Peacekeeping operations: ICRC statement to the United Nations, 2015

06 November 2015

General debate on the Comprehensive review of the whole question of peacekeeping operations in all their aspects.

United Nations, General Assembly, 70th session, Fourth Committee, item 56 of the agenda, statement by the ICRC, New York, November 2015.

In what has been a transformative year for United Nations Peace Operations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) very much appreciated the inclusiveness displayed in the processes of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations and subsequent UN Secretary-General (UNSG) reports. The ICRC confirms its readiness to continue to advise key stakeholders in its areas of expertise during the next phase of the Peace Operations reform process.

As a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian organization that protects and assists victims of armed conflict, the ICRC is regularly present in contexts where UN peace operations are carried out. While we may have distinct missions and mandates, our humanitarian operations often face similar challenges, such as: longer-lasting armed conflicts, increasingly dangerous environments for our staff, and ongoing challenges to access people in need. Moreover, UN peace operations are also entrusted to carry out complex multidimensional mandates, with tasks including: the "protection of civilians," the use of force, mediation, rule of law, and securing access for the delivery of essential services, to name but a few.

With regard to the use of force, we have observed in recent years that contemporary peace operations are increasingly requiring both police and military components to resort to force. Related to this, the High-Level Panel review did draw particular attention to the fact that certain robust tasks assigned to UN forces risk making them, and the Mission as a whole, a party to the armed conflict. UN peace personnel – troops and police alike – are also regularly tasked with strict law enforcement tasks in the course of their mission. With this in mind, the ICRC reiterates the importance of clarifying and understanding the legal framework that governs the use of force in any given UN Peace Operations context. This includes determining when and how international humanitarian law (IHL) applies to a UN Mission, in particular when entrusted with a robust mandate.

In this regard, the ICRC recalls that the applicability of IHL to UN forces, just as to any other armed forces, is determined by objective facts on the ground, irrespective of the mandate the Security Council assigns them or the term used to designate the opposing party or parties. In order to protect all persons affected by armed conflict, IHL applies without adverse distinction when the conditions for its applicability are met. Neither the nature of the armed conflict, nor the causes espoused by the parties, change the fact that IHL – when applicable – will govern their involvement for such time as they remain a party to the conflict.

The ICRC draws attention to one important issue not addressed in the Panel's report: UN Missions are increasingly required to resort to the detention of individuals. Such individuals may be common law criminals or persons deprived of their liberty through capture or surrender for reasons related to an existing armed conflict, including for transfer to the International Criminal Court. The ICRC recognizes that this trend gives rise to several complex practical and legal challenges. We emphasize that detention facilities must operate in accordance with relevant and applicable international law and standards, including IHL. In this regard the ICRC has welcomed the efforts made by the UN to establish a framework to this end, notably through the elaboration of the 2010 Interim Standard Operating Procedures on Detention in United Nations Peace Operations, in addition to others designed for specific contexts. The ICRC encourages their full application and implementation, in particular with regard to the humane treatment of all detainees and the respect of the principle of non-refoulement when considering the transfer of individuals under UN Missions' control.

In order to meet these requirements, it is also crucial that UN Peace Operations are adequately prepared in terms of budget, infrastructure, logistics capacity and trained staff. It is Member States who have the primary obligation to ensure adequate training for UN Peace Operations. In its capacity as promoter and guardian of IHL, the ICRC will continue to offer its support and expertise for the training of UN peacekeepers during pre-deployment and on-site, including by drawing attention to the 1999 UNSG Bulletin on the Observance by United Nations forces of IHL. In contexts where the UN Mission includes a corrections component in support of the national authorities, the ICRC stands ready to coordinate with UN advisers to ensure that their efforts are complementary and to discuss the contextual reality to achieve sustainability and continuity. The ICRC also considers that transfer agreements between UN Missions and host States can be an essential tool to protect detainees and help guarantee the lawfulness of transfers to local authorities.

UN peacekeeping operations are increasingly mandated to take all necessary steps to protect the civilian population in their area of operations, including by ensuring that the parties to the conflict comply with IHL. This collective aspiration to protect civilians was reaffirmed as a core IHL principle and a moral responsibility for the UN by the High-Level Panel and UNSG reports. Based on its field observations, the ICRC sees these conclusions as a timely way to make the obligation to respect and ensure respect for IHL contained in Article 1 common to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 more operational. For example, the particular role played by a UN Mission, through its dialogue with high-level political authorities and the armed forces it may be supporting, places it in a unique position to fulfil its obligation to ensure respect for IHL, in particular with regard to respect for the protection of civilians during the planning and conduct of military operations. In these circumstances, the UN Mission is particularly well placed to exert its influence, insofar as possible, to put an end to ongoing IHL violations and to prevent breaches of IHL from occurring or reoccurring.

The ICRC concurs with the High-Level Panel's assertion that humanitarian organizations play essential – albeit complementary – roles in protecting civilians and that, where appropriate, timely coordination between such organizations and peacekeepers is indispensable. However, it is important that such coordination does not impact how independent and impartial humanitarian organizations operate and the perception of them working according to these principles. The distinct roles and responsibilities of each actor should be widely understood in the local communities in which they are present.

The ICRC also understands the emphasis placed in the aforementioned reports on the need for Peace Operations to work closely with local communities. We recognize that military, political, humanitarian and law-enforcement personnel need to maintain proximity to the population they intend to protect. At the same time, one must assess whether – in some contexts – close association with a multidimensional Mission may pose personal risks to individuals in local communities. If this is deemed to be the case, applying the principle of "do no harm" will be crucial to mitigate those risks. One option is to call upon civilian personnel to liaise with local communities.

In this regard, the ICRC's Professional Standards for Protection Work, published in 2013, are worth mentioning. These standards, which reflect the consensus of most humanitarian and human rights protection agencies, address, inter alia, the relationship between UN missions and humanitarian organizations. They provide essential guidance regarding the division of responsibilities, and are an important benchmark for effective interaction among various agencies and organizations involved in protection work. As the UN Peace Operations review process moves towards the implementation stage, we are hopeful that these Standards will inform the development and implementation of, amongst other objectives, civilian protection strategies by UN Peace Operations.

The ICRC hereby renews its commitment to maintaining and developing a highly constructive dialogue on operational, protection, legal and training issues relating to peace operations with the United Nations both in New York and in the field. The ICRC also stands ready to engage member States, in particular troop- and police-contributing countries, members of the Security Council and the C-34, in a candid and open dialogue on these important issues.