As every year, from 22 to 25 May, a week at the UN in New York will be devoted to the protection of civilians. This is also one of Switzerland's thematic priorities for its membership of the UN Security Council. Find out how Switzerland is working in this area at the multilateral level and directly on the ground in conflict areas.
Switzerland's commitment to the protection of civilians is based on many years of experience in humanitarian aid and a consistent commitment to improving compliance with and strengthening international humanitarian law. Switzerland's humanitarian tradition is recognised worldwide. The headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Geneva Conventions contribute to the visibility of international Geneva, which is home to numerous organisations active in this field on a humanitarian or multilateral level. Switzerland regularly provides good offices as a host state of the UN. Its engagement in the multilateral framework, such as at the UN, and Swiss activities on the ground complement and reinforce each other. As part of Switzerland's presidency of the UN Security Council, President Alain Berset chairs an open debate on the protection of civilians on 23 May.
How does Switzerland advocate for the protection of civilians in multilateral forums?
UN Group of Friends for the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict
Switzerland has chaired the Group of Friends for the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in New York since 2007. This informal grouping of 27 states regularly consults on various aspects related to this issue and is committed to improving compliance with international humanitarian law. Switzerland has organised various meetings of the Group of Friends in the past, including on new technologies, missing persons, disinformation and selected geographical contexts. On relevant occasions, especially in the UN Security Council, the Group of Friends makes a united plea for better protection of the civilian population. As head of the Group of Friends, Switzerland usually coordinates and reads out these joint statements and organises the so-called Protection of Civilians Week ("PoC Week") every May: This platform brings together states, the UN and civil society to discuss current challenges.
Food security in armed conflict
As President of the UN Security Council, Switzerland has decided to dedicate this year's Open Debate of the Council on the Protection of Civilians to this important aspect. Five years after the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2417, which Switzerland strongly supported together with the Netherlands, the issue of the interaction between food security and armed conflict remains highly topical: according to the World Food Programme, 70% of the world's population suffering from acute hunger lives in conflict-affected areas. The protection of civilian infrastructure and basic services is closely linked to food security. By holding this high-level debate, Switzerland is sending a clear signal that decisive action by this body to implement the relevant resolutions is urgently needed. Switzerland, together with Brazil, holds the lead on food security in armed conflicts in the Security Council. The two so-called "co-focal points" are committed to ensuring that the body is informed in a timely and comprehensive manner about emerging hunger crises worldwide. At the initiative of Switzerland and Mozambique, the Security Council specifically addressed the issue of access to water and protection of water infrastructure in armed conflicts for the first time in March 2023.
Cooperation with the ICRC
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is not only the oldest humanitarian organisation active today, but also Switzerland's most important humanitarian partner: one third of the Swiss budget for humanitarian aid goes to the ICRC. One focus is the commitment to missing persons. Every year, tens of thousands of people go missing as a result of armed conflicts. Switzerland and the ICRC launched the Global Alliance for the Missing in 2021. Its aim is to promote the search for missing persons and contribute to the prevention of disappearances by strengthening cooperation between the relevant actors and using joint diplomatic influence at global and regional level.
How is Switzerland directly involved in the protection of civilians in affected regions?
Horn of Africa
The Horn of Africa is one of the most fragile regions in the world. Armed conflicts, but also the consequences of climate change, have far-reaching consequences for the civilian population. These include food security and access to basic services, e.g. in the health sector. In order to be able to make a sustainable contribution to the protection of the civilian population, Switzerland focuses on resilience in crisis situations as early as the project planning stage: The SomRep (Somalia Resilience Programme) project, for example, strengthens the resilience of the people in Somalia and secures livelihoods in the most drought-affected and hardest-to-reach regions of the country by providing emergency water supplies, cash transfers, "cash for work", support for veterinary facilities to contain epidemics, and animal feed for livestock farmers. The UN Security Council is responsible for the mandates of peace missions, and Switzerland is committed to ensuring that their work also focuses on the protection of the civilian population.
The military takeover in 2021 has radically changed the context in Myanmar and created new challenges for the civilian population. Switzerland supports the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UNHCR and has deployed Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) personnel to reinforce the various UN agencies on the ground. Switzerland finances several NGO projects in the field of humanitarian demining, the promotion of social cohesion in Rakhine and the improvement of access to basic services for the Rohingya. Switzerland discreetly promotes dialogue at national, regional and local levels to find solutions for safe and unhindered humanitarian access and de-escalation. Finally, Switzerland supports the efforts of the UN Security Council to resolve the conflict and consistently demands respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.
According to the latest report by the UN Secretary-General on the protection of civilians, Ukraine accounts for almost half of all civilian deaths in armed conflicts worldwide. Switzerland condemns Russia's military aggression against Ukraine in the strongest possible terms and calls on Russia to cease all hostilities and immediately withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory. In the UN Security Council, Switzerland consistently advocates compliance with international humanitarian law. Together with 40 other states, it has referred the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court. It has also supported the establishment of multilateral mechanisms that collect evidence of war crimes and make it available to national and international prosecution. Switzerland also provides humanitarian aid in hard-to-reach regions close to the front line, where the needs of the civilian population are particularly great. To this end, Switzerland works with local partners and supports them on the ground, for example with medical and physical protection equipment. In various forums, including the UN Security Council, Switzerland is calling for humanitarian access to areas of Ukraine under occupation by Russia's armed forces.
Protection of the civilian population – a Swiss priority in the UN Security Council
On 31 August 2022, the Federal Council adopted four thematic priorities for Switzerland's membership of the UN Security Council, following consultation with the parliamentary foreign policy committees. These include the promotion of sustainable peace, addressing climate security and strengthening the Council's efficiency, as well as the protection of civilians. In this area, Switzerland advocates the following in the UN Security Council, among other things:
- Ensuring strict and more comprehensive compliance with international humanitarian law, in particular in relation to the conduct of war and the protection of civilians
- Special attention to the protection of children, patients, refugees, medical staff and facilities, aid shipments and critical infrastructure (water supply or food production) in armed conflicts
- Enhancing the prosecution of violations of international humanitarian law
- Respect for human rights and protection of minorities in conflicts
- Food security in conflict regions
What does Switzerland do in the UN Security Council?
Switzerland's presidency of the UN Security Council
Switzerland's priorities for serving on the UN Security Council