What's In Blue

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Annual Open Debate

Tomorrow (25 May), the Security Council will hold its annual open debate on the protection of civilians (PoC) in armed conflict. The expected briefers are OCHA’s Director of the Coordination Division Ramesh Rajasingham, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Director-General Robert Mardini, and Rachel Boketa, Country Director for Women for Women International in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

No Council product is expected in connection with tomorrow’s meeting.

This year’s open debate is expected to focus on the denial of humanitarian access in armed conflicts. The US, May’s Council president, has circulated a concept note to help guide the discussion. It says that although international humanitarian law and other applicable international legal frameworks provide the necessary legal bases to enable humanitarian access and protection of aid workers, these legal principles are often ignored. The concept note urges member states to focus on practical ideas for facilitating better humanitarian access within these legal frameworks at tomorrow’s meeting. It also highlights the importance of facilitating greater accountability, enhancing data collection, and conducting transparent monitoring and reporting to address the denial of humanitarian access.

The concept note proposes several questions for consideration in preparation for tomorrow’s meeting, including:

The Secretary-General’s annual report on PoC in armed conflict, which was issued on 10 May and covers developments from January to December 2021, describes the difficulties that humanitarian operations face in conflict situations. It says that a range of overlapping challenges—including ongoing hostilities, bureaucratic and administrative measures imposed by states, and limitations or conditions on humanitarian activities imposed by conflict parties—have impeded principled humanitarian action in such conflict-affected countries as the Central African Republic (CAR), Ethiopia, and Yemen. The Secretary-General’s report also notes that the spread of misinformation, which is often facilitated by social media, has exposed humanitarian workers to risk of harm and endangered their humanitarian operations. It expresses grave concern about attacks on humanitarian workers and assets: 143 such security incidents were recorded in 14 countries and territories in 2021, resulting in the death of 93 humanitarian workers.

Council members have often raised the issue of humanitarian access in their discussions on different conflict situations, including Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, and Ethiopia. Council dynamics on the issue have often been difficult, as some members—including China and Russia—tend to emphasise the importance of host country consent in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. This has complicated Council deliberations on matters such as the cross-border humanitarian aid delivery mechanism to Syria.

Some briefers and Council members may raise the effects of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian action at tomorrow’s meeting. The Secretary-General’s report emphasises the importance of ensuring that sanctions and counter-terrorism measures do not impede impartial humanitarian activities. In this regard, it welcomes the adoption of resolution 2615 of 22 December 2021, which clarified that humanitarian assistance and other activities that support basic human needs in Afghanistan are not in violation of the financial sanctions applicable to designated individuals and entities associated with the Taliban. The impact of sanctions on humanitarian action has also been a contentious area of discussion among Council members in several other country situations, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Ukraine. On 7 February, Russia organised a debate on the issue, seeking to highlight the need for Security Council-mandated sanctions to avoid adverse humanitarian or socioeconomic effects and unintended consequences.

The deleterious effect of the war in Ukraine on civilians is likely to be a key focus of many members’ interventions at tomorrow’s meeting. The fighting has resulted in significant human costs, including a growing number of civilian casualties and damage to critical civilian infrastructure, such as water and sanitation infrastructure, schools and health facilities. The Secretary-General’s report only briefly mentions the developments in the country since Russia launched its military offensive on 24 February, as they go beyond the scope of the reporting period. At tomorrow’s meeting, Rajasingham is expected to provide more information on the situation and on the UN’s work to secure humanitarian corridors and deliver life-saving assistance in Ukraine.

Mardini and several Council members are expected to emphasise the need for state and non-state actors to respect international humanitarian law and human rights law. Some Council members may also reiterate their support for the promotion of accountability and justice for gross violations of human rights committed by state and non-state actors, including conflict-related sexual violence.

Council members are likely to use tomorrow’s debate to highlight various aspects of the PoC agenda, such as conflict and hunger. This month, the US organised a high-level open debate on conflict and food security to draw attention to the links between these two issues. (For background, see our 18 May What’s in Blue story.) The Secretary-General’s report says that in 2021, around 140 million people faced crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity in 24 states where “conflict and insecurity played a major role in driving hunger”, up from 99.1 million people in 2020.

Another likely area of discussion at tomorrow’s meeting is the conduct of hostilities in urban and other populated areas. This has become a major challenge in light of the devastating effects of urban warfare in some conflict situations, including the war in Ukraine. Norway had prioritised this issue during its January Council presidency and proposed a draft presidential statement which did not garner the necessary consensus because of disagreement on a reference to international humanitarian law.

Some speakers are expected to raise concern about the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The Secretary-General’s report cites several situations where the use of explosive weapons has increased the risks of death and injury for civilians. Several Council members may note in this regard that the war in Ukraine—where most civilian 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—serves as a stark reminder of the harmful effects of the use of these weapons in urban settings.

Council members are also expected to raise the issue of attacks against medical workers, facilities, equipment and transport, which was the focus of last year’s annual PoC open debate. The Secretary-General’s report notes that during the reporting period, 493 healthcare facilities were “destroyed or damaged, affected by armed entry, or used for military purposes” in 17 countries and territories.

Another possible area of discussion is the forced displacement of people, which has been a major challenge across different conflict situations, such as the DRC, Ethiopia, Yemen and Colombia. According to the Secretary-General’s report, there are more than 84 million forcibly displaced people around the world, many of whom are facing serious protection challenges. This is the case in the DRC, for example, where sites hosting internally displaced persons come under repeated attack by armed groups.

Council members may also use the meeting to highlight thematic priorities not generally viewed within the POC normative framework, such as the links between climate change and security. In recent years, the adverse effects of conflict on climate and the environment have been a recurring theme in the Secretary-General’s annual PoC report. The latest report also notes that ongoing military operations, weak governance, disruption and neglect resulting from protracted conflict have affected the environment. Several members which attach importance to addressing climate-related security risks, including the European members of the Council, are expected to raise the issue in their interventions. This has been a controversial issue in the Council, as several Council members have objected to specific language on emerging threats such as climate change in Council products on country-specific issues and on thematic matters such as PoC.

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