On 25 May 2021, the UN Security Council convened its annual open debate on the Protection of Civilians. Due to COVID-19 health restrictions the event was held online and participation was limited to the fifteen Council members and other invited speakers. Most participants voiced concerns about ongoing harms to civilians in armed conflict, with the majority specifically condemning the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and attacks on medical facilities and personnel. While the attention to these grave violations of international law is very welcome, more is needed by Council members and other states to acknowledge their own role in facilitating armed violence and harm to civilians through the provision of weapons, military aid, and other forms of cooperation.
Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, noted that COVID-19 has made conflict worse. Despite the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire last year, fighting has continued around the world, compounding already existing limitations on humanitarian aid. Lowcock noted that Israel’s most recent bombing of Gaza killed scores of civilians and destroyed critical civilian infrastructure; and that civilian casualties from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas are also catastrophically high in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. He reported that threats of famine have remerged in many contexts—by the end of 2020, nearly 100 million people faced acute food insecurity from conflict. Airstrikes have caused wildfires and destroyed agricultural land; in Syria, deteriorating infrastructure due to conflict has led to oil spills and other environmental contamination.
Health care, Lowcock emphasised, is under deliberate attack, including medical transports, doctors and nurses, and hospitals and clinics. Likewise, Peter Mauer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) lamented that while the need for robust healthcare systems has never been greater, they are still under attack. Hospitals are bombed with impunity and cyber attacks against health care facilities are on the rise. Dr. Nemat of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit pointed out that civilians are prime targets for Taliban attacks and are used as human shields, but that also government forces and international militaries are bombing civilians. All sides have attacked hospitals. Meanwhile, targeted killings of civilians, including journalists, doctors, and vaccinators, and largely targeting women, have created an atmosphere of terror.
During the debate, Estonia, France, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Niger, Norway, Tunisia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the United Kingdom, and Viet Nam condemned attacks on medical facilities and personnel.
“Fighting parties must change their choice of weapons and tactics,” Lowcock asserted. Recalling that the Secretary-General has repeatedly called on parties to conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA), he also argued that militaries and armed groups must refrain from using medical facilities for cover.
Ireland emphasised the horrific tolls that the use of EWIPA exacts on civilian populations, highlighting the loss of life, physical and psychological injuries, and damage to infrastructure. To reverse this pattern, Ireland is leading consultations on a political declaration on the use of EWIPA, which it hopes will result in last change.
The so-called A3+1—Kenya, Niger, Tunisia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines— condemned the use of EWIPA, highlighting the grave impacts on civilians. They also drew attention to the continued threat of explosive remnants of war, as did Viet Nam, which also raised concerns about landmines and improvised explosive devices. The A3+1 also highlighted challenges posed by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, which together with the use of EWIPA place millions of civilians at risk of injury, displacement, and death. Mexico likewise noted the civilian harm from the use of EWIPA and highlighted the Safe Schools Declaration as an important mechanism to protect schools from attack and to protect students from recruitment into armed conflict.
Some delegations, including the A3+1, China, and Ireland specifically expressed alarm at the bombings in Gaza and hostilities in the other occupied territories and called for full implementation of the ceasefire and provision of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians. China noted that among other catastrophic damage in Gaza, the only COVID-19 testing lab was rendered inoperable due to the bombardment. This cruel reality shows that the international community has a long way to go to protect civilians, said China.
Accountability versus impunity
Lowcock warned that war crimes and crimes against humanity must not go without response. “Accountability must be systematic and universal, because what is not punished is encouraged.”
The United Kingdom noted that the Security Council has adopted resolutions calling for accountability for those who target healthcare in conflict and said greater emphasis must be placed on identifying violators and then holding those responsible to account, including through sanctions. Viet Nam said attacks against civilians and civilian objects must be condemned and addressed, while the A3+1 said that impunity for actors who violate international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) cannot be tolerated.
In particular, the A3+1 noted there must be accountability for sexual exploitation and abuse committed under UN flag. They noted that there has been insufficient redress for survivors in Haiti, and called on states to meet psychosocial needs of survivors. Norway also urged better protect against sexual- and gender-based violence, calling for an end to use of sexual violence for political repression, war, and terror. Ireland noted that during the pandemic, survivors of sexual violence have been deprived of treatment and support when it’s most critically needed, while France warned that sexual- and gender-based violence and attacks against children have increased during the pandemic. The United States highlighted sexual violence in Ethiopia and said it is committed to implementing the Women, Peace, and Security agenda.
Meanwhile, Russia agreed that those guilty of crimes against civilians should be held accountable but asserted this must be carried out in full compliance with norms, not “political manipulation”. India asserted the mandate to protect civilians lies with national governments and said “terrorists” are the main problem.
Prevention is better than protection
A few delegations highlighted the importance of preventing armed conflict as the best way to protect civilians. Viet Nam said addressing root causes of conflict, including inequalities and injustices, is the best way to prevent conflicts from happening and recurring.
The A3+1 likewise said that durable peace and long-term protection of civilians requires ongoing attention to root causes of conflict and highlighted in this respect the increasing threats posed by climate change and socioeconomic inequalities. France and Ireland similarly highlighted climate change and environmental degradation as key factors in the generation of conflict.
China argued that in the face of violence and conflict, most measures in place aren’t enough to protect civilians and infrastructure and that only by preventing conflict can we best provide for the protection of civilians. It urged states to resolve and defuse conflicts politically through dialogue and consultations.
Almost every delegation emphasised that, once conflict has started, all parties must respect their obligations under international law, including in relation to protection of civilians. Russia, however, said that it welcomes “all useful initiatives designed to minimise harm to civilians,” but cautioned that the international community “shouldn’t be carried away by inventing new international legal concepts supposedly designed to fill lacunae” or by “differentiating new categories of people entitled to protections.”
This approach makes the comment by ICRC President Peter Mauer particularly urgent. He called on Council members to act more decisively to improve their own action to respect IHL, arguing that we won’t see better respect for IHL if members of the Security Council exclude themselves and their allies from critical review.
When Council members, for example, vastly undercount the civilian casualties from their own military operations, or deny responsibility for the deaths of any civilians, it makes their condemnation of abuse of civilians in other contexts lack credibility and sets a poor example for other actors.
Mauer also pointed out that through arms transfers, training, and other forms of military cooperation, Council members are involved in many conflicts in which we see violations of IHL. As noted above, several Council members participating in the debate condemned the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Some, such as France, Norway, and Viet Nam also supported the Secretary-General’s appeal for ceasefire. But none of the weapon producing and exporting states drew the link between their arms transfers or the provision of military aid and the facilitation of armed conflict; none reflected on how they may be contributing to or participating in any of the actions they condemned.
The same week as the Protection of Civilians open debate, the Human Rights Council held a special session and adopted a resolution about ensuring respect for IHRL and IHL in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel. The resolution establishes a commission of inquiry to investigate all alleged violations of IHL and IHRL. Among other things, it also urges all states “to refrain from transferring arms when they assess, in accordance with applicable national procedures and international obligations and standards, that there is a clear risk that such arms might be used to commit or facilitate serious violations or abuses of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law.”
During the negotiations of the resolution, some states and civil society groups (including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in a joint statement) also urged the Human Rights Council to recommend a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel and to urge all parties to end the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. While these were not taken up in the resolution, they should be considered in the forthcoming work of the commission of inquiry, including through the comprehensive collection of data in relation to the use of EWIPA.
The HRC resolution is a good example of how states can acknowledge the links between the provision and use of weapons. This is often overlooked in protection of civilians discussions, as well as even in Arms Trade Treaty meetings, where states parties often abdicate responsibility or defer consideration of how their actions might be facilitating violence around the world. But the arms trade is a key pillar of perpetuating harm. Whether small arms or explosive weapons, conventional weapons are being used to commit or facilitate gender-based violence, death, injury, displacement, destruction of infrastructure, and much more. Preventing conflict is key, as several Council members said—and part of preventing conflict must be ending the arms trade that fuels conflict in some places while allowing others to profit from it.