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Cross-Cutting Discussion in UNSC on Protection of Civilians

16 Feb

On Tuesday, 12 February, the Security Council held an open debate on the issue of “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.” Currently holding the presidency of the Council, the Republic of Korea’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade hosted the debate, while both Council members and non-members weighed in on the international community’s responsibility to protect unarmed populations victimized by parties to a conflict either intentionally or as an unintended consequences of fighting. The Secretary-General addressed the Council highlighting Afghanistan, Mali, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and South Sudan as examples of instances where civilians in large numbers continue to suffer. He also called out the conflict in Syria as a stark case of the “searing reminder of the human cost of war.” The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay, also briefed the Council and took the opportunity to highlight the dire situation for civilians in Syria calling on the Security Council to act immediately and refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. The Director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also addressed the Council and chose to focus on three priorities in the context of protection of civilians (PoC)—threats to access to healthcare; the availability and use of arms; and the lack of compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) by state and non-state actors.

Many delegates underscored the importance of the role of the Security Council in protecting civilians in conflict, in particular ensuring that peacekeeping operations, “where appropriate,” were mandated to play a part in prioritizing PoC and allocating resources commensurate with the circumstances. The discourse among the more than 70 speakers revealed that there remains a myriad of obstacles in conflict-affected communities as the international community seeks to address the difficult challenge of the responsibility to protect civilians when governments and parties cannot meet those obligations. The primary responsibility for the protection of civilians, it was reasserted, does lie with states, although, as the Secretary-General noted in his remarks, the obligation to protect civilians in conflict “does not rest solely with warring parties: we all have a responsibility to protect.” There was, as expected, some concern expressed over the potential manipulation of PoC mandates for purposes of ‘regime’ change or military intervention. The Iranian delegate, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), pointed out this danger, while the Nicaraguan delegation called PoC a “lofty” concept that has been manipulated in Libya and now in Syria. Moreover, the delegate of Pakistan noted that any conflation of the concepts of PoC and the Responsibility to Protect norm (RtoP) was likewise dangerous especially from the standpoint of preserving the integrity of peacekeeping operations The discomfort with, and even opposition to, application of PoC by stakeholders external to national authorities continues to be an ongoing challenge as politicization of the concept must find balance with the humanitarian concerns on the ground.

The importance of addressing the issue of PoC in conflict is, in and of itself, a significant part of the work  of the Security Council given its mandate to maintain international peace and security as well as its responsibility in formulating the mandate and renewals for robust peacekeeping operations. Nevertheless, the cross-cutting nature of PoC also grants the issue particular importance within the often siloed landscape of the UN system and its varied stakeholders. As noted by the delegate of Costa Rica, options for response to complex obligations with protection mandates must also become more diverse, including establishing early alert mechanisms, providing support for national authorities in protecting civilians, and providing assistance for the functioning of security-related and rule of law bodies. Related issues, including but not limited to the illicit trade and movement of small arms, violence against women and other gender-based violence, were also highlighted as key components of a comprehensive and effective PoC strategy. In light of the upcoming 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), some delegations chose to highlight the importance of this session’s thematic priority in this PoC context—violence against women and girls. Other security-related priorities such as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), application of the RtoP norm, as well as the use of explosive weapons in populated areas all were made manifest during the discussion underscoring that any robust and effective human security agenda requires recognition of the linkages among different priorities.

As already noted, the forthcoming “Final Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty” set for 18-28 March received some attention during the debate beginning with the Secretary-General who referenced the poorly regulated trade in arms calling the free flow of weapons a significant contributor to violence against civilians. Likewise, the delegations of the ICRC, Australia, Egypt, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Uruguay, Sweden, Costa Rica, Tanzania, Lithuania, Mexico, Guatemala, and Montenegro were among those delegations that referenced the upcoming ATT negotiations in the context of PoC. Most of these delegations chose to highlight the importance of incorporating the concept of protecting civilians in the future ATT codifying circumstances where arms transfers should be denied should there be a risk that such weapons would be used to violate human rights, IHL, or otherwise harm civilians. The ICRC rightly called for an instrument that incorporates strict transfer criteria covering all categories of conventional weapons.

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas was also an issue raised by several delegations in the context of PoC as the indiscriminate humanitarian consequences of such weapons cause extensive harm to civilians. As noted by a study from UNIDIR’s Maya Brehm, explosive weapons have been shown to be a key threat to health care access, contributor to destruction of houses and assets as well as have long-term impacts on socio-economic and human development. In 2009, the Secretary-General identified the use of explosive weapons in populated areas as a core challenge to the protection of civilians in armed conflict and also called for more systematic data collection and estimation of associated human costs. At this debate, the delegations of Australia, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Germany, Chile, Qatar, and Spain were among those delegations that identified the use of explosive weapons in populated areas as a threat to PoC. In particular, the delegate of Germany noted that the indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Syria “…often caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide impact in densely populated areas, remains the most appalling aspect of the Syrian conflict.”

In addition to verbal debate, the Council adopted a Presidential Statement (S/PRST/2013/2) that recognizes the importance of strict compliance with IHL, human rights law, and refugee law, supports strengthened work of the International Criminal Court and related mechanisms for fighting impunity and increasing accountability, promotes systematic monitoring of PoC in conflict situations, and protects the unhindered access of humanitarian workers in situations of armed conflict. It is clear that such a discussion is useful not only for a better understanding of the concept of PoC and its practical application in situations of conflict, but also in allowing the international community to reflect on the multi-faceted nature of security and the need to effectively tackle multiple agenda items in an integrated and mutually-reinforcing manner. It is essential that issues such as violence against women and the use and availability of illicit arms are thought of as related aspects of the same security agenda, rather than concepts to always be taken up in isolated diplomatic fora.


–Katherine Prizeman