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Ukraine: Briefing on Humanitarian Developments

Tomorrow (6 December), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on the situation in Ukraine. The meeting, which was requested by France and Mexico, will focus on the humanitarian situation and the effects of the war on children. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths is expected to brief. A UNICEF representative may brief as well. Ukraine and some of its neighbouring countries are expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Tomorrow’s briefing will take place against the backdrop of nearly weekly Russian air and missile attacks targeting critical infrastructure across Ukraine, a strategy that Russia has continued to employ since 10 October. The latest wave of Russian air strikes across Ukraine was reported this morning (5 December) by Ukrainian authorities. At the time of writing, the extent of damage or casualties caused by this morning’s attacks had not been reported.

Russia’s attacks have significantly damaged Ukraine’s power grid, triggering massive blackouts, telephone and internet outages, and a reduction in water supplies throughout the country. The situation has been particularly critical in the west and in Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv. The effects of the attacks on civilians have been compounded by the arrival of winter and temperatures below freezing, which have brought a new dimension to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, according to a 29 November OCHA situation report.

Russian missile attacks have also severely affected healthcare in Ukraine. As at 5 December, the World Health Organization (WHO) had documented 715 attacks on healthcare facilities since the start of the war, accounting for approximately 71 percent of all such attacks reported worldwide since 24 February. The WHO has also verified 229 casualties, including 100 deaths, related to these incidents. Moreover, attacks on transport and energy infrastructure have restricted patients’ mobility, limiting the civilian population’s access to medical services.

The war’s devastating impact on children is an expected focus of tomorrow’s meeting. At a 2 December press conference, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine Erik Møse said that “the spectrum of [children’s] endangered rights is constantly multiplying” and that “in addition to documented cases of violations to the personal integrity of children…children are facing challenges accessing education”. Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science has reported that as at 3 December, 2,789 education facilities across the country had been damaged, and 337 of them destroyed, as a result of bombing and shelling. In addition, power outages resulting from Russian missile attacks have limited the effectiveness of Ukraine’s online education system, established in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At tomorrow’s briefing, Griffiths is expected to provide an overview of the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, while UNICEF (if it participates tomorrow) may focus on the deleterious effects of the war on children. The briefing is likely to reiterate the UN’s position condemning Russia’s air attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and demanding that Russia immediately cease these actions. Griffiths may note that Russian missile attacks continue to impede the capacity of humanitarian agencies to provide aid to civilians, particularly in areas close to the front line.

Several Council members—including Albania, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US—are expected to condemn Russia for violating international humanitarian law, including for its attacks on civilian infrastructure. Article 54 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions prohibits attacks on objects indispensable to the survival of civilians. On 27 April 2021, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2573, which highlights the humanitarian effects resulting from the destruction of critical civilian infrastructure and condemns such attacks in situations of armed conflict.

Some of these members may also suggest that Russia’s attacks amount to acts of terror and may constitute war crimes. On 23 November, the European Parliament designated Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. Some European members may recall that on 13 February 2017, during Ukraine’s presidency of the Security Council, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 2341 on the protection of critical infrastructure against terrorist threats. The resolution calls on member states to ensure that criminal responsibility is established for terrorist attacks intended to destroy critical infrastructure.

These members are also expected to emphasise the need for accountability for crimes committed in the context of the war in Ukraine. Some may call for the establishment of an international tribunal in this regard. On 30 November, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed forming a UN-endorsed tribunal to investigate atrocities in Ukraine. France’s Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs issued a press statement on 30 November confirming that it had begun working with European and Ukrainian partners on the proposal to “establish a Special Tribunal on Russia’s Crime of Aggression against Ukraine”. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on 2 December that it was “outraged” by France’s statement. These tensions may hamper French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to maintain channels of communication open with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some Council members are expected to reference the need to implement resolution 2601 of 29 October 2021 on the protection of education in conflict, which urges all parties to cease attacks and threats of attacks against schools. The resolution also calls on member states to facilitate access to education for children with disabilities, who are affected by armed conflict, and for refugee and displaced children. Some members may express concern about the conflict’s effects on children’s mental health and psychological well-being, recalling that resolution 2601 encourages member states and donors to integrate mental health and psychosocial services in humanitarian responses.

Several members—including China and India—are expected to express concern about the targeting of civilian infrastructure without explicitly condemning Russia for the attacks. These members are likely to emphasise the need for de-escalation and the resumption of diplomatic engagement between Russia and Ukraine. The reduced tempo in fighting brought on by winter conditions in Ukraine has reignited discussions on the prospect of resuming peace talks. On 2 December, while hosting Macron in Washington DC, US President Joe Biden said that he was willing to meet with Putin “if in fact there is an interest in him deciding that he’s looking for a way to end the war” and withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine.

Speaking to reporters on 2 December, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov rejected Biden’s condition for restarting negotiations and argued that the US’ refusal to recognise Russia’s annexation in late September of the four territories in Ukraine “significantly complicates the search for (common) ground for a possible discussion”. At tomorrow’s briefing, Russia is likely to reiterate its justification for attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. At the 23 November briefing, it suggested that its strategy was intended “to weaken and destroy the military potential of our opponents”. Other members may challenge this argument by pointing out that Russia’s attacks do not constitute an imperative military necessity, and thus, that they violate international humanitarian law.

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