Accountability key to protecting civilians in conflict, Security Council told

John Holmes

7 July 2010 – The targeting of civilians, sexual violence and the denial of humanitarian access remain widespread in armed conflict, senior United Nations officials told the Security Council today, urging greater efforts to end impunity for such acts.

“The conduct of parties to conflict is inevitably affected by their sense of susceptibility to punishment and accountability to their victims, and clear signals that impunity will not be tolerated,” UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said during the debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

He told the meeting, which heard from 40 speakers, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, that the danger is that the normative framework has outpaced the enforcement will and capacity of the international community.

“So I urge the Council to take a robust approach to accountability,” said Mr. Holmes, who addressed the 15-member body for the last time as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.

He noted that while national justice systems must remain the first line of defence, the international community must explore alternative means when those systems prove unable or unwilling to bring perpetrators to justice and provide remedies to victims.

He welcomed the commission of inquiry launched by the Secretary-General for crimes committed during violence in Guinea last September, as well as the panel set up to advise Mr. Ban on accountability for violations of humanitarian and human rights law in Sri Lanka, especially in the last stages of the conflict in that country, and the mechanism recently set up by the Government of Sri Lanka itself.

“The point is that this scrutiny needs to become the norm,” Mr. Holmes stated. “Actual and would-be violators need to understand that they have nowhere to hide. Politics must not always win out where powerful States or vocal States with powerful protection are involved.”

He suggested that a permanent mechanism be established somewhere in the UN system to conduct inquiries on serious allegations, more or less automatically, noting that this would prevent calls for investigations from being politicized from the start.

“Accountability of perpetrators is key for the protection of civilians,” stated Ms. Pillay, who noted that among the most significant actions taken by the Council for the protection of civilians is the establishment of commissions of inquiry.

She noted that States bear the primary responsibility for carrying out investigations and prosecutions regarding genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations. Several countries have established national commissions of inquiry, which are welcome demonstrations of a State’s willingness to seek justice.

“True accountability can only be achieved,” she stressed, “if national inquiry mechanisms are credible, independent and impartial.”

Such national commissions should have the power of access to all relevant authorities, persons and information, as well as adequate financial and human resources. “It is these conditions that will instil confidence and trust in these national initiatives,” she said.

The Council has acted to promote accountability, Ms. Pillay added, noting that it has explicitly made its support for the military operations of national armed forces conditional on their observance of human rights law, humanitarian law and refugee law.

“We need to ensure that the UN and bilateral support to military operations and security sector reform is tied to promoting respect for human rights,” she stated.

For his part, the Secretary-General said the Council has adopted important measures designed to put civilians first, but there is more that it can and must do, including maximizing the impact of peacekeeping missions in protecting civilians.

He welcomed the Council’s efforts to increase the emphasis on the protection of civilians in designing peacekeeping mandates. However, he added, that for peacekeeping operations to successfully implement these mandates, the Council must provide them with the sustained political support they require.

“The Council’s engagement is vital to make certain that peacekeeping operations are adequately resourced, and to ensure that mission leadership is fully empowered to take forward this complex mandated task on the international community’s behalf,” said Mr. Ban.

The other key challenges the Council must address are increased compliance by non-State armed groups with international law, and ensuring accountability. “More must be done to increase the expectation that violators will have to face the consequences of their actions,” the Secretary-General stated.


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