Amid COVID-19, we must not lose focus on violations and abuses in war

Statement to UN Security Council Open debate: Protection of civilians in armed conflict

Secretary-General Guterres' report card on the state of protection highlights the enormous violations and the failures to protect men, women and children around the globe.

Communities caught in the crossfire of armed conflict suffer shock after shock, violation after violation until their resilience is thread-bare.

I am concerned for people: For the rising numbers of people displaced, stuck in limbo without any prospect of a lasting solution to their plight. For the millions of families searching endlessly for their missing loved ones.

For the urban poor, elderly, people detained, migrants, and refugees, women, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, people with a disability.

I am concerned for broken places and systems: the migration and displacement camps and the prisons where human dignity is as absent as clean water and sanitation.

I am concerned for emerging threats – the rapid spread of hate speech, stigmatization of all kinds, data misused to suppress or control populations instead of protecting them.

I am concerned for the shrinking space for neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian work.

And I am concerned for the behaviors of belligerents and all who support them: for the violations of human life and dignity caused by persistent disregard or expedient interpretation of International Humanitarian Law and other international legal frameworks.

In particular, I raise the devastating impacts for civilians when explosive weapons with a wide impact area are used in populated areas. The death and destruction left behind by heavy explosive weapons raises serious questions about IHL compliance and signals the urgent need for a change of behavior to protect civilians, including by avoiding the use of such weapons in populated areas.

A strong, unequivocal Political Declaration committing States to take concrete action in this direction would be a good first step. The ICRC is working on policy and operational-level recommendations to this end.

The divisions in this Council on critical concepts of humanitarian law and work, notably access to populations in need, are increasing suffering on the frontlines.

While the ICRC takes responsibility to deliver neutral and impartial humanitarian services independently and within the legal framework of the Geneva Conventions, it is your responsibility to facilitate access to populations in need.

You are obliged to proactively facilitate access and not to pile mountains of bureaucratic and political obstacles on humanitarian organisations.

You are not asked to tell humanitarian organisations who is in need – but rather to allow neutral and impartial humanitarian organisations to do independent needs assessments in full transparency.

And if there are divisions on whether people in a specific context are in need – I would expect States to allow humanitarians to do their jobs as a default precautionary measure unless imperative security reasons prohibit.

International humanitarian laws, principles and concepts have been developed to protect people not to make a point towards your political adversaries.

I urge you to base your policies in this regard on the law, which is the only reasonable basis for consensus and to leave political controversies outside of humanitarian concerns.


The COVID-19 crisis is fast threatening to become a protection crisis.

At a time when they are most needed, helpers are under attack. Health systems are targeted, health workers are abused. Since March this year, the ICRC has recorded 208 COVID-19-related attacks against healthcare in more than 13 countries.

The socio-economic impacts will cause new waves of despair - leaving people facing hunger and poverty exposed to abuse and exploitation.

States' response to the pandemic shows the risk, that without checks and balances, emergency health measures can become abusive tools to control a population's movement or withhold services.

We fear that some groups, perhaps those considered 'the enemy', may be excluded from life-saving measures. For example, any vaccine distribution in volatile and contested places will be difficult, but it must be available to all equitably.

On a more positive note, States have also stepped up in response to the pandemic, implementing more humane policies. If I have optimism during this bleak crisis, it is because I see the potential for actors to take measures which spark a recommitment in support of humanitarian protections.

For example, we have seen the safe release from detention of many people deprived of liberty; the decisions to regularize non-documented migrants to ensure they can access healthcare; and the adoption of unilateral ceasefires.

Arms bearers remain engaged with ICRC during the crisis with new opportunities for dialogue and advice arising:

As police forces and military personnel are called on to maintain public order, the ICRC has maintained a dialogue with public forces to ensure that international law is upheld when conducting operations.

And as part of our broader dialogue with hundreds of non-State armed groups across the world, the ICRC is engaged with Islamist and Salafi scholars in the Sahel on a fatwa on COVID-19, giving guidance on the respect of the deceased and on health protocols.

I am also encouraged by the potential for multi-stakeholder responses to influence behaviors. This week 40 global leaders joined ICRC's call on governments to work together to stop cyberattacks on the health sector.

Excellencies, it cannot be overstated: the extreme vulnerability of people in conflict zones to repeated shocks is in large part the result of a disregard of States' and other belligerents' legal obligations towards populations under their control over many years.

IHL protects civilian life, essential services and the natural environment. It prohibits torture and ill-treatment, like rape and sexual violence. It protects those not participating in hostilities as well as provides special protection for health services and health workers. It protects those living under occupation, those in detention, the missing, the dead and their families and it prioritizes restoring family links.

Respecting - and ensuring respect - for IHL in all circumstances would protect people from the impacts of war but also shield against the subsequent shockwaves, whether health, economic or environmental.

We call on you to ensure that in all situations, whether enforcing exceptional measures in response to the public health emergencies, during the conduct of hostilities or in situations of public unrest, that your responses are guided by the utmost respect for the protection of civilians.

We also call you to respect the dignity and rights of persons deprived of liberty, the deceased, and the families of the missing.

We understand consensus is difficult, but human life and dignity cannot be the price of inertia.

We ask that you are stronger in word and deed in improving behaviors on the battlefield and ensuring that human life and dignity are protected – without exception.

Thank you.