Rhetoric vs. reality at the UN Security Council debate on the protection of civilians

By Ray Acheson
26 May 2022

On 25 May 2022, the UN Security Council (UNSC) held its annual open debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Participants discussed civilian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, arms transfers, and cyber warfare. Most participants condemned attacks against education, healthcare, humanitarian assistance, and critical infrastructure, and many offered concrete recommendations to prevent and end civilian suffering. But some of the states participating in the debate are themselves fueling conflicts and facilitating civilian harm.

With conflicts raging and civilians suffering in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and many other countries, the debate was timely, but also partially performative. Given that several of the participants in the debate are perpetrators of current violence, or of past violence for which they have yet to be held to account, their condemnations of war crimes and violations of international law are undermined by their own policies and practices.

Russia and Israel delivered statements alleging their full and uncompromising implementation of international humanitarian law (IHL), blaming others for their actions, which they asserted are fully justified. Other delegations rightly called out Russia for its misrepresentations; unfortunately, some of these countries are responsible for similarly unspeakable violence. When the United Kingdom, for example—which along with the United States is responsible for the unlawful and unjustified invasion of Iraq and the civilian suffering that ensued—pointed out that sometimes permanent members of the UNSC block attempts to protect civilians, thus negating the true purpose of the Council, it could have been talking about itself.

A few delegations pushed back on these double standards, calling for a principled approach to addressing armed conflict and violence. But the rhetoric around protection of civilians continues to be largely bifurcated, between those who want to prevent and end war, and those instead emphasise the importance of providing humanitarian relief during conflict.

This dichotomy means that while everyone supports at least in principle efforts to provide aid and assistance to civilians, the most militarily active states see this as the primary—and in some cases only—way to protect civilians. Others have much broader and more specific policy recommendations to difuse conflict before it begins, to limit the amount of violence that can be inflicted during conflict, and to refrain from fueling conflict once its begun. Some of these recommendations are outlined below.

Arms transfers

Mexico highlighted the “generalized availability of weapons” as an alarming challenge for the protection of civilians. In particular, it criticised the wide availability of small arms and light weapons and ammunition as a result of arms trading, which fuels conflicts.

Costa Rica warned that for the first time, global military spending increased to over 2 trillion USD in 2021. This will only increase the diversion of resources towards armament, against the explicit mandate of Article 26 of the UN Charter. Costa Rica called on the UNSC to regulate weapons, monitor and enforce arms embargoes, monitor weapons and ammunition stockpiles, and conduct risk assessments of arms and ammunition transfers. “Disarmament starts at beginning of the life-cycle of weapons, with decision not to produce or acquire them in the first place.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which introduced the UN Secretary-General’s latest report on the protection of civilians, highlighted the report’s recommendation to withhold arms transfers “where there is a clear risk that the arms will be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

Cyber attacks

Costa Rica also condemned the increasing harms to civilians caused by cyber attacks, noting that cyber operations in warfare pose real risks to civilians. It called for the strengthening of commitments for the protection of critical infrastructure, including an understanding of the applicability of international law in protecting civilians from cyber operations in the context of armed conflict.

Liechtenstein noted that whether kinetic or cyber weapons are used, attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure are illegal under IHL, may amount to war crimes, and must be investigated and prosecuted.

Explosive violence

OCHA highlighted the sections in the UN Secretary-General’s report highlighting the devasting impact on civilians caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). “Even when parties claim to use explosive weapons in populated areas in compliance with international humanitarian law,” the report argues, “this still causes a pattern of devastating harm to civilians in the immediate and long term.” Thus, the UN Secretary-General maintains his call on parties to conflict to avoid the use of EWIPA.

The European Union, the Group of Friends for the Protection of Civilians, Argentina, Austria, Chile, Ecuador, Estonia, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) all expressed concern with the use of EWIPA, with many highlighting the devastating effects on civilians and civilian infrastructure that leads to death, injury, displacement, and long-term suffering. Others such as Canada, Holy See, Iran, Morocco, Nepal, Palestine, Ukraine, and Uruguay condemned the targeting of civilians and civilian objects, including hospitals, homes, and schools, without explicitly mentioning explosive weapons.

Argentina and the ICRC called on all parties to conflict to avoid the use of EWIPA. Ghana specifically noted that tracking civilian harm from the use of EWIPA is a measure that strengthens the protection of civilians in armed conflict, as did the ICRC. The European Union, the Nordic Countries, Austria, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, and Portugal indicated their support for the ongoing process to develop a political declaration on this subject, which Ireland is leading. The Group of Friends for the Protection of Civilians noted this process. Ireland said it is determined to deliver a political declaration on explosive weapons that results in changes to policy and practice.

Attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers

Nearly all delegations condemned attacks against humanitarian workers and corridors, calling for implementation of IHL to protect humanitarian assistance. Many delegations also condemned attacks on hospitals and medical facilities, as well as against medical personnel. Algeria and Mexico pointed out the devasting impact conflict has had during the COVID-19 pandemic, including in relation to attacks on healthcare workers and facilities, lack of access to vaccines.

Several delegations also highlighted the importance of preventing education from attack and schools from military occupation. The European Union, Armenia, Ecuador, Nigeria, Norway, Portugal, Qatar, Slovakia, Spain, and Uruguay, among others, called for adherence to and implementation of the Safe Schools Declaration and/or relevant UN Security Council resolutions. Several delegations also condemned attacks against journalists, with a few specifically highlighting Israel’s murder of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Most delegations raised concerns with sexual- and gender-based violence in conflict, with several calling for gender-responsive humanitarian assistance and psychosocial support during and after armed conflict.

Environmental harms

A few participants highlighted environmental harms caused by armed conflict. Ghana and Switzerland noted the compounding crises of armed conflict and climate change. Liechtenstein said climate change is costing lives, exacerbating inequalities, and driving conflict. It called for environmentally sustainable humanitarian action in order to limit potential damage to planet and welcomed the work of the ICRC in this regard.

The Nordic Countries agreed that environmental harm results from conflicts and pointed out that IHL has rules to protect the environment, which need to be put into action. OCHA called on parties to armed conflict to incorporate legal protection of the environment into military operations.

Humanitarian access versus cessation of hostilities

Many militarily active states focused on protecting humanitarian workers and the provision of assistance as the core policy approach for the protection of civilians. The United States, for example, suggested that providing protection for humanitarian access and relief is the most important action to prevent civilian harm. While all participants agreed this was an indispensable aspect of the protection of civilians agenda, many disagreed that it is the most important.

Gabon, for example, said there is only one effective way to protect civilian population, which is not to become involved in armed conflict. When it does occur, it must be stopped immediately. Likewise, Indonesia said the cessation of hostilities is vital for protecting civilians. Along with Italy and Malaysia, it reiterated support for ceasefires. New Zealand and Viet Nam likewise emphasised the importance of conflict prevention and negotiated political solutions.

South Africa outlined the importance of supporting nonviolent and community-based protection of civilians efforts, including mediation and unarmed civilian protection. It called for safe and inclusive dialogue with local communities, and the promotion of women and youth in grassroots peacemaking efforts. Indonesia similarly said that protection of civilian strategies should be inclusive and take a people-centred approach, inclusive of local communities. Egypt urged the undertaking of steps to enhance the protection of civilians on a more long-term basis, including by promoting sustainable development, job creation, economic growth, and poverty eradication. Algeria similarly called for the adoption of developmental approaches that enhance civilians’ livelihoods.

Justice and peace

Almost every participant called for accountability, with most calling for both national and international measures to investigate and prosecute war crimes and the provision of justice for victims and survivors. Yet so many perpetrators of violence have not been held to account, and continue to hold seats in the UNSC, profit from arms sales to zones of conflict, and violate the protection of civilians of agenda. This reality makes it difficult to carry forward the thoughtful and valuable recommendations made by many other delegations.

As Kenya noted, on paper we have all the tools we need to resolve conflict, and, if it breaks out, to ensure it accords to IHL. “Unfortunately, these tools are collapsing under weak political will, untrammeled self-interest of powerful, and inequalities between and within nations.” Gabon noted that the UNSC distances itself from its mission of protecting civilians and fails its mandate when it relies on rhetoric, fragmentation, and geopolitical interests. Brazil noted that the problem is not absence of norms but lack of implementation and respect for them, while the Nordic Countries confirmed that ending civilian suffering during conflict is an act of political will.

A real accountability would mean an end to double standards, universal application of international law and real accountability for violations. It would mean prioritising human life over military superiority or political power or economic profit. As long as governments refuse disarmament and demilitarisation, wars will continue to be fought and civilians will continue to suffer. There is only one answer to ending civilian harm in armed conflict, as Gabon said: ending war.