Peacekeeping operations: ICRC statement to the United Nations, 2017

Statement by the ICRC to the United Nations General Assembly, 72nd session, Fourth Committee, item 55 of the agenda. General debate on the comprehensive review of the whole question of peacekeeping operations in all their aspects.

Contemporary armed conflicts are becoming more intractable and are having a devastating impact, especially on civilians. UN mandates have gained in scope, with missions increasingly involved in stabilization tasks and, at times, operating alongside non-UN forces to quell threats emanating from non-State armed groups. Under their growing protection mandate, UN peacekeepers have a clear duty to take action to protect civilians. Their tasks cover medical evacuation of the wounded, ensuring that civilian camps are protected, assisting the national police, correction services and the judiciary to name but a few of their multidimensional activities; they may even require robust action. However, the resources and capacities to deliver on those tasks are overstretched. The ICRC teams active in the same areas of operations as peacekeepers can only testify to the multifaceted challenges they face.

At a defining moment for the UN peace and security architecture, oriented towards more effective peacekeeping, the ICRC would like to share three messages.

First: respect and ensuring respect for the applicable legal framework is of essence. The complex environments in which UN forces operate increase the likelihood of their being called upon to use force. Therefore, it is critical that UN forces comply with all relevant international rules, including international humanitarian law where it is applicable.

States and international organizations such as the UN are also required to ensure that parties to a conflict comply with humanitarian law. Under this obligation, they must take steps to bring parties to the conflict back to an attitude of respect for humanitarian law, in particular by using their influence on these parties.

At a time of enhanced partnership between the UN and the African Union, we call upon regional and sub-regional organizations to strengthen respect for international human rights and humanitarian law, as applicable.

Protection mandates, reflecting the obligation to ensure respect for humanitarian law should, however, be matched by adequate resources. Capacities, training and funding must keep pace if UN missions are to deliver on the actions expected of them.

Second: detention by UN peacekeeping missions is a reality. Robust peacekeeping operations raise the likelihood that UN peacekeepers may have to capture, detain and hand individuals over to host State authorities. Taking into account this reality, UN peacekeeping missions must be prepared to meet their legal obligations in relation to detention. They must also have the facilities necessary to provide for conditions of detention as required by international law. The ICRC is well placed to understand the operational, legal and policy challenges that detention poses to UN missions. We visit detainees who are in UN custody, discuss our recommendations and do our best to find concrete solutions together. Nevertheless, detention related activities of missions remain underfunded with limited capacities in terms of logistics, infrastructure and trained human resources. The ICRC welcomes the ongoing UN’s efforts to revise the Interim Standard Operating Procedures on detention in UN peacekeeping missions, adopted in 2010, and other standard operating procedures designed for specific contexts. We encourage their circulation and full implementation once adopted. Moreover, when UN missions conduct detention operations, special attention must be paid to the principle of non-refoulement, that is, not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country where they are liable to be persecuted. In this regard, we consider that transfer agreements signed by UN missions with the host States, aimed at ensuring that the rights of detainees handed over are upheld, could be an essential tool facilitating a lawful transfer to the local authorities.

Third: Different approaches to protecting civilians must be combined, but not blurred, to achieve the best possible protection outcome.

While preserving its neutral, independent, impartial and humanitarian identity, the ICRC has, over the years, stepped up its involvement with UN peacekeeping missions. We have discussed with the leadership of these missions their analysis of the vulnerabilities of the populations at risk for operational-planning purposes. Because of our proximity to communities affected by conflict, we have encouraged UN missions to take the views of people deemed to be at risk into consideration in implementing their protection mandate. We have been a reliable sounding board and have provided a reality check based on our extensive presence on the ground. We have also assisted troop- and police-contributing countries by conducting pre-deployment briefing sessions on international humanitarian law. In 2016, almost 18,000 peacekeepers received such sessions from the ICRC. The ICRC is committed to doing more, and doing it better.

Overall, this engagement has been positive, marked by frankness, pragmatism and realism. This year, for the second time, the ICRC held a round-table with multiple participants in Addis Ababa, aimed at addressing the legal and operational challenges arising from peacekeeping missions in Africa. The exchanges were fruitful and helped improve our understanding of the common challenges faced.

We must complement one another’s efforts, safeguarding one another’s role, mandate and competencies, while maintaining a safe space for neutral and independent humanitarian organizations to assist and protect people affected by conflict.

In this regard, an update of the ICRC Professional Standards for Protection Work will be issued in early 2018. We hope that the revised standards will inform and guide the development and implementation of civilian protection strategies by UN peacekeeping missions. In this spirit, we look forward to continuing to work with all peacekeeping missions, troop- and police-contributing countries and the UN Secretariat to further strengthen the constructive cooperation established over the past decades.