UN Security Council discusses but fails to enact real protection of civilians

By Ray Acheson
29 May 2020

This post draws on a report from WILPF’s Women, Peace and Security programme.

On 27 May 2020, the UN Security Council met virtually for an open debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. This year’s debate took place against a backdrop in which, over the past year, at least 20,000 civilians were killed or injured in conflict-affected countries; displacement has continued to rise to over 70 million people globally; and the world faces a dual economic and public health crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid all of this sits the UN Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire, for which many governments and some non-state armed groups have indicated rhetorical support, but that has had little practical effect. In part, this is because many countries, including many of those in the UN Security Council, continue to arm or lift moratoriums on weapons trading, which undermines efforts in drawing down any conflicts.

UN Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres; Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee Red Cross (ICRC); and former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, briefed the Council on various issues, after which Council members delivered statements outlining national concerns and priorities. This report focuses on a few key areas of concern to WILPF, including the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, the development of autonomous weapon systems, sexual- and gender-based violence, and conflict prevention. 

Explosive weapons

In his report published ahead of the debate, UNSG Guterres reiterated his concern with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). He highlighted that 90 per cent of people killed by explosive weapons used in towns, cities, and villages are civilians. The use of EWIPA also has reverberating effects, impacting water, sanitation, health care, education, and psychological wellbeing. The use of EWIPA also leaves behind catastrophic environmental impacts, as noted in a recent report from PAX, which further exacerbates civilian suffering.

Civilian deaths and suffering are not an unavoidable consequence of conflict. States must move beyond raising rhetorical concerns by taking action to actually protect civilians, including by ending the use of EWIPA. One concrete action states can undertake is to support the development of a political declaration addressing the humanitarian suffering caused by the use of EWIPA currently under discussion in a process led by Ireland. They can accompany this with national actions in terms of military operations, arms sales, and victim assistance.

The UNSG and ICRC President both reiterated their call for states to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas and to support the declaration. A few Council members indicated their concern with this practice as well. Germany, for example, said it is “actively engaged” in the political declaration process and that is has “introduced an operational approach developed together with the ICRC to enhance respect for existing rules of international humanitarian law through the development and sharing of good military practices.” France, meanwhile, said that while it is also “engaged in the ongoing negotiations towards the development of a political declaration to improve the protection of civilians,” it wants to ensure the declaration addresses “the issue of the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons” but also that it does “not stigmatize explosive weapons themselves.”

The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), of which WILPF is a steering group member, issued a briefing paper ahead of the debate calling on states to acknowledge harm caused by EWIPA, endorse the UNSG and ICRC’s recommendations, and express support for the political declaration. INEW has made it clear that addressing only the “indiscriminate use” of explosive weapons is insufficient to mitigate civilian harm and suffering and that states need to be willing to make real changes to their conduct in order to save lives.

Autonomous weapons

The UNSG’s report also flagged the imperative of banning killer robots. He urged states to call to quickly agree on the “limitations and obligations that should be applied to autonomy in weapons.” He argued that “all sides appear to be in agreement that, at a minimum, retention of human control or judgement over the use of force is necessary” and noted that “a growing number of Member States have called for a prohibition of [lethal autonomous weapon systems].”

Of the Council members that spoke, only France referenced the issue of autonomous weapons. It mentioned that there are protection of civilians concerns raised by lethal weapon systems featuring autonomy and welcomed the “substantial progress” made by states at the Convention on Conventional Weapons to produce “guiding principles”. 

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, of which WILPF is a steering group member, has been consistently calling on states to negotiate a legally binding treaty prohibiting fully autonomous weapon systems to ensure that meaningful human control is always retained over the use of force. The Campaign also argues that the guiding principles are not sufficient to protect civilians from the development of autonomous weapons and that much more concrete action is urgently needed.

Several UNSC members and other governments are actively pursuing the development of these weapon systems now, before international regulations are set. They are investing millions into ensuring their dominance over increasingly autonomous means of violence. It is imperative that governments, tech workers, and others work to prevent this before it’s too late.

Gender-based violence and feminist perspectives

As reported by WILPF’s Women, Peace and Security programme:

In its May 2020 Monthly Action Points, NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, of which WILPF is a founding and active member, highlighted several key recommendations for the debate, including on gender mainstreaming, sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) and access to justice, participation, resourcing the humanitarian work of local women-led civil society, and comprehensive access to services for survivors. Although some of these issues were mentioned, overall, the discussion failed to reflect the breadth and complexity of the issues faced by civilian populations in conflict areas, particularly from a gender-sensitive lens.

Stopping violence against civilians is a key human rights and feminist issue. But yet the Council’s discussions on protection of civilians rarely incorporate a substantive gender lens, let alone one that incorporates the different and intersecting forms of violence that people in conflict-affected areas face, including based on real or perceived sexual and gender identity, age, and disability. Women and girls were largely discussed as victims as in previous years, and discussed in broad strokes with people with disabilities, migrants and refugees, children, and detainees, despite the fact that these groups have diverse experiences and face different challenges.

Sexual and gender-based violence, often a key issue faced by civilians, particularly women and girls, as well as sometimes by men and boys, was addressed by France, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia, and the United States in the context of heightened risk during the pandemic. The Secretary-General noted findings from his report that show women and girls have been increasingly subjected to SGBV through targeted attacks, forced marriage, abduction, and restrictions on their movement over the past year. Member states remained silent on the importance of a survivor-centered, non-discriminatory and holistic access to services including mental health and sexual and reproductive health and rights, a contentious topic last year in the Council.

Women’s meaningful participation is vital to all peace efforts, including measures to stop violence against civilians. Indonesia highlighted the role that local women civil society can play in developing and implementing civilian protection strategies and the role of local women in building and sustaining peace. Speaking in line with its National Strategy on Women, Peace and Security, the United States brought up the role of journalists and human rights defenders and protecting them from reprisals in other countries, and also highlighted the importance of women’s participation in the Syrian peace process. Viet Nam also raised the issue of participation. Missing from the discussion was the need for stronger resourcing of the humanitarian and peacebuilding work of local women-led civil society, which is a vital lifeline in many communities.

From protection to prevention

As reported by WILPF’s Women, Peace and Security programme:

A major gap throughout the debate was in the framing of the issue itself. China, the Dominican Republic, Tunisia, and Viet Nam mentioned the importance of addressing root causes of conflict in their statements, but as a whole, the Council’s work largely continues to operate from a narrow focus on protection in conflict as the end goal rather than prevention. At the core of addressing the protection of civilians is removing the opportunity and ability to use violence against civilians by parties who are in competition for power through economic and political resources. This means states should go beyond listing out violations and assaults against women and children in their statements as a way to garner sympathy and vague action on protection of civilians. Instead, states should take bolder action that no longer makes war safe for civilians but makes war an implausible action to take to address differences.

In her briefing, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf shared this focus on prevention, noting, “A conflict averted does not make headlines, but it saves lives and livelihoods. We must stop conflicts and prevent new ones. Preventing conflict is not easy. But our collective experience shows that it is less costly than ending it.”

Although all speakers talked about the importance of international humanitarian law and human rights law, and some brought up the necessity of holding violators accountable, these statements stand meaningless if they are not matched with action. Many states speak in support of peace and human rights, including Council members, all the while profiting politically and financially as some of the major direct and indirect contributors to armed conflicts, including through the arms trade and contributing to and remaining complicit in the deaths of civilians and destruction of generations. States can and must condemn brutal violations of international humanitarian law, such as the bombing of hospitals and schools. But for there to be lasting impacts in the lives of the millions of civilians affected by armed conflict, the Council must reorient its work to prevention and genuinely commit to multilateralism for peace.

The inability of the Council to come to a consensus around the efforts for a global ceasefire, including the most recent efforts led by France and Tunisia, has shown its failure to act decisively as a body tasked to maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations among nations; to cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights; and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations  when the lives of millions of people around the world are dependent on their decisions.