Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

About the author(s):

Katharine Fortin is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University where she teaches IHL and IHRL. Before joining Utrecht University, she worked at the ICTY, ICC and Norton Rose Fulbright. She is the author of The Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2017) which won the 2018 Lieber Prize. She has written widely about the framework of law that applies to armed groups in non-international armed conflicts and is one of the editors of the Armed Groups and International Law blog.

Today the Security Council is holding its thirteenth open debate on the Protection of Civilians (‘POC’) in Armed Conflict. The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict has been a thematic issue on the Security Council’s agenda since 1999, when the President of the Security Council asked the United Nations Secretary-General to submit a report on ways in which the Council, acting within its sphere of responsibility, might contribute to the physical and legal protection of civilians in armed conflict. Since June 2006, the Security Council has held two open debates a year on the issue of Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict at which member States have the opportunity to make statements on the Council’s role on the issue.

The main issue on today’s agenda will be the discussion of the Secretary-General’s ninth Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict dated 22nd May 2012. This report provides a description of the situations in which issues relating to the protection of civilians in armed conflict has been most acute, summarizes the actions the Security Council has taken with the aim of protecting civilians and lists encouraging developments.

In the main body of the report, the Secretary-General provides updates on progress made in response to the five core challenges which were identified in his May 2009 Report. In 2009, the UN Secretary-General argued that the enduring need to protect civilians during armed conflict stemmed from the fundamental failure of parties to an armed conflict to comply with their legal commitments to protect civilians. According to the Secretary-General, this failure demanded reinvigorated commitment and determined action on five core challenges:

  1. enhancing compliance with international law;
  2. enhancing compliance by non-State armed groups;
  3. enhancing protection by more effective and better resourced United Nations peacekeeping and other relevant missions;
  4. enhancing humanitarian action; and
  5. enhancing accountability for violations.

In paragraphs 41-46 of the Report, the Secretary-General deals with the theme enhancing compliance by non-State armed groups. In this section, the Secretary-General reiterates the need for consistent engagement with such groups to seek improved compliance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law and to gain humanitarian access. On the issue of compliance, the Secretary-General refers to the report ‘Rules of Engagement: Protecting Civilians through Dialogue with Armed Non-State Actors‘ which the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian and Human Rights published in October 2011. The Secretary-General notes the report’s conclusion that there should be greater and more systematic engagement with non-state armed groups on issues on compliance and that engagement should take place as early as possible.

Other aspects of the ‘Rules of Engagement: Protecting Civilians through Dialogue with Armed Non-State Actors’ report which the Secretary-General notes included (i) the importance of understanding the factors which affect a given armed group’s compliance with international norms (ii) the importance of agreements and undertakings on international norms being in writing so that they can be disseminated through the group (iii) the importance of impartial external monitoring and (iv) acknowledgement of improved compliance. The Secretary-General also stresses the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian and Human Rights’s emphasis that engagement does not constitute political recognition. Despite this, the Secretary-General provides examples of instances in which States had proactively encouraged engagement on the issue of compliance. He also provides examples of instances in which the United Nations has engaged with armed groups in order to conclude action plans on the issue of the recruitment and use of child soldiers in armed conflict.

Addressing the argument that engagement with armed groups constitutes their recognition, the Secretary-General states that a failure to engage almost always results in more civilian casualties. In conclusion, the Secretary-General expresses concern for counter-terrorism legislation that has the effect of either impeding humanitarian action or criminalizing the engagement with armed non state groups by humanitarian organisations.

In today’s open debate, all aspects of the May 2012 report are expected to be discussed by State parties. Statements are also expected from Baroness Amos, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General on Humanitarian Affairs, Ivan Simonovic, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General of the New York office of the OHCHR and Emergency Relief Coordinator and Dr Philip Spoerri, ICRC Director on International Law.

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