ICRC statement to UN Security Council open debate on protection of civilians in armed conflict

Delivered by ICRC Director-General Yves Daccord

I am honoured to address the Security Council today on the topic at the heart of the ICRC's mission and mandate, and at the centre of all aspects of our daily work in armed conflicts around the world.

My wish is that – for once – we could discuss protection of civilians in a positive and celebratory tone. That we could say the impressive progress, and that we could talk about the impressive progress, on the normative and policy fronts is finally matched by action on the ground. That would be our wish. But sadly, we can't. Once more the gap between the two remains enormous. And the reality on the ground is characterised by a dire lack of protection.

We all know what that reality looks like. It is the child left orphaned and permanently disabled after the family home was hit in an air strike. It is the doctor threatened by fighters for treating someone from the "other side." The detainee languishing in an overcrowded jail with no procedural safeguards. Or the woman living in torment for decades without news of her missing husband. And it is the countless men, women and children suffering the long-lasting consequences of armed conflicts in every region of the world, each with their own tragic story.

Our focus here today – as always – is how best to respond to such terrible suffering, and how to prevent it from happening in the first place. How to close the gap between words and action and actually protect civilians.

Our basic message is simple and very clear: the single most effective way to reduce suffering in war is to uphold the fundamental principle of humanity. The most important tool for achieving this is already in our hands. That tool is international humanitarian law, which is designed to respect and preserve life and dignity even in the worst situations.

Equally clear is that primary responsibility for respecting international humanitarian law – and ensuring respect – falls to States.

There can be no excuse and no exceptions to the applicability of the law. No matter how complex, protracted or fragmented an armed conflict may be. No matter what labels or designations are given to the parties.
What we often see is States and their partners claiming they are fighting individuals designated as "terrorists" or "foreign terrorist fighters," sometimes including children, rather than a conventional enemy. That international humanitarian law does not apply, or applies differently somehow.

There is also a general trend of denial of responsibility for international humanitarian law violations, including for direct or proxy partners – or of passing responsibility to someone else down the line. This only increases the climate of impunity and ultimately causes yet more suffering.

Let us be very clear. International humanitarian law protects everyone who is not – or no longer – taking part in hostilities. Exceptional behaviour by one side – even including large scale violations of international humanitarian law – can't justify an unlawful response. On the contrary, States must not only respect international humanitarian law, they must also influence those they partner with or support, to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law.

In many of the ongoing armed conflicts we see in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, belligerents receive significant support from States – for example in the form of logistical support, training, financing, or partnered operations. States that supply belligerents with weapons have a special responsibility and are particularly influential, as they are providing the means by which violations may be committed. The message must be clear: there will be no support without compliance with the law.

Failure to follow the rules – essentially a failure of humanity – results in much of the suffering that we see every day in our work. I would like to highlight four ongoing issues that we find of particular concern, with clear recommendations for improving the situation on the ground.

The first issue – which echoes the concerns of the Secretary-General – is the enormous impact on civilians of the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. Working on the frontlines of armed conflicts as we do, the ICRC sees close-up the often-devastating humanitarian consequences of these weapons – in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Ukraine, in Afghanistan, in Libya and elsewhere.

With conflicts becoming more urbanised and protracted, these consequences are becoming more widespread and are lasting longer, sometimes for generations. This is not only in terms of traumatic loss of life, livelihoods, infrastructure and services, but also the deep mental scars.

The obvious solution lies in changing behaviour. In view of the unique vulnerabilities of civilians living in population centres, it is crucial that parties to armed conflicts reassess and adapt their choice of weapons in urban warfare. To this end, we once again urge States and parties to armed conflicts to avoid the use of explosive weapons that have wide area effects in densely populated areas. This "avoidance principle" suggests a presumption of non-use of such weapons due to the high risk of indiscriminate effects and of consequent harm to civilians.

Damage and disruption to essential services brings me to the second main issue of concern – the protection of health care.

Security Council resolution 2286 was a very significant first step towards better implementation of existing international humanitarian law on medical care in armed conflict.

However, during the two-year period since its adoption, from May 2016 to April 2018, the ICRC recorded over 1,200 incidents of violence against health care in 16 countries: health workers killed, threatened, kidnapped; ambulances obstructed; medical supplies destroyed or prevented from crossing front lines; hospitals bombed or looted.

The gap between words and action is rather dramatic. It is imperative that all States – not only parties to conflicts – uphold international commitments and make the protection of health care a national priority. One of the best ways to do so, we believe, is to focus on national and regional initiatives, including the exchange of best practices between States.

More specifically, we would urge all States to take the following five priority measures:

First one: review their military doctrine, procedures, planning and practice to protect medical care in the conduct of military operations.

Second: ensure their domestic legislation enables health care professionals to carry out their work impartially and safely, in line with IHL and medical ethics.

Third: ensure conflict-specific training and support for health care professionals, and capacity-building and preparedness of health care systems.

Fourth: gather good quality data to develop better tools to prevent violence from happening and mitigating its consequences when it does.

And five: support behavioural change initiatives and other means of awareness-raising aimed at increasing respect for health care workers in general so that they can work in safety even under the most difficult circumstances.

The third issue, Mr President, of concern I'd like to highlight today is deprivation of liberty. The ICRC visits hundreds of places of detention in conflict zones around the world every year. In many, the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is the norm, with dramatic consequences on detainee physical and mental health. Severe overcrowding is also common. This is often due to a high incarceration rate, shortcomings in the judicial process and limited infrastructure.

All too often, places of detention are inhumane and unmanageable. In the long run this has negative repercussions on society as a whole, fuelling cycles of conflict and abuse.

So how can this be remedied? States have an obligation to respect human dignity at all times, including in temporary places of detention. Prison infrastructure needs to be planned in line with the Nelson Mandela rules. Detention staff should have the training, capacity and independent oversight to manage places of detention, humanely and adequately. Judicial guarantees and procedural safeguards must be enforced rapidly after capture or arrest, in keeping with the relevant law.

ICRC's visits to places of detention in conflict zones can play a critical role in ensuring that detainees are treated humanely. We therefore call on States and other parties to armed conflict to grant the ICRC access to places of detention.

The fourth – and final – issue is the many people who go missing in armed conflict. No one can even be sure how many people are affected. If we just look in Iraq alone, for example, estimates on the number of missing persons from past and current conflicts range from 250,000 to 1 million. Just for Iraq alone. The plight of these people, and their families, can go on for many years, even decades.

People have the right to know what happened to their missing relatives. International humanitarian law contains a range of provisions to prevent people from going missing in armed conflict and to account for those who do. Parties to conflict have an obligation to provide information and make efforts to put families back together, no matter who they are and where they come from.

The way in which cases of missing persons are handled can have a long-term impact on reconciliation, on stability and on peace. For better or worse. We can help. We can support parties to conflict to fulfil their obligations, which will in turn help people to rebuild their lives.

This year, we are launching a four-year project with a global community of practitioners to develop professional standards and practices to improve the response to missing persons and their families.
Mr President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Despite this gloomy picture, it would be wrong – and indeed dangerous to believe – that international humanitarian law is always violated and is therefore useless. Any normalisation of violations could have a terrible impact on those affected by armed conflict. Conversely, we believe that a more positive focus on international humanitarian law can actually strengthen compliance.

While we are rightly concerned by violations of the law, we must equally recognise the many positive examples of respect. These, of course, rarely make the headlines.

To this end, the ICRC is currently undertaking the International Humanitarian Law in Action project to collect and promote evidence-based examples of respect for the law from parties to conflict around the world. This, we hope, will reaffirm and strengthen the positive impact of international humanitarian law in today's armed conflicts.

Mr. President,

In conclusion, there is clearly still a long way to go before the various normative and policy achievements regarding protection of civilians are felt where they really matter. Not on paper, but on the ground.

The ICRC therefore urges States to take decisive action in the four particular areas that I highlighted. To avoid the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. To counter a wide range of threats to health care. To ensure humane treatment and conditions of detention for all detainees. And to commit to preventing people from going missing and properly accounting for those who do. This means not just States themselves, but their partners and proxies too.

We stand ready to guide and support States and other stakeholders to take practical measures to achieve these goals.

Action in these four areas would go a long way towards ensuring better protection of civilians in armed conflicts everywhere. And it would do much to restore faith in our common humanity.