What's In Blue

Posted Thu 23 May 2024

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Vote on a Draft Resolution*

Tomorrow morning (24 May), the Security Council is expected to vote on a draft resolution prepared by Switzerland on the protection of humanitarian and UN personnel. The draft text is open for co-sponsorship by the wider UN membership.


Over the past year, the eruption and intensification of several conflicts around the world have exacerbated challenges to humanitarian action and threats faced by humanitarian personnel in conflict. According to the Secretary-General’s most recent annual report on the protection of civilians (PoC), which was issued on 14 May and describes the state of PoC in 2023, 91 humanitarian workers were killed, 120 wounded, and 53 abducted last year, 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. Across conflicts, national staff constituted 90 percent of those affected.

In December 2023, then-Council member Brazil circulated a draft resolution on the protection of humanitarian personnel and UN and associated personnel and premises in conflict zones. The initiative followed an informal visit by Council members to the Rafah crossing that connects Gaza with Egypt, which was organised by then-member the United Arab Emirates (UAE). During the trip, Council members heard briefings from interlocutors on the ground on the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and on difficulties concerning the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza. (For more information on the informal visit, see our 16 December 2023 What’s in Blue story.) Since Brazil was approaching the end of its Council term, however, the country did not have time to initiate negotiations on its draft resolution and instead encouraged other Council members to advance the process after its term.

In late March, Switzerland circulated an expanded draft resolution on the issue. The draft built on Brazil’s text, as well as the Council’s previously adopted resolutions on the topic, including resolution 1502 of 26 August 2003 and resolution 2175 of 29 August 2014, but it also contained several additional elements. These included an emphasis on the particular vulnerability of national and locally recruited humanitarian and UN personnel, and more consistent attention to the protection not only of personnel but also their premises and assets. The draft additionally requested the Secretary-General to establish or enhance a range of reporting and monitoring mechanisms relevant to these concerns.

Switzerland convened three rounds of negotiations on the text and prepared four revised drafts. On 15 May, Switzerland placed the third revised draft under a silence procedure, which was broken by China and Russia, after which the US submitted additional comments. Yesterday (22 May), Switzerland placed a fourth revised draft under another silence procedure, which Russia again broke. Subsequently, Switzerland placed a slightly revised draft directly in blue.

Draft Resolution

The draft resolution in blue recalls the primary responsibility of host states for the security and protection of UN and humanitarian personnel; expresses grave concern about the growing number of attacks, acts of violence, and threats against such personnel; recalls the obligation of all parties to armed conflict to comply with international humanitarian law (IHL); and underlines the obligations of all parties to armed conflict under IHL related to protecting civilians and civilian objects, including allowing and facilitating the rapid, safe, and unhindered passage of humanitarian assistance.

The scope of the draft resolution encompasses the protection of humanitarian and UN and associated personnel, including national and locally recruited personnel, and their premises and assets. The draft text addresses several direct threats to their safety and security, such as the indiscriminate use of explosive devices, as well as indirect ones, including the use of misinformation and information and communication technologies (ICTs) that target humanitarian operations, which, according to the draft text, “undermine trust” in UN and humanitarian organisations and put personnel at risk. It also condemns the unlawful denial of humanitarian access and the deprival of civilians of essential objects, which impede relief efforts and exacerbate conflict-induced food insecurity​​.

The draft text has a particular emphasis on accountability. It urges countries to conduct “full, prompt, impartial and effective” investigations of violations of IHL and international human rights law committed against humanitarian and UN personnel and to take action against those responsible, in accordance with domestic and international law, “with a view to reinforcing preventive measures, ensuring accountability and addressing the grievances of victims”. It also urges countries to prosecute persons allegedly responsible for serious IHL violations and to cooperate with domestic, regional, and international courts and tribunals “in accordance with States’ respective obligations”. A reference in previous drafts of the resolution specifically highlighting the contribution of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in this regard was deleted at the request of Algeria, China, and Russia.

The draft resolution in blue also establishes or expands several reporting requirements for the Secretary-General. It requests him to provide the Council, within six months, with recommendations on measures to prevent and respond to attacks against humanitarian and UN personnel and to brief the Council on this matter no later than 12 months after the adoption of the resolution and on a yearly basis thereafter. The draft text also requests the Secretary-General to continue to provide—as part of his regular reporting on country-specific situations and other reports that address the protection of civilians—information on the safety and security of humanitarian and UN personnel, including specific acts of violence against such personnel, remedial actions taken to prevent similar incidents, and actions taken to identify and hold accountable those who commit such acts. Finally, the draft requests him to report “swiftly” to the Council when “widespread issues” regarding the safety and security of humanitarian and UN personnel occur, expressing the Council’s intention to give its “full attention” to such situations when they are brought to the Council’s attention.

It seems that most Council members were generally supportive of the draft resolution throughout the negotiations. Discussions still lasted nearly two months, however, due to the length of the text, the complexity of some of its provisions, and divergent positions on language concerning certain thematic areas such as international law, accountability, and gender.

One subject of considerable discussion concerned a request in Switzerland’s initial draft for the Secretary-General to establish and maintain a comprehensive database on attacks against humanitarian and UN personnel, including information on the status of investigations into such attacks. It seems that several Council members questioned the purpose and technical feasibility of such a database, and the penholder consequently struck the provision in the third revised draft, which instead included a more general request for the Secretary-General to provide the Council with recommendations on measures to prevent and respond to such attacks.

Council members also discussed the scope of the draft resolution. Some members apparently had reservations concerning the text’s emphasis on national and locally recruited personnel, as well as its applicability to their assets and premises. While it seems that these concerns were eventually assuaged during the course of the negotiations, the third revised draft included new language expanding the scope of the resolution to also cover humanitarian “actors”—an addition apparently proposed by the UK, which argued that an exclusive focus on “personnel” risked excluding a range of actors on the ground that are less formally organised yet still conduct critical humanitarian work in conflict settings. It appears that China and Russia considered this language overly vague, however, which was one of the reasons that these members broke silence on that draft. Switzerland consequently removed this language from the subsequent draft.

Another apparent issue concerned reference to the Call for Humanitarian Action, an initiative launched by France and Germany in 2019 to effectively implement and strengthen IHL, particularly regarding the protection of humanitarian workers and healthcare personnel. It seems that language in the draft resolution taking note of the initiative was another reason that Russia broke silence on both the third and fourth revised drafts, as it apparently considers the initiative non-universal and not aligned with its national positions. It seems that France initially opposed deleting this reference, but ultimately accepted the deletion after Russia’s second silence break, in part because French-proposed language requesting the Secretary-General to report swiftly on “widespread issues” concerning the safety and security humanitarian and UN personnel—a provision based on a similar reporting requirement in resolution 2417 of 24 May 2018 on armed conflict and food insecurity—was retained in the draft resolution in blue.


Post-script: On 24 May, the Security Council adopted resolution 2730 on the protection of humanitarian personnel and UN and associated personnel and their premises and assets. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 14 in favour and one abstention (Russia). It was co-sponsored by 97 member states.

In its explanation of vote, Russia acknowledged the importance of the issue but objected to the resolution’s reference to international courts, its proposed parameters for ensuring humanitarian access, and its gender-related language.

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