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Protection of civilians: ICRC statement to the UN Security Council

22-08-2013 Statement

Statement by Dr Philip Spoerri, director for international law and cooperation, ICRC. UN Security Council New York, 19 August 2013

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,


... the situation of  large numbers of civilians caught up in armed conflict is nothing short of catastrophic (...) men, women and children are deliberately targeted – killed or wounded, raped, forced out of their homes, their property destroyed; abused in every sense."

I am honoured to once again have the opportunity to brief the Security Council on a topic that is at the heart of the mission and mandate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and central to all aspects of our daily work in armed conflict zones around the world. On behalf of the ICRC, my thanks go to Argentina for the invitation.

Without being unduly pessimistic, it is fairly certain that in terms of concrete progress on the ground, good news will be in short supply at today's debate, as it was in all the preceding ones in recent years. While considerable progress continues to be made on the normative and policy fronts towards the protection of civilians, including the historic adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty in April of this year, the reality on the ground, sadly, continues to reflect a dire lack of protection.

In some of the diverse contexts in which the ICRC works, the situation of large numbers of civilians caught up in armed conflict is nothing short of catastrophic. Not only are many of today's armed conflicts increasingly protracted, and increasingly complex in both their causes and consequences, they are also characterised by an alarming contempt for the rules of international humanitarian law by belligerents.

The result, simply put, is spiralling human suffering. In some cases, men, women and children are deliberately targeted – killed or wounded, raped, forced out of their homes, their property destroyed; abused in every sense. Many others suffer ill treatment in detention or go missing. Their plight – and the anguish of their families – often continues long after a conflict ends.

The elusiveness of lasting political solutions to many of today's armed conflicts has effectively consigned millions of people to chronic suffering and hardship, with humanitarian actors left to try to alleviate the worst of it despite sometimes formidable constraints. However, neither the complexity and intractability of many of today's armed conflicts, nor the burden of the global economic crisis, can be an excuse for States to ignore their primary responsibility to the people affected by these conflicts.

The most critical challenge to the protection of civilians – among the five core challenges first set out by the UN Secretary General in his 2009 report on the issue – is the need to improve respect for international humanitarian law by States and non-State armed groups, in international and non-international armed conflicts, regardless of their causes. This also entails enhancing accountability for violations of IHL both of parties to conflict and of individual perpetrators – be it at the national level, including based on universal jurisdiction, or through international tribunals.

Working to ensure respect for IHL – and thereby endeavouring to help protect civilians – is a fundamental tenet of the ICRC's mandate and work, and is reflected in our impartial, neutral and independent approach. On the ground, this entails continuous engagement with all  parties to the conflict, including non-state armed groups, and building pragmatic relationships with the relevant political forces at both local and national levels in a confidential manner, thus building trust. It means remaining close to the beneficiaries and responding to actual needs in a particular context, negotiating access step-by-step, and scaling up operations when necessary. This helps to facilitate the widest possible acceptance and respect, and through this the widest possible humanitarian access to civilians in need. It also helps to ensure the safety of our staff.

Yet the risks in pursuing such an approach are ever-present, both for the ICRC and for Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies with whom we work closely in many challenging and volatile contexts. Indeed, it is primarily the lack of respect for IHL by parties to conflict that impedes humanitarian access and endangers humanitarian personnel.

As we mark World Humanitarian Day today, we acknowledge humanitarian workers everywhere and pay special tribute to those who have lost their lives in the line of work. For both the UN and the ICRC, the attacks ten years ago against our staff and facilities in Baghdad will bring back particularly painful memories. Tragically, attacks against humanitarian personnel have continued unabated in numerous countries around the world.

If anything, those terrible events further strengthened the ICRC's resolve to achieve broad-based acceptance and understanding of its impartial, neutral and independent humanitarian approach, and to continue to build its security strategy based on this acceptance.

Today, as ten years ago, finding the right balance between the humanitarian impact of our programmes and the risks faced by our staff – fully mindful of the impact that halting operations has on vulnerable people – is an ever-present challenge in the ICRC’s daily work.

We will continue to rise to these challenges and persistently negotiate our way through to those most in need, all the while pressing the parties to conflicts – both States and non-State armed groups – to respect their obligations under IHL.

I would like briefly to mention one specific issue of particular concern to the ICRC, one that I have reiterated at successive briefings to the Security Council, and that is the issue of violence against healthcare. Here I am talking about direct attacks on hospitals, ambulances, or healthcare personnel; about blocking ambulances from accessing wounded people, or holding them up for hours at checkpoints; harassment of healthcare workers, who sometimes see their colleagues killed or arrested for having treated opposition fighters or civilians and fear for their own lives; and about the diversion of medical supplies.

In order to have a better overview of the magnitude of the violence affecting healthcare, the ICRC has collected non-exhaustive data in 23 countries. During the period from January 2012 to May 2013, the ICRC noted more than 1200 incidents affecting the delivery of and access to healthcare, including the killing of 112 medical staff, and approximately 250 incidents involving attacks on or denial of access to ambulances which were delivering often life-saving support. In sum, a blatant disrespect for the special status of health facilities, transport and personnel is still all too common.

Working to address this most serious yet under-reported humanitarian problem remains one of the ICRC's priorities. Some progress has indeed been made in terms of mobilising concerned stakeholders and raising awareness and understanding of the issue. Yet there is still a prevailing disrespect by belligerents for the inviolability of health facilities, transport and personnel, which is ultimately making safe access to healthcare impossible for untold numbers of people in need. The ICRC therefore once again urges Members of this Council to initiate or actively support efforts to address this urgent humanitarian concern, and to press others to do the same.

Respect for the laws of war not only provides protection for civilians during armed conflict but also helps facilitate post-conflict recovery. Conversely, attacks on civilians and key civilian infrastructure such as health and educational facilities can have harmful repercussions long after a conflict ends.

On a more positive note, I would like to come back to another point I raised during the last protection of civilians debate in February. The ICRC has consistently highlighted the unacceptable human cost of the widespread availability of conventional arms, and called for the adoption of a strong Arms Trade Treaty. We were therefore pleased to see this happen in April.

We now urge States to swiftly ratify and implement the treaty, to translate normative progress into tangible results on the ground. The ATT’s historic achievement is in establishing a global norm prohibiting the transfer of weapons where these would be used to commit or to facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law, among other grave crimes. Provided this norm is implemented in a consistent, objective and non-discriminatory manner, it will go a long way towards achieving the treaty’s explicit humanitarian purpose of reducing human suffering and saving civilian lives.

In practice, this entails carrying out a rigorous risk assessment prior to authorising arms transfers, and refraining from transferring weapons to parties to armed conflicts that have a track-record of serious violations of international humanitarian law. A look at a number of current armed conflicts, however, reveals an evident gap between the transfer requirements expressed in the ATT and the transfer practice of some States.

Achieving effective protection of civilians through improved compliance with IHL requires a concerted effort by a range of stakeholders, the ICRC being just one of them. As I mentioned in February, the joint Swiss-ICRC initiative to strengthen compliance with IHL –arising from the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent –continues to gain momentum. Most recently, in June of this year, more than 70 States participated in constructive discussions at a meeting held in Geneva, affirming strong general support for regular dialogue among States on IHL, and looking at possible functions of an IHL compliance system. As requested, Switzerland and the ICRC will formulate concrete proposals and options particularly on the form and content of a periodic reporting system on national compliance; the form, content and possible outcome of thematic discussions on IHL issues;
the modalities for fact-finding, including possible ways to make use of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission; and features and tasks of a Meeting of States.

The main onus however remains on States, and I end with the ICRC's plea for them to show the requisite political will to turn legal provisions into a meaningful reality; to show good faith in protecting the victims of armed conflicts – conflicts that in view of some of the challenges I have mentioned today are likely to become ever-more complex and intractable in the years to come.



Philip Spoerri