Peacekeeping operations: ICRC statement to the United Nations, 2016

26 October 2016

Statement by the ICRC to the United Nations General Assembly, 71st session, Fourth Committee, item 56 of the agenda. General debate on the comprehensive review of the whole question of peacekeeping operations in all their aspects. 

We are gathered here this week at a particularly precarious time for global peace – one that is marked by numerous international and non-international armed conflicts that have left millions of people as victims around the world. Today, peacekeeping operations remain one of the UN’s vital tools for safeguarding international peace and security worldwide.

The International ICRC is fully aware of the challenges facing UN peacekeeping operations, as we work alongside them in many places, such as South Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We see that UN peacekeeping operations are conducted in ever more violent and complex situations that are rapidly changing and present numerous challenges. We also see that their operations are increasingly multidimensional, with peacekeepers required to mediate between opposing parties, deliver essential services, promote the rule of law, handle detainees and ensure that civilian camps are protected, to name but a few of their actions. 

It is critical to look at how peacekeeping operations can overcome these challenges and maximize their efforts in today’s complex multi-stakeholder environment. We believe that there are two overarching issues that need to be considered in this debate.

First, when UN peacekeepers are mandated to take all necessary steps to protect the civilian population in the area in which they are operating, it is critical that they ensure compliance with all relevant bodies of domestic and international law – including international humanitarian law (IHL) where this is applicable. In addition, UN peacekeeping operations are increasingly complex, and multidimensional operations have broadened in scope. In order to respond to these varying and growing needs, capacities and funding must keep pace and evolve accordingly.

The ICRC would therefore like to draw attention to the important issue of detention, which is sometimes overlooked and underfunded, and where capacities in terms of logistics, infrastructure and trained human resources may not be adapted to the reality on the ground. During their operations, UN Missions may have to resort to detaining individuals and should ensure that they plan for this eventuality in advance. 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 can give rise to several complex practical and legal challenges. We wish to stress that detention facilities must operate in accordance with relevant international law and standards, including IHL where applicable, and should be run by trained and supported detention personnel who have the necessary means at their disposal to ensure effective detention management. In this regard, we have welcomed the UN’s efforts to establish a framework for this purpose, notably through the 2010 Interim Standard Operating Procedures on Detention in UN peacekeeping operations, and other standard operating procedures designed for specific contexts. The ICRC encourages their full application and implementation, in particular with regard to the humane treatment of all detainees, pre-emptive and adequate resourcing, and compliance with the principle of non-refoulement when considering the transfer of individuals under the control of UN Missions. Based on our expertise and experience in the area of detention, we regularly engage with peacekeepers on these issues and stand ready to help them prepare in advance for situations in which they may have to arrest and detain individuals.

Under IHL, States and international organizations such as the UN are required to ensure that the parties to the conflict comply with IHL. Through their dialogue with high-level political authorities and with the armed forces they support, UN Missions are uniquely placed to fulfil this obligation, particularly when it comes to ensuring that civilians are protected during the planning and conduct of military operations. 

Ensuring respect for IHL is a challenging task conditioned by the resources available to the bearer of that obligation. The UN must exercise due diligence when deciding how to promote compliance with the law among the conflicting parties, such as making its support for joint operations conditional upon compliance with IHL, training weapon bearers, enquiring about IHL violations, and liaising with the local population and authorities. In May, the ICRC held a multi-stakeholder roundtable in Addis Ababa on the obligation to ensure compliance with IHL during multinational operations in Africa. Exchanges were very fruitful and candid, and helped to improve understanding of the common challenges faced during peace support operations, particularly when identifying, preventing and halting violations of IHL committed by other forces.

The second overarching issue is how peacekeeping operations can maximize their mandates to protect civilians. While many others have already richly contributed to this issue, we would nevertheless like to underline four key points.

Firstly, given that peacekeepers and humanitarians work so closely in the field, it is vital for the ICRC to continue to be perceived and understood as the strictly neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian organization that it is. Any kind of confusion or blurring between the political mandate of peacekeeping missions and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s principles could jeopardize our access to those in need and affect the protection and assistance afforded by organizations like the ICRC to victims of armed conflict.

Secondly, we recognize that military, political, humanitarian, law-enforcement and detention personnel need to remain close to the population they are there to protect. Yet in some contexts close association with a multidimensional Mission could put individuals in local communities at risk. Some of these concerns can be mitigated by conducting individual risk assessments, appointing civilian personnel to liaise with local communities, and systematically applying the principle of "do no harm".

Thirdly, local communities possess tremendous strength, particularly in times of fragility and emergency. Neither humanitarians nor peacekeepers should limit or prevent their empowerment, as it is the people in the communities who know their environment and the changing dynamics best. A central role for peacekeepers in building a protective environment includes community engagement to create and support spaces in which locals can negotiate. However, in doing so, peacekeepers need to be present and provide physical protection to effectively deter violence where necessary.

Finally, the civilian population must be protected against any harm caused by those mandated to protect them. Any form of violence, including sexual violence, perpetrated by any component of a peacekeeping operation, undoubtedly undermines and jeopardizes their mission. When committed in the context of an armed conflict, rape and other forms of sexual violence may constitute serious violations of IHL that entail criminal responsibility and must be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted. And at all times, such acts may constitute a violation of international human rights law. Through our confidential dialogue, we raise concerns about allegations of sexual violence, including the consequences of such acts for victims and communities.

In conclusion,

We stand ready to increase – in volume and depth – our training programmes for peacekeepers on IHL and the protection of civilians, both ahead of deployment and in-theatre, and to strengthen our protection-related dialogue with all parties. We are ready to engage on the front lines of conflict and with all weapon bearers to find ways to ensure the protection of victims of armed conflict and compliance with IHL.

We look forward to continuing to work with all peacekeeping operations personnel, troop-, police- and civilian-contributing countries and the UN Secretariat in order to further strengthen the successful cooperation we have established over the decades.