Fate of civilians in armed conflict ‘grim’ with thousands killed, hospitals under attack, Security Council told

A group of children at the UNMISS Protection of Civilians (POC) camp in Bentiu, Unity State, South Sudan. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

19 January 2016 – With scores of civilians being killed in conflicts worldwide, tens of thousands facing starvation in besieged cities, and hospitals under attack, the United Nations Security Council held a day-long session today amid calls for greater accountability and expanded use of the International Criminal Court.

“The reality on the ground is grim and bleak,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told the Council at the start of the session on the ‘Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.’ “In conflicts around the world, great numbers of civilians are deliberately or recklessly killed, maimed, tortured and abducted. Sexual violence is rampant,” he said.

“Hospitals must be sanctuaries in wartime. But recently we have seen a surge in attacks on hospitals and health centres. In Afghanistan, an airstrike destroyed a surgical ward with devastation everywhere. In Yemen, hospitals have been attacked and children, who have not been killed by bullets and bombs, are dying from the lack of medicine and health-care,” he stressed.

He noted that in 2014, 92 per cent of those killed or injured by explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians, with 19,000 civilians killed in Iraq between January 2014 and October 2015 and the “horrible reality” in the Syrian town of Madaya, where thousands of people have been denied food and medical treatment for months, leading to starvation and death.

“This carnage of innocent people must not continue,” he declared. “Let us remember that Madaya is just one place where this, shamefully, is happening – and this, today, in the 21st century,” Mr. Eliasson underscored.

“A siege that denies people access to the basic necessities of life is one of the gravest violations of international law and an affront to our shared humanity,” he continued, noting that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recently condemned such violations, naming them war crimes. “These crimes simply must stop, end now,” he added.

Mr. Eliasson cited the new challenges presented by non-State extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Boko Haram in West Africa. “These groups brazenly and brutally murder thousands of people, kidnap young girls, systematically deny women’s rights, destroy cultural institutions and undermine the peaceful values of religions,” he said.

In the face of such ubiquitous violations of human rights he called for enhanced efforts to prevent conflicts in the first place, and where this failed to ensure full accountability through the accession of all States to the International Criminal Court which was set up to judge war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as by domestic adoption of robust criminal legislation.

Also briefing the Council, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Vice-President Christine Beerli warned that violations of international humanitarian law are occurring daily. “Explosive weapons are used indiscriminately in populated areas. Civilian populations and civilian objects are deliberately targeted,” she said.

“Civilian communities are forcibly displaced and trapped in lengthy sieges, deprived of means of survival. Women and men, girls and boys are regularly the victims of rape and sexual violence. Schools are attacked or used for military purposes, leading to their loss of protection against attack. Detainees are summarily executed, tortured and kept in inhumane conditions and denied due process of law,” she explained.

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