupol where hundreds of civilians were taking shelter. Following the incident, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said that many civilians were trapped under the debris, and accused Russia of committing “another war crime”.
Since the conflict erupted on 24 February, two million people have been internally displaced and three million people—nearly half of whom are children—have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries.
Russian and Ukrainian delegations continue holding virtual talks aimed at finding a negotiated solution to the crisis. According to media reports, the sides discussed a 15-point plan on 14 March. The plan reportedly contains guarantees on Ukraine’s neutral status, including a pledge that it would not seek NATO membership or host foreign military bases or weaponry within its territory, in exchange for security guarantees from Ukraine’s allies, including Turkey, the UK and the US. Following the 14 March meeting, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said that there are “specific wordings that are close to being agreed”.
At today’s briefing, DiCarlo is expected to reiterate the UN’s call for an immediate ceasefire. She is likely to commend both parties for their continued diplomatic engagement and for securing recently brokered temporary humanitarian pauses. Noting the high human costs of the conflict, DiCarlo may stress that indiscriminate attacks, including the use of cluster munitions, are prohibited under international humanitarian law. She is also expected to provide an update on the UN’s humanitarian efforts in the country and urge member states to contribute to the Ukraine Flash Appeal, which was launched on 1 March by Secretary-General António Guterres to address the most urgent humanitarian needs in Ukraine.
Mazou is expected to provide an overview of the situation facing the two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and three million refugees that have fled Ukraine since the fighting began. In this regard, he may praise Ukraine’s neighbouring countries for receiving Ukrainian citizens and foreign nationals fleeing the conflict. According to UNHCR, Poland has received over 1.8 million refugees—a number equal to the population of its capital, Warsaw.
Council members may be interested in hearing more about the work carried out by UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations to support refugees upon their arrival in host countries and ensure their safety. At a 14 March press briefing, Guterres noted that “for predators and human traffickers, war is not a tragedy” but rather an opportunity, and “women and children are the targets”. Council members may also wish to learn from Mazou about UNHCR’s efforts aimed at ensuring the safe passage of foreign nationals. Thus far, over 157,000 third-country nationals have fled Ukraine.
Tedros is expected to highlight the effects of the conflict on medical services and access to those services in Ukraine and call on all parties to respect international humanitarian law, including the protection of medical personnel and critical infrastructure. Since 24 February, the WHO’s Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care (SSA) has documented 49 attacks on healthcare facilities. As at 11 March, the WHO had verified 46 casualties, including 12 deaths, related to such attacks. On 9 March, Tedros stressed that “these attacks deprive whole communities of health care”. In this regard, he is likely to emphasise today that supply chains have been severely disrupted and that several stockpiles remain inaccessible because of the ongoing fighting. He may also note that medical supplies are running low and that hospitals are struggling to provide adequate care to those in need of medical assistance. Tedros is also expected to outline the WHO’s efforts to provide support to the healthcare systems of refugee hosting countries.
Several Council members are expected to reiterate calls for the immediate cessation of hostilities, the protection of civilians and humanitarian and medical personnel, and safe and unfettered humanitarian access. Some members are likely to condemn Russia’s invasion as the principal source of the humanitarian crisis. On the other hand, Russia is likely to question reports of civilian casualties and damage to healthcare facilities resulting from its military operations. It is also expected to urge Council members not to politicise the humanitarian crisis.
Many Council members may raise concerns over the effects of the conflict on food insecurity and on the global economy. According to a 16 March UNDP report, the conflict in Ukraine risks reducing 90 percent of the Ukrainian population to poverty, reversing almost two decades of socio-economic progress in the country and region. At the 14 March press briefing, Guterres noted that 45 African and least-developed countries import at least a third of their wheat from Ukraine or Russia, and warned that “we must do everything possible to avert a hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system”. The conflict will affect the global economy, he said, “especially in the developing world”, as food, fuel and fertilizer prices increase, supply chains are disrupted, and the costs and delays of transportation of imported goods reach record levels.
For two weeks up until Monday (14 March), Council members had been negotiating a draft Security Council resolution proposed by France and Mexico on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. Members expressed sharply divided views on the proposed text. It seems that while many members underlined the need for the text explicitly to reference Russia’s role in bringing about the humanitarian crisis and call for a ceasefire, Moscow strongly opposed such references. On 14 March, France and Mexico announced that they would instead pursue a General Assembly resolution addressing the humanitarian situation in Ukraine.
On Tuesday (15 March), Russia placed in blue its own draft resolution on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, which is expected to be voted on tomorrow morning (18 March).*
*Post-script (18 March): On Thursday (17 March) afternoon, after the publication of the story, Russia announced that a vote on its draft resolution will not take place on Friday (18 March). At the time of writing, it was unknown when a vote on the Russian draft resolution may take place.