Frustration at the UN Security Council debate on the protection of civilians

By Emma Bjertén
29 May 2024

“Grim picture”, “distressing”, “alarming”, “shocking”, “disheartening”, “appalling”, “overwhelmingly tragic”, “nothing but disturbing”—these were words delegations used to describe the current state of affairs when the UN Security Council (UNSC) held its annual open debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict on 21–22 May 2024.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1265 (1999) that made the protection of civilians an item on the Security Council’s agenda, and it was the 75th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Convention. But when states met to reflect on the challenges and progress made regarding protection of civilians in armed conflict, it was not a time to celebrate.

The debate drew upon the annual report of the UN Secretary-General on civilians in armed conflict, which described a particularly dark year. The report shows that there were at least 33,443 civilian deaths in armed conflicts in 2023. Several delegations, including Morocco on behalf of the group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect, Algeria, Andorra, Bulgaria, China, Chile, El Salvador, Estonia, Greece, Guatemala, Japan, Lithuania, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Mozambique, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland were horrified by these numbers, highlighting how this constitutes a 72 per cent increase compared with 2022. Mozambique noted that civilian casualties have increased despite new technologies and the increased use of weapons that are supposed to avoid “collateral damage”.

Many states also underlined the report’s conclusions that four out of every ten civilians killed in conflicts in 2023 were women, and three out of ten were children. These figures indicates that women killed doubled and children killed tripled compared with 2022, something Belgium referred to as a “chilling increase”. These figures show how states, like Poland said, instead of marking progress are facing regression.

States were and should be horrified by these figures. However, the unreflective use of “womenandchildren” during the debate, as if it was one word, is something feminist scholars and women’s organisations like WILPF have been problematising for decades. The equates women with children, suggests men are more expendable, feeds into the narrative that all women are innocent civilians while all men are militants, and reinforces a gender binary. Reproducing this narrative is not least problematic in a debate on protection of civilians where some actors, as some delegations pointed out, are intentionally blurring the line between civilians and militants.

The UN Secretary-General’s report shows how seven out of ten recorded deaths occurred in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, making it the deadliest conflict for civilians in 2023. This was also the conflict that drew the most attention in this year’s debate. The vast majority of delegations highlighted this issue, with the exception of a few states, including the United States, which didn’t say anything about the protection of civilians in this context despite having a key role as the biggest arms supplier to Israel. Palestine also critiqued the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, who in her briefing to the UNSC didn’t mention Gaza, even though the International Court of Justice is currently examining the accusation of genocide against Israel. Some states condemned the 7 October attack by Hamas and also condemned Israel’s violent response on Palestinian civilians. A number of states referred to the war in Gaza as a plausible genocide or warned that genocide is underway. Many states called for a ceasefire and specifically condemned the use of hunger as a weapon of war.  

Several delegations expressed their deep frustration with the UNSC failing to protect civilians in Gaza. Jordan noted the international community and the UNSC has been unable to secure a ceasefire or provide basic aid in a sustainable way. It stated that it is regrettable that some are still trying to justify Israel's violations of the Geneva Convention and its international obligations related to protecting Palestinian civilians. Indonesia emphasised this as an area where the UNSC has to step up. China recognised that millions of people who have gathered in Rafah to seek refuge “are on the brink of death” and argued that it is a priority for the UNSC to facilitate an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire. China also insisted that the UNSC take further action and “urge Israel to immediately stop its collective punishment of the Palestinian people and to stop advancing its military attacks on Rafah, to offer hopes of survival to the people on the ground”. It also claimed that double standards and selective application of IHL is unacceptable.

States also addressed how civilians are suffering in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Mali, Mozambique, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine, among other places. Describing the situation for civilians in these conflicts, including raising concerns with sexual- and gender-based violence, a vast majority of states expressed their regret that international humanitarian law (IHL) is not being respected. At the same time, many delegations argued that the ongoing conflicts show how these instruments are more relevant than ever.

Liechtenstein described the protection of civilians as being in profound crises, while Jordan said that some are pretending that the Geneva Convention are incompatible with these times. Jordan stressed that it is the duty of member states to counter these attempts to discredit IHL. Japan reminded that IHL was created to preserve dignity of people and stressed that there is no excuse, in any circumstances, for states to ignore IHL. Canada also recalled the purpose of UNSCR 1265 saying, “Over the last 25 years we’ve built an architecture to protect and assist civilians in armed conflict. Today we have to appreciate that this architecture is under immense stress. The weight of this disintegration and this collapse is born not by us in New York but by the civilian men, women and children that are living through what can only be called hell of conflicts.”

While states described a lawless world out of control and the debate often gave a sense of hopelessness, a number of delegations emphasised that these crises, like the famine in Gaza and Sudan, are humanmade and therefore can be stopped. A vast majority of the delegations called for action to reverse the negative trend and urged states to recommit to the obligations of international law and the UN charter.

Explosive violence

Several speakers including Joyce Msuya, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Denmark on behalf of the Nordic countries, European Union, Norway on behalf of Group of Friends of the Protection of Civilians, Argentina, Austria, Bulgaria Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Malta, Philippines, Portugal, Sierra Leone, and Spain expressed concern with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). Several speakers noted how explosive weapons have had a leading role in the number of casualties. Austria highlighted that more than 90 per cent of the casualties caused by the use of EWIPA are civilians.

A number of states particularly stressed their concern of the use of explosive weapons in Ukraine. Some voiced their concerns over civilians being impacted by destruction of critical infrastructure such as access to water, electricity, health care, and schools. Lithuania highlighted the destruction of civilian infrastructure, noting that the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam and hydropower plant that in June 2023 disrupted water and sanitation services for one million people, was perpetrated by a member of the UNSC. Belgium called on Russia to respect international law and urged an end to attacks on critical infrastructure. A number of delegations also raised specific concerns regarding Israel’s attack on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Gaza.

Liberia stated that the persistent use of EWIPA highlights that much more need to be done. It described the 2022 Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas as instrumental in mitigating harm against civilians. Denmark on behalf of the Nordic countries, European Union, Norway on behalf of Group of Friends of the Protection of Civilians, Andorra, Australia, Austria, El Salvador, Germany, Holy See, Ireland, Liberia, Mexico, and Spain made similar remarks. Several speakers encouraged more or all states to endorse the EWIPA Declaration and to implement it. Costa Rica also urged the UNSC to integrate the impact of the use of EWIPA into debates on the Women, Peace, and Security agenda and emphasised the need to collect data on the use and impact of explosive weapons regarding gender, age, and disability. Costa Rica also called for adopting a gender perspective in the application and interpretation of IHL.

Austria and Lithuania highlighted the recommendations on the use of EWIPA made in the UNSG’s Protection of Civilians report and urged states to take them seriously.

Others such as the Arab Group, Bangladesh, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador Egypt, Georgia, Jordan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mozambique, Pakistan, Palestine, Poland, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, and and Ukraine expressed concern with the targeting of civilians, civilian objects, and critical infrastructure, without explicitly mentioning explosive weapons. Several delegations also endorsed the Safe School Declaration and encouraged more states to join.

Attacks on humanitarian workers – an attack on civilians

Several states emphasised the need for safe and rapid access to humanitarian assistance. A number of states referred specifically to the Palestinian people in Gaza, emphasising the need to reject obstacles that hinder access and that they must be guaranteed humanitarian assistance.

In the briefing section of the debate, Hichem Khadhraoui, Director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) said that civilians face higher risks than ever. He described how humanitarian workers become targets and how civilian casualties are sometimes referred to as “acceptable collateral damage”. Guyana said that the protection of humanitarian personnel is part of the broader protection of civilians and highlighted the need to guarantee their safety. This was a worry shared by many states. A number of delegations including European Union, Norway on behalf of Group of Friends of the Protection of Civilians, United Arab Emirates on behalf of the Arab Group, Algeria, Brazil, Bulgaria China, Croatia, Egypt, Estonia, France, Germany, Ghana, Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar, Mozambique, Poland, Portugal, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and Qatar emphasised their concerns over attacks on humanitarian workers.

China and Indonesia stressed that humanitarian assistance cannot be and must not be politicised. Holy See noted that it appears as the distinction of military and civilian targets are not existent and underlined that it is crucial that civilians are not seen as collateral damage. Republic of Korea urged states to promote more effective deliveries of humanitarian assistance, through various ways, including the use of newer technologies and drones. 

Several states including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Georgia, Guyana, Luxemburg, Malta, Mozambique, and Spain expressed support for the resolution sponsored by Switzerland that calls on all countries to respect and protect humanitarian and UN personnel as required by international law. The UNSC resolution was later adopted on Friday, 24 May with a vote of 14-0, with Russia abstaining.  

Stop the supply chain of violence

Many participants argued that the best way to protect civilians in armed conflict is to avoid conflict overall. Several speakers including Joyce Msuya, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Hichem Khadhraoui, Director of Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), representatives of China, Jordan, Myanmar, and Pakistan highlighted the role of arms exporters in fuelling conditions for more conflicts. They called for a more “responsible” arms trade or stressed the need to withhold arms transfers when there is risk they will be used to violate IHL. Similarly, some delegations recognised how reducing conflict equals reducing military expenditure.

El Salvador described how illicit and diversion of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and ammunition has a direct impact on civilians and highlighted the importance of oversight and preventing illegal manufacturing. It also argued that marking measures in line with the Intentional Tracing Instrument (ITI) would contribute to prevent the diversion of weapons and emphasised the role of arms embargos with robust follow-up and monitoring in place.

A number of states also addressed the risks of emerging technologies for the protection of civilian and stressed that the need to protect civilians from artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous weapons as well as the use of disinformation. Republic of Korea highlighted the need for the UNSC to also address cyber-attacks on civilian infrastructure. Costa Rica made similar remarks and underlined that the protection of civilians agenda must be updated to include cyber activities affecting civilian populations and reiterated its call for civilian data to enjoy the same protection as all other civilian objects.

Ending impunity

Luxembourg stated that preserving the humanitarian space has become a challenge and argued that what is lacking is not rules but the lack of implementation. Argentina made similar remarks, saying the problem does not lie into the normative framework but in the interpretation and practice.

Several delegations, including the European Union, Morocco on behalf of Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect, Norway on behalf of Group of Friends of the Protection of Civilians, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Estonia, Ghana, Guyana, Greece, Ecuador, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Pakistan, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Malaysia, Mexico, and Spain, highlighted the need to hold violent actors accountable and put an end to impunity.

Portugal said the full protection of civilians remains a distant goal and that a stronger accountability mechanism is needed to address impunity. Mexico said there must be consequences for grave violations committed in armed conflict and suggested that restricting the use of the veto in the UNSC could be a first step to address this. Malaysia warned against double standards and selectivity, which it argued only undermines the trust for IHL. It reminded that even though war must be avoided by all means, there are laws even in war.

States including Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Republic of Korea, and Luxemburg highlighted the key role of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in ending impunity. Switzerland called on all states to recognise ICC and Republic of Korea urged to refrained from politicising the institution. A number of states, including Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan, highlighted the recent ICC applications for arrest warrants against Israeli officials and Hamas leaders. Maldives welcomed the filing and said it believed it is a step that should have been taken earlier, adding, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Pakistan said the pursuit of arrest warrants of Israeli leaders will be a test for the credibility of ICC. Luxembourg also condemned in the strongest possible terms any threats or active intimidation of ICC, its prosecutors, or its staff.

The responsibility of the Security Council

Double standards and failures were words a number of delegations used when describing the UNSC’s role in protecting civilians. Many states emphasised the responsibility of the UNSC to uphold IHL. Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, argued in her briefing that members of the UNSC, in partnership and alliances, have a special responsibility that requires deliberate actions. She said it is important to assure that IHL is not used “as bargaining chips”. Pakistan emphasised the role of the UNSC to address the underlying causes of conflicts as well as ending impunity. It argued that the UNSC can contribute to this by holding perpetrators accountable as well as withholding weapons from perpetrators.

While the vast majority of states addressed the war in Gaza, the United States chose to direct its attention to more “positive” examples of UNSC action, such as the accomplishments of UN peacekeeping missions. It argued that the MINUSCA mission has worked “to promote security and stability throughout the Central African Republic by deterring violence by armed groups, facilitating the safe delivery of humanitarian aid, supporting the peace process, and promoting disarmament, demobilization and reintegration on mutually reinforcing activities that make civilians safer and increase the prospect for peace”.

Brazil urged member states to be “frank and direct” and said that instead of reaping the benefits of its own past work and the development of IHL, the UNSC “has now become a passive, beholder of a complete and repeated disregard for humanitarian tenets.” Brazil argued that the UNSC “has been idly watching parties to conflict in many parts of the world, seek maximum damage in total disregard for the deadly impact on civilians, the use of civilians as human shields and hostages, or direct terror inflicted on civilians as a means to weaken resistance.” Brazil referred to the report of the UN Secretary-General on the protection of civilians as “a vivid and tragic illustration thereof.”

It is hard to not see the sad irony in the timing of this annual debate. Two permanent member states of the UNSC are playing key roles in two of the deadliest conflicts in the past year and are blocking the UNSC from living up to its mission to protect civilians in armed conflict. The UNSC has a responsibility, but the UNSC is not an abstraction, it is a body of states, with political leaders whose actions results in civilian casualties and the devastating conditions for those that survive. When states violating IHL sit in the UNSC claiming they are recommitting to IHL, what does that mean? In the debate several delegations expressed witnessing “an erosion of respect for international law.” But like Reaching Critical Will has long been highlighting, “erosion” indicates that the violation of IHL is an inevitable process that happens over time, not a result of conscious decisions made by state representatives.