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Protection of civilians: ICRC statement to the UN Security Council –February 2103

12-02-2013 Statement

Statement by Dr Philip Spoerri, director for international law and cooperation, ICRC. UN Security Council New York, 12 February 2013

Mr President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), I am pleased and honoured to once again brief the Security Council, and thank the Republic of Korea for the invitation.

Since I last addressed Members of this Council eight months ago, a number of armed conflicts have resurged or intensified, others have continued to rumble on after many years. All of them, regardless of their causes or where they are in the world – be they in Syria or Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Afghanistan – have at least one thing in common. In all of them, the grim reality is that civilian men, women and children continue to suffer the overwhelming burden of their fallout, while efforts to protect them are fraught with difficulties.

On that occasion last June, I focused on three issues of fundamental concern to the ICRC. The continuing urgency of these issues justifies me returning to them today. They are, firstly, threats affecting access to health care for the wounded and sick in armed conflicts and other emergencies; secondly, the availability and use of arms; and thirdly, the overarching lack of compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL), by States and non-State armed groups, which lies at the heart of the massive suffering to which we are witness.

On the issue of violence against healthcare personnel and facilities, I will start with some modest good news. Following the adoption of a far-reaching resolution on "health care in danger" at the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva in December 2011, the ICRC began a series of consultations with States and other major stakeholders towards making the delivery of healthcare safer in dangerous situations worldwide. Some concrete steps have already been taken. A series of experts' workshops in 2012, which will continue into 2014, has mobilised health authorities, medical associations, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and NGOs from around the world. They have helped to raise awareness and understanding of the issue, and put forward practical recommendations for safe practices. States, of their own volition, have in some cases undertaken diplomatic initiatives aimed at facilitating the delivery of healthcare in conflict-affected countries. In others – Colombia and Yemen for example – they have taken specific steps towards ensuring respect of healthcare structures and personnel in their own countries.

Sadly, the good news cannot detract from the bad. ICRC's healthcare data for 2012 shows that the vast majority of violent incidents – over 80 per cent of the almost 900 recorded in 22 countries – affect local healthcare workers. And of those people caught up in such incidents, around 25 per cent were killed or wounded. In some cases, secondary explosions even targeted those trying to assist the victims of an initial explosion – a particularly repugnant practice causing further injury and death and preventing care reaching those who urgently need it. A further trend with sometimes catastrophic consequences is the large-scale flight of health workers in the face of attacks, threats or general insecurity.

So, while there may be some steps in the right direction, much more needs to be done. As States bear primary responsibility, the ICRC once again urges the Members of this Council to initiate or actively support efforts to tackle this pressing humanitarian concern, and to influence others to do the same. Indeed, this is required by the obligation to respect and ensure respect for IHL contained in common Article 1 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
This brings me to the second major concern – closely linked with the first – which is the massive circulation and widespread availability of arms and ammunition. In many contexts, this may put civilians at similar risk of being wounded or killed after an armed conflict has ended as during it. The poorly regulated international trade in conventional arms, including inadequate standards for their transfer, is at least partly to blame.

A strong and effective Arms Trade Treaty is urgently needed to enhance the protection of civilians as well as healthcare and humanitarian workers working to assist those who are most vulnerable, and to help ensure that IHL is respected by all parties to armed conflicts, be they international or non-international in nature.

The next Diplomatic Conference in just a few weeks time will be a golden opportunity which we urge States to seize decisively; to redouble their efforts to ensure the adoption of a robust Arms Trade Treaty, one that sets strict criteria for all transfers of all conventional arms. The ICRC remains committed to helping achieve this goal, working with States, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the UN and other organisations.

The third major concern – the prevailing lack of respect for IHL by both States and non-State armed groups, coupled with a dominant culture of impunity – is the main common denominator of all other protection concerns.
Some progress has undoubtedly been made at both national and international levels to improve compliance and accountability – ranging from the implementation of domestic legislation, to the training of security forces and the judicial processes of the international criminal tribunals. In addition, the joint Swiss-ICRC initiative to strengthen compliance with IHL has gained momentum, with increasing numbers of States engaging in substantive discussions on this issue.

The ICRC works on all levels – diplomatic, policy and operational – towards ensuring better respect for IHL. To be credible and effective, this requires a rigorously impartial, neutral and independent approach, one that remains consistently distinct from any kind of political or judicial process. This in turn helps to facilitate dialogue with parties on all sides to a conflict and humanitarian access to people in need. Protection lies at the heart of the ICRC's mandate and mission, and provides a framework for our assistance activities.

Of course, there are numerous challenges and constraints that make this task all the more difficult. The humanitarian environment is an increasingly complex one. Just one aspect of this is the sometimes-baffling array of new actors, both those involved in armed conflict and those responding to its humanitarian consequences, with at times a blurred line between the two. Increasing numbers of civilian and military actors are working for the protection of civilians with very different mandates, objectives and approaches. At the same time, limitations on access to people in need of protection – imposed by States and non-State actors – are a critical constraint in numerous situations of armed conflict.

The challenge here is to clearly distinguish and separate principled humanitarian action from pure relief assistance. Whereas the latter may have military, political or economic objectives underpinning it, the former must always be based purely on actual needs. Blurring of the lines between the two ultimately complicates or hinders impartial humanitarian access to people on both sides of a conflict for all actors. To this end, the principles of humanity and impartiality must be the minimum among all humanitarian actors, regardless of their particular mandate or approach.

As the ICRC marks its 150th anniversary this week, it is a fitting moment to reflect on not only the profound changes in the humanitarian environment over the years, and the necessity to adapt to those changes, but also on what has remained constant. Henri Dunant's vision of humane treatment for wounded and captured soldiers on all sides – extended to one of providing protection and assistance to all people affected by armed conflict, on the basis of humanitarian need alone – must surely remain the bedrock of humanitarian action as much today as it was 150 years ago. The desire and ambition to uphold human dignity, even in the midst of armed conflict, must surely continue to be our common goal. Respect for the laws of war also provides the foundation on which people can rebuild and recover after conflict has ended.

Tackling the problem of violence to healthcare, ensuring the adoption of a strong Arms Trade Treaty and taking concrete measures to improve compliance with IHL would already be great strides towards achieving this goal. I end, therefore, with the ICRC's urgent plea to the Members of this Council to do all they can to address these issues.