I am honored to take the floor on behalf of the Group of Friends (GoF) of the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (PoC): Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Uruguay and Switzerland.
We thank the People’s Republic of China for organizing this important debate in light of the appalling global state of the protection of civilians in armed conflict, as described in the 2021 Secretary-General’s report. Almost 90% of casualties in urban warfare are civilians. Indiscriminate attacks and attacks directed against civilians occur with horrifying frequency. Sexual- and gender-based violence persists, often as part of a broader strategy. Strict application of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) rules and principles, including those of humanity, necessity, distinction, proportionality as well as precautions in attack, are required by all parties to armed conflict. The GoF remains concerned at the humanitarian harm caused during active hostilities in populated areas, including caused by explosive weapons. It emphasizes that only full respect for IHL, human rights law and a reduction of violence can protect the civilian population. Overall, the Security Council has a crucial role and the GoF echoes its constant calls for compliance with IHL, human rights law and for political settlements of armed conflicts.
The failure to protect civilians in armed conflict continues to dramatically impact the purposes of our organization in its three pillars. More consistency and political will by both Member States and parties to armed conflict are needed to better protect civilians. The Group of Friends is committed to doing its part and to contributing to the global-level advocacy to enhance the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The GoF highlights the following points.
First, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating impact on conflict-affected countries and has exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities and risks, with women, girls and vulnerable groups disproportionately affected. COVID-19 is not only a public health issue, but also a protection crisis affecting the protection of civilians in conflict and post-conflict situations. In such cases, Member States must ensure that emergency response to the pandemic respects international law, and that all measures undertaken to fight the virus are lawful, necessary and proportionate. Furthermore, these measures must be limited in time, non-discriminatory and assessed on a regular basis in order to ensure that their impact, for instance on humanitarian access, is not aggravating protection challenges.
We welcome and support the Security Council’s demand for a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations on its agenda to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The Group underlines that inclusive and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is essential to ending the pandemic and notes with concern that those affected by conflict and insecurity are particularly at risk of being left behind. We call for safe, rapid, and unimpeded humanitarian access without delay, in order to facilitate, inter alia, COVID-19 vaccinations, in line with UNSC resolution 2565 (2021).
The pandemic has led to 1.5 billion children out of school for a prolonged period of time. It is of utmost importance that these children, especially girls, are reintegrated into the educational system as soon as possible. This specifically concerns conflict-affected areas where the educational system was already precarious before COVID-19, and where violence against women and children has increased during the pandemic.
Second, five years after the adoption of UNSC resolution 2286 (2016), the GoF reaffirms its unwavering support to this important resolution. As the world continues to face a pandemic, and health care systems are overwhelmed, this resolution is more relevant than ever. Yet, appalling levels of violence against the wounded and sick, medical personnel and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, and their means of transport and equipment, as well as hospitals and other medical facilities persist, and with devastating consequences. Significant additional efforts are needed to improve the implementation of this resolution and the application of the rules of international law underpinning it. The Group urges all Member States and parties to armed conflict to respect, and ensure respect for, IHL in all circumstances. We reiterate the SG’s recommendations to implement good practices in this regard, including the ratification of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions. The GoF also emphasizes that malicious cyber operations on medical facilities, as currently experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, can neither in times of peace nor armed conflict be considered acceptable.
The Group of Friends calls on Member States to ensure that counter-terrorism measures do not impede humanitarian and medical activities or engagement with all relevant actors as foreseen by IHL. Mindful of UNSC resolutions 2462 (2019) and 2482 (2019), the GoF urges Member States to ensure that all measures taken to counter terrorism, including measures taken to counter the financing of terrorism, comply with obligations under international law, including IHL.
Third, the GoF expresses grave concern at the dramatic increase in the number of persons facing crisis levels of acute food insecurity. More efforts are urgently needed to prevent and alleviate hunger in armed conflict, in line with IHL and UNSC resolutions 2417 (2018) and 2573 (2021). The GoF Parties to the Rome Statute reiterate their call on States Parties to the Rome Statute to consider the ratification of the amendment related to the intentional use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare in non-international armed conflicts.
Fourth, fighting impunity is of paramount importance to ensuring that violations do not go unpunished and to delivering justice to victims. Consequently, we also echo the SG’s recommendations to ensure accountability for all violations of IHL.
Fifth, the GoF recalls that the protection of civilians is a priority mandated objective for many peacekeeping missions around the world, and a central element of peacekeeping reform initiatives. We also commend peacekeeping missions and peacekeepers for their continued work in implementing PoC mandates despite the difficult situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. We collectively attach crucial importance to the full and effective implementation of PoC mandates by UN peacekeeping operations in a comprehensive and integrated manner, and also stress the need to ensure that PoC is prioritized in the context of mission transitions, drawdowns, and exit strategies. By the same token, the centrality of protection shall also be an integral part of Special Political Missions, where relevant.
The GoF reiterates our call for the Security Council to ensure that UN peacekeeping operations have clear and realistic mandates, and that the General Assembly allocate sufficient resources that are consistent with the mandate and the situation on the ground. In this regard, we express our full support for specialized and dedicated protection functions and teams deployed to UN peacekeeping missions and within the UN Secretariat. We continue to encourage the full, effective and meaningful participation of women in UN Peacekeeping Operations, as they have significant impact in the pursuit of peace and protection of civilians. The GoF further stresses the importance of all peacekeeping personnel receiving adequate pre-deployment and supplementary in-mission training. Finally, we call for performance and accountability in the implementation of PoC mandates, in line with UNSC resolution 2436 and the Integrated Peacekeeping Performance and Accountability Framework.
Allow me to also draw your attention to this year’s 150th anniversary of the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency. The tragedy of persons unaccounted for and their next of kin concerns millions of persons. The GoF calls on all Member States and parties to armed conflict to fully collaborate with the ICRC and other relevant actors with the aim of elucidating the fate of the missing. Member States should ensure that efficient mechanisms are in place, in line with IHL and UNSC resolution 2474 (2019). Furthermore, prompt and transparent casualty recording can prevent persons from going missing in armed conflict. Casualty records can also provide valuable evidence in accountability processes, thereby supporting survivors’ rights to truth, justice and reparation.
Finally, as the SG’s report notes armed conflicts can significantly contribute to the degradation of the natural environment that in turn affects the population. The combination of armed conflict and several other factors, including environmental degradation, compounded with the effects of climate change, may lead to additional protection challenges and displacement of millions of persons. The Security Council and Member States should endeavor to enhance engagements to mitigate those risks for the protection of civilians. The GoF takes note of the updated Guidelines of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the Protection of the Natural Environment in Armed Conflict and encourages Member States to take them into account in the implementation of the existing legal framework.