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UN chief calls for compliance with rules of war to protect civilians, deplores violations

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres remarks to the Security Council meeting on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, in New York today:

I thank the Government of Indonesia for convening this open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, a cornerstone of international humanitarian law. And it is with enormous pleasure that I see with us Peter Maurer, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the guardian of these Conventions.

It also marks the twentieth anniversary of the Security Councils adoption of the protection of civilians as an item on its agenda — a response to the Councils “deep concern” at the erosion of respect for international humanitarian law. However, while the normative framework has been strengthened, compliance has deteriorated. We are rightly critical when assessing the state of the protection of civilians, for there is great cause for concern.

But, let us first recall that we have seen some progress over the last 20 years. A culture of protection has taken root in the Security Council and across the United Nations. To use the Councils own words, protection of civilians is “one of the core issues” on its agenda. A comprehensive protection framework now exists, based on international law and Security Council practice.

The protection of children and of all civilians from the loathsome acts of sexual violence in conflict has been strengthened through the deployment of specialist advisers in peace operations, reinforcing the work of humanitarian agencies. Monitoring and reporting on grave violations against children in conflicts and engagement with warring parties has led to the demobilization and reintegration of thousands of children. And Security Council-mandated United Nations peace operations have protected and saved countless civilian lives.

In South Sudan, nearly 200,000 internally displaced people are currently sheltering at sites for the protection of civilians. In the Central African Republic, the United Nations mission has supported local peace and ceasefire agreements that are monitored by civilian and military components. Civilian casualty recording by the United Nations in Afghanistan has led to the adoption of measures by pro-Government forces to minimize harm.

Millions of civilians receive cross-border humanitarian assistance in Syria. And war criminals, from Cambodia to the former Yugoslavia, have been tried and convicted. Security Council resolutions on the protection of medical care in armed conflict and on conflict and hunger have given important focus and urgency to these issues. I look forward to working with Member States to ensure that they are implemented.

But, despite these advances, grave human suffering is still being caused by armed conflicts and lack of compliance with international humanitarian law. As my report underlines, civilians continue to make up the vast majority of casualties in conflict. In 2018 alone, the United Nations recorded the death and injury of more than 22,800 civilians in just six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. In Idleb, in north-west Syria, we saw a new wave of shelling and air strikes against hospitals, schools, markets and camps for the displaced, killing, wounding and creating panic among the civilian population.

In all conflicts, when explosive weapons were used in populated areas, 90 per cent of those killed and injured were civilians. Overall, some 1.4 million people were newly displaced across international borders, while a further 5.2 million were internally displaced. Widespread access constraints jeopardized humanitarian and medical assistance to civilians in need.

Violence against humanitarian and medical workers and facilities persisted. The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded 705 attacks against health-care workers and facilities in just eight conflicts, resulting in 451 deaths and 860 injuries. Three hundred and sixty-nine aid workers were kidnapped, wounded or killed. And starvation of civilians was used as a method of warfare, as well as rape and sexual violence.

Chief among our challenges is enhancing and ensuring respect for and compliance with international humanitarian law in the conduct of hostilities. In many cases, our information suggests that respect for those bodies of law is at best questionable; in others, and as detailed in several of my country-specific reports, we have witnessed blatant violations.

Nonetheless, there are examples where warring parties respect the law and are implementing precautions, collateral damage estimation and other efforts to minimize the impact of fighting on civilians. These practices must be implemented effectively and standardized across parties and theatres of operation. And greater attention must be paid to those who are already vulnerable during peace time — such as the elderly, children and the disabled — who are rendered all the more vulnerable and in need of protection during flight and conflict.

We must also take urgent action to reduce the humanitarian impact of urban warfare, and in particular, of explosive weapons. Member States should do more to condition arms exports on respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law. And they must call for greater respect for the law and protection of civilians by parties to conflict, and in particular, partner forces, including in the context of multinational coalition operations.

We also need greater progress on accountability by closing the gap between allegations of serious violations and their investigation and prosecution. Progress is needed most at the national level. My report recommends action in three areas.

First, to develop national policy frameworks that establish clear institutional authorities and responsibilities for the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Second, principled and sustained engagement by humanitarian organizations and others with non-State armed groups to negotiate safe and timely humanitarian access and promote compliance with the law. Third, ensuring accountability for serious violations.

The United Nations Security Council, as a practical matter, can do much to enhance compliance with the laws of war. This includes providing financial and technical assistance to support the investigation and prosecution of war crimes in conflict-affected States. We also need action at the global and multilateral levels.

For the Security Council, this means being more consistent in how it addresses protection concerns within and across different conflicts, and being more comprehensive in terms of, for example, grappling with the protection challenges of urban warfare. And it means keeping todays conversation going, with Member States, United Nations actors and civil society engaging on a sustained basis to implement the actions I have outlined.

For, as bleak as the current state of protection is, there is considerable scope for improvement if we each do our utmost to promote and implement the rules that bind us to preserve humanity in war. This is the best way that we can honour the twentieth anniversary of the protection agenda. We have the rules and laws of war. We all now need to work to enhance compliance.

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