What's In Blue

Posted Mon 20 May 2024

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Annual Open Debate

Tomorrow (21 May), the Security Council will hold its annual open debate on the protection of civilians (PoC) in armed conflict. Mozambique, the Council president for May, is convening the meeting as one of its signature events. The expected briefers are Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Joyce Msuya, Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide Alice Wairimu Nderitu, ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, and Executive Director of the non-governmental organisation Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) Hichem Khadhraoui.

In its concept note for the open debate, Mozambique notes that 2024 marks the 75th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 25th anniversary of resolution 1265 of 17 September 1999, which first established PoC as a matter of international peace and security and introduced it as an item on the Council’s agenda. Mozambique has selected the latter anniversary as the focus of this year’s debate, describing the occasion as an opportune moment to address current threats and challenges to international humanitarian law (IHL) and the broader PoC agenda.

The concept note highlights an “erosion” of IHL amid ongoing global conflicts in which parties frequently ignore IHL principles or invoke them selectively. It further observes that despite a century of legal provisions protecting non-combatants and regulating the conduct of war, rapidly evolving methods of warfare increase the risk of misinterpreting IHL and require the continuous affirmation of its applicability. This year’s debate aims to offer a platform for member states and other stakeholders to engage in a comprehensive discussion about these protection challenges and explore future opportunities for the Security Council to strengthen its role in safeguarding civilians in conflict zones.

Msuya is expected to brief on the Secretary-General’s annual report on PoC, dated 14 May. The report provides an overview of the general state of PoC in 2023, which it describes as “resoundingly grim”. The UN observed a significant increase in civilian casualties last year, with at least 33,443 recorded deaths, constituting a 72 percent rise from 2022. The proportion of women and children killed doubled and tripled, respectively, over this period: in 2023, four out of every ten civilians killed in conflicts were women, and three out of ten were children. The conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) was notably the deadliest, resulting in 21,672 Palestinian deaths and 56,165 injuries, primarily among women and children, following Hamas’ 7 October 2023 attack on Israel—in which 1,200 people were killed, the majority civilians, and approximately 250 were kidnapped—and the country’s subsequent military operation in Gaza. Civilians in other countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, Myanmar, and Ukraine, also suffered from significant violence in ongoing conflicts​​.

Different types of civilian harm were recorded across various conflict situations. In Sudan, the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces resulted in approximately 12,260 deaths and 33,000 injuries, with widespread reports of sexual violence. Myanmar saw an escalation in violence, including airstrikes and shelling, resulting in significant civilian casualties. Ukraine experienced 1,958 civilian deaths and 6,572 injuries due to Russia’s invasion, with extensive damage to critical infrastructure. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) led to nearly 30,000 civilian casualties across conflicts in Gaza, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. Landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERWs) continued to pose significant threats, causing hundreds of deaths and injuries in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Colombia, the DRC, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, and Yemen​​.

The report emphasises the dire situation of specific vulnerable populations affected by conflict. In 2023, over 11,300 children were killed or maimed in conflict settings, including Afghanistan, the Central Sahel and Lake Chad Basin regions, the CAR, the DRC, Israel, Myanmar, the OPT, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine. Conflict-related sexual violence increased by 50 percent compared to 2022, with 95 percent of incidents targeting women and girls. Persons with disabilities faced particular challenges, such as in Myanmar, where the destruction of homes led to casualties among those unable to flee, and in Ukraine, where the number of persons with disabilities surged from 300,000 to approximately three million due to the conflict. Journalists were also at risk, with 71 recorded killings of these individuals in 2023, including 35 in armed conflicts​​.

The report also highlights new and emerging protection challenges. Climate change exacerbates vulnerabilities by triggering extreme weather events, which, combined with ongoing conflicts, worsen humanitarian conditions. In Libya, for instance, years of conflict and a divided government left the country ill-equipped to respond to Storm Daniel, which caused massive damage to the country’s eastern region in September 2023. The misuse of artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous weapons systems also presents new and unpredictable risks, potentially increasing civilian harm. Additionally, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, particularly through digital platforms, complicates protection efforts by undermining public trust and spreading false narratives that can incite violence. According to the report, these evolving threats underscore the need for updated and comprehensive strategies to protect civilians effectively in contemporary conflict settings.

Among its recommendations, the report calls on states and conflict parties to redouble their efforts to strengthen compliance with IHL and ensure accountability for violations. At the same time, it underscores the need to move beyond a purely legalistic framework, noting that “the patterns and types of civilian harm that are seen in contemporary conflicts cannot always be attributed to, or clearly identified as resulting from, [IHL] violations and may occur even when parties are acting in compliance with or claim to be complying with the law”. The report therefore emphasises the need to move towards an approach of “full protection of civilians”, which goes beyond minimum legal compliance with IHL and seeks to address the complex, overlapping, and cumulative nature of civilian harm, encompassing both direct violence and indirect effects, such as the destruction of critical infrastructure and consequent socioeconomic decline. Within this paradigm, the report calls for comprehensive measures to prevent and mitigate civilian harm, including the adoption and implementation of national protection policies that ensure institutional responsibility and proactive measures to track, analyse, and respond to incidents of civilian harm. It also underscores the importance of international cooperation and support in enhancing the protection of civilians and addressing the broader consequences of conflict.

At tomorrow’s open debate, Nderitu may note that 2023 marked the 75th anniversary of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“Genocide Convention”), which was the first legal instrument to codify genocide as a crime under international law. Given the mounting civilian toll in conflicts worldwide, Nderitu may underscore that the Genocide Convention obligates state parties not only to punish the crime of genocide but also to prevent it. In this context, she might reiterate concerns about specific conflict situations in which the risk of genocide or other atrocity crimes is present, for instance Gaza and Sudan, about which she has previously issued several statements. Nderitu may further call on all parties to conflict to uphold their obligations under international law and urge states that have not yet signed or ratified the Genocide Convention to do so.

Spoljaric may similarly emphasise the critical need to protect civilians in armed conflict and condemn persistent IHL violations in conflicts around the world. She may advocate for stronger international cooperation to ensure compliance, enhanced resources for UN peace operations with PoC mandates, and the integration of civilian protection measures into all levels of conflict response. Spoljaric might also highlight challenges to humanitarian action and threats faced by humanitarian personnel in conflict. According to the Secretary-General’s report, 91 humanitarian workers were killed, 120 wounded, and 53 abducted in 2023, not including Gaza, where the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) alone lost 142 staff members in conflict-related violence between October and December. Council members are currently negotiating a Swiss-proposed draft resolution on the protection of humanitarian and UN personnel to address this issue.

Khadhraoui is also expected to highlight the escalating threats to civilians in conflict situations. He may draw attention to certain alarming trends, such as increasing attacks on humanitarian workers, the use of EWIPA, the rise of AI-enabled weapons and disinformation, the outsourcing of security roles to private military companies, and arms transfers to countries that allegedly violate IHL. To address these issues, Khadhraoui may recommend that member states fully implement the Political Declaration on EWIPA , halt arms supplies to IHL violators, and establish a treaty banning autonomous weapons systems without human oversight. He is also likely to emphasise the need for a renewed commitment to international norms and accountability, underscoring that protecting civilians is essential for maintaining global peace and security.

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