What's In Blue

Posted Mon 22 May 2023

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Annual Open Debate

Tomorrow morning (23 May), the Security Council will hold its annual open debate on the protection of civilians (PoC) in armed conflict. Switzerland, May’s Council President, is convening the debate as a ministerial-level signature event. Secretary-General António Guterres, ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, and a woman civil society representative are expected to brief. President of the Swiss Confederation Alain Berset will chair the meeting.

According to the concept note Switzerland has prepared for this year’s debate, it will focus on the intertwined challenges of conflict-induced food insecurity and the protection of critical civilian infrastructure and essential services in conflict. In this regard, the meeting will provide an opportunity to review implementation of resolution 2417 of 24 May 2018 on armed conflict and food security and resolution 2573 on the protection of indispensable civilian objects, adopted on 27 April 2021. The concept note proposes several questions to help guide the discussion, including:

  • How can the Security Council, Member States and all parties to conflict promote a more systematic implementation of existing frameworks and instruments, including resolution 2417 (2018) and resolution 2573 (2021), to address conflict-induced food insecurity and to protect essential services?
  • What is the role of women in addressing food insecurity and protecting essential services? How can the agency of women be leveraged, be it as duty bearers or as affected individuals?
  • How can Member States, the UN system, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, regional organisations and non-governmental organisations contribute to an enhanced respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) in relation to the protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, including essential civilian infrastructures, while also tackling food insecurity?

Guterres is expected to brief the Council on his latest annual report on PoC, dated 12 May. As is customary, the first half of the report reviews the general state of the protection of civilians in the past year, while the second half highlights a specific issue of concern. This year, the Secretary-General chose to focus the second section of his annual report on the impact of conflict on food and water availability.

In 2022, the UN recorded at least 16,988 civilian deaths across 12 armed conflicts, a 53 percent increase compared with 2021. Conflict situations where civilian casualties increased include Ukraine, Somalia, and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (oPt), while certain contexts such as Yemen and Syria saw decreases. Harms suffered by civilians included death and injury, enforced disappearance, torture, rape, ill-treatment, psychological trauma, and forced displacement. Children remained particularly vulnerable to killing, abduction, displacement, and recruitment across a range of conflict situations, while women and girls accounted for at least 95 percent of victims of documented sexual violence. Humanitarian action continued to face overlapping impediments ranging from violence, bureaucratic hurdles, sanctions, and counter-terrorism measures to shortages and rising costs of essential supplies, including food, medicine, and fuel.

According to the Secretary-General’s report, more than a quarter of a billion people faced acute hunger in 58 countries and territories in 2022. Conflict and insecurity were the most significant drivers of high levels of acute food insecurity for approximately 117 million people in 19 countries and territories, including in the Central African Republic (CAR), the Central Sahel, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Causes of conflict-induced food insecurity in these and other conflict situations included direct harm to food and water sources, as well as impediments to food and water production, delivery, and access.

The report also cites key factors that have compounded hunger in the past year. These include Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which has further exacerbated food insecurity worldwide. Ukraine and Russia are among the leading global suppliers of foodstuffs, with Russia also being a top exporter of fertilisers; many countries that depended on them to meet their needs—including Burkina Faso, the DRC, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen—were adversely affected in the past year. Trade disruptions due to the war in Ukraine contributed to historically high food and fertiliser prices, aggravating food insecurity across the globe. Climate change—which manifested in droughts, heavy rainfall, and floods—also exacerbated hunger in several conflicts.

Spoljaric is expected to brief the Council on challenges to humanitarian action in conflict situations. In 2022, 79 humanitarian workers were killed, 43 were injured and 113 were kidnapped in 17 conflict contexts, according to the Secretary-General’s report. National staff represented 97 percent of those affected. Impediments to humanitarian delivery included explosive ordnance that hindered humanitarian access to communities; misinformation and disinformation discrediting humanitarian actors; bureaucratic and administrative procedures that significantly delayed and impeded humanitarian operations; and movement restrictions and checkpoints that impeded humanitarian access to affected populations.

Spoljaric may also discuss ways to enhance respect for IHL in relation to conflict-induced food insecurity and the protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, including essential civilian infrastructure. In this regard, she may take note of the statement issued by members of the NGO Working Group on PoC ahead of tomorrow’s debate. The statement outlines several recommendations for member states aimed, among other things, at preventing civilian harm during conflict, strengthening implementation of resolution 2417, promoting accountability for violations of IHL, and addressing the climate-conflict-peace nexus.

The civil society representative is expected to describe the specific vulnerabilities women and girls face in countries affected by conflict-induced food insecurity. The Secretary-General’s report says that in Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Yemen, and elsewhere, food insecurity increased civilians’ susceptibility to gender-based violence, exploitation, and child, early and forced marriage. For example, it reports that in resettlement centres in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, women and girls have to walk long distances in the dark to fetch water due to scarcity, which subjects them to greater risks of sexual violence. The statement by members of the NGO Working Group on PoC notes that “[e]ntrenched gender inequalities and gender norms surrounding food consumption disproportionately increase the vulnerability of women and girls to hunger and malnutrition and contributed to an estimated 150 million more women than men going hungry in 2021”.

Council members are likely to express concern at the global increase in conflict-induced food insecurity. Several members may stress the importance of upholding IHL in armed conflict, condemn attacks against critical civilian infrastructure and objects, including those objects essential for food production and distribution, and call on all state and non-state armed forces to abide by resolutions 2417 and 2573. Some might highlight certain thematic priorities, such as the nexus between conflict and climate change as a driver of hunger, or the specific vulnerabilities women and girls face in these contexts.

Several Council members may recall the effects of the war in Ukraine on global food prices. In this regard, they might welcome the recent two-month extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative—announced on 17 May—while urging the parties to seek a longer-term agreement to help ensure the stability of food prices. Some members might also condemn Russia’s attacks against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, which have damaged agricultural and water systems.

Council members are broadly united in their concern for conflict-induced food insecurity. There are diverging views on the best forum to address it, however. While some members argue that hunger caused by conflict is a matter of international peace and security and therefore belongs on the Council’s agenda, others contend that hunger as a thematic issue is mainly a development and peacebuilding issue and should therefore be addressed primarily in forums relevant to those issues. These positions might colour members’ statements at tomorrow’s debate.

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