Highlighting the growing number of incidents where civilians are targeted in armed conflict, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday drew attention to the key role of the Security Council in dealing with the issue, while urging new approaches to be considered.
“Too many people are dying, in too many places. Sometimes they are caught in the crossfire; frequently they are targeted,” Secretary-General Ban said in a Council open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, which other senior UN officials also addressed. “More and more, we are witness to an appalling catalogue of sexual violence, forced disappearances, torture and other acts that violate, often egregiously, international humanitarian and human rights law,” Ban added.
The UN chief cited recent developments across the world as examples. These included Afghanistan, where the UN mission there has reported a rise in civilian deaths, mostly attributable to anti-Government forces; Cote d’Ivoire, where seven ‘blue helmets’ serving with the UN peacekeeping mission there recently lost their lives defending villagers from armed attacks; and in Syria, where civilians have been killed in clashes between Government forces and armed opposition groups.
“Across this geography of conflict, we simply must do more. We must do more to protect women and children in particular, more to prevent attacks against journalists, more to save innocent lives,” Ban said.
The Secretary-General noted that the Council has made important progress over the last year and a half in the area of protection of civilians.
He pointed to the Council’s unity in halting violence and upholding democracy in Cote d’Ivoire during a conflict over the outcome of presidential elections in late 2010, as well as the efforts of international forces to prevent a clear threat to civilians in eastern Libya, after the regime of former leader Muammar al-Qadhafi demonstrated its readiness to carry out large-scale killings in 2011.
“The Council has also shown greater willingness to use targeted sanctions against those who violate international humanitarian and human rights law,” Mr. Ban said, adding that the recent landmark verdicts against former Liberian President Charles Taylor and Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga marked important steps for international justice and accountability.
In his remarks, the UN chief also highlighted the work of UN peacekeepers in protecting civilians in various conflict zones around the world.
“They are identifying and addressing threats through political efforts to prevent violence and resolve conflict; immediate physical protection; and building a broader protective environment for civilians,” Mr. Ban said. “This includes assistance for state and local institutions to better fulfil their fundamental responsibility to protect their citizens.”
Referring to his ninth report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the Secretary-General said lessons had been learnt from past experiences, which has helped the development of new tools to improve peacekeeping efforts to carry out civilian protection mandates, including guidance on strategic planning and training.
He noted that the report highlights five continuing core challenges for civilian protection.
These include that parties to conflict must do more to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law; the need for a more systematic engagement with non-State armed groups; the provision of resources and forces to UN peacekeeping missions mandated to protect civilians; ensuring safe, timely and unhindered humanitarian access for civilians trapped in conflict; and, the need for accountability, centred on national authorities taking the steps necessary to protect civilians or bring the perpetrators of war crimes and gross human rights violations to justice.
Mr. Ban said that meeting these challenges requires political will – the will of the parties to conduct hostilities within the parameters of international law; to refrain from using explosive weapons in populated areas; to allow engagement with armed groups and open access to those in need of assistance; and to enforce discipline and hold accountable those who perpetrate violations.
It also implies the will, the Secretary-General said, on the part of the Council, to deliver on its long-standing commitment to the protection of civilians by consistently using the tools at its disposal, including the imposition of arms embargoes, targeted sanctions and referral of situations to the International Criminal Court.
“Beyond that, I also urge the Council and Member States to consider new approaches to prevent and respond to violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and ensure that the protection of civilians receives the attention it demands,” Ban said.
Addressing the same Council debate, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, echoed Mr. Ban, noting how the solution to many of the problems seen in contemporary conflicts is strengthened compliance by parties to conflict with the letter and spirit of international humanitarian law and human rights law.
“Ensuring such compliance begins, of course, with the parties to the conflict,” Ms. Amos said. “But the responsibility is not their alone. It is a responsibility that is incumbent on us all – the United Nations, its Member States and this Council. We can and must do more to fulfil that responsibility and ensure that the law has meaning for those it is intended to protect.”
In her remarks to the debate, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that the human rights monitoring and protection work undertaken by the United Nations is essential to safeguarding civilians in armed conflict. She urged the Council continue to include explicit provisions on protection and accountability in its resolutions.
“Where missions receive monitoring and other human rights mandates, they should be given the necessary material and personnel resources to carry out their duties effectively,” Ms. Pillay said in a statement delivered on her behalf. “It is our responsibility to protect the lives of civilians using every tool available to use.”