Deputy Secretary-General’s press encounter following his briefing to the Security Council meeting on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict
New York, 19 January 2016
DSG: As you will have noticed, dear friends, this debate has met with enormous interest. You see an unusually long list of speakers – I think there were 78 - the latest I saw. I think this is a sign of how deep this goes, and how important the protection of civilians is. The reality of course, on the ground, as I have seen through my time at the UN, but also for the UN to be reminded of some of its core functions, namely to protect civilians. Only yesterday you learned, and you probably wrote about it – some of you – that in the period between January 2014 and October 2015, 90,000 people died in Iraq.
You can go all around the world and see this, I would call, decay of respect for civilians, respect for human life, and I would say decay in understanding and respecting international humanitarian law.
We have seen, recently, unbearable sieges and use of food as a method of starvation, which constitutes a war crime. We have seen the attacks on hospitals and schools in Yemen and Afghanistan. We have seen the indiscriminate use of explosives in populated areas. We have seen the lack of the principal of proportionality, which is a basic rule of international law – proportional responses to acts of violence. And as I said in my statement, quoting the Secretary-General and Peter Maurer, the head of the ICRC – even wars have rules. And we need to be reminded of that.
Also, we know, when you analyse these figures - and I have been doing that and seeing it myself ever since the early ‘90s - when I was Emergency Relief Coordinator, it is very often the women and the children who pay the price, who are the most vulnerable. This is also obvious in another area that we need to focus on much more this year, and that is the situation of refugees and migrants, where I think we need to see how much the vulnerable groups are paying the price for these movements. It wasn’t only the young Aylan Kurdi. It is being repeated over and over again. So many children and women have drowned among the now soon 4,000 people in the Mediterranean. You have seen the people trekking over the landscapes of Europe, that it is the children and women who are paying the highest price. So therefore I was gratified to speak today, and to notice this very strong support from the speakers that I had time to listen to. I was very glad that the President – Uruguay – mentioned the Human Rights Up Front initiative, which we are pushing very hard, that we need to, instead of waiting for the atrocities, act on the human rights violations stage as a means of very practical prevention. We talk a lot about prevention, but I think this programme is indeed a concrete result of asking the question ‘what can we do in practice?’
The last point is to make the point, since I am also involved in the political crises in the world, that we hope also that very much this engagement to which you have contributed so much – you in the media - on the sieges and the starvation, that we must ban these phenomena, these images, dating back to a medieval habit of sieges that we saw on the films replicating the situation in the thirteenth century. Now we have it today, and if we really take advantage of this engagement that we have noticed maybe we can achieve results on the other Madayas – because there are several of them. Probably up to 400,000 are living under similar conditions. And that would not only be a great humanitarian act – supported by the Council and neighbouring countries but it would also be a step in the direction of deescalating the conflict in Syria. I have been mediating I think in six conflicts and every time I remember having called for de-escalation, reduction of violence, waiting for the negotiations to start. This could then be a contribution to the process which we now really have to protect, based on the Security Council Resolution of December, namely a political process to end this horror in Syria. So, there is a huge humanitarian challenge, a basic challenge of humanity I would say, but at the same time a very concrete, practical conclusion to the talks that we want to start as soon as possible on Syria. So, over to you.
Q: Deputy Secretary-General, Burundi is another place where there are fierce on protection of civilians with growing human rights violations. The Ugandan mediation seems to not to be making any progress; the UN is sort of sidelined, waiting for it to make progress. What role do you think the UN should have in getting the parties to engage and have a real and substantive dialogue there?
DSG: I very much look forward to the results of the visit of the Security Council. It is very important that the Security Council goes to Burundi in the next few days and that they will have a unified position, vis-à-vis on the Burundi issue. I know our Special Envoy, Jamal Benomar, is in contact with Security Council members, and we are also very eager, very anxious, to keep close contact with the African Union and the southern African community. I hope that we will have good cooperation from their side. I know the Chair of the African Union, Madame Zuma, is deeply engaged with this. When I was in Valletta in a migration meeting, she very strongly made the case that the AU and the UN must work hand in hand. We very much hope to see progress. We see very worrying signs on the ground, and also certain nervousness in Rwanda, that also is of concern. What must not happen in Burundi is that this conflict moves from a political phase to an ethnic phase. When you take that step then we always pay a price because then there is a new element entering the conflict which would be much harder to control.
Q: Deputy Secretary-General, many of the countries who spoke or who will speak are partially responsible for not protecting civilians, and it is never their fault. How is the implementation of many of the good ideas that have been thrown out, how is that ever going to be possible?
DSG: Well, you heard the many concrete proposals. I listed some of them, but you also had a very thorough list from the intervention of the representative of the ICRC and of course from the OXFAM representative. What this meeting is intended to – and I have talked to the Minister of Uruguay yesterday, is to really be a Cri de Coeur – have an outcry on this issue – because we see so much of the suffering and we see also the [inaudible] and you probably picked that up - the lack of respect for what has already been agreed. I have dealt with these issues since the early ‘90s and I find it disturbing that there is even a lack of knowledge and awareness of these Conventions – Geneva Conventions, Refugee Conventions - classic international humanitarian law – has to be known. We must show respect for all the people in our profession negotiating these documents back in the past as binding. And I think you can contribute to make that point.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Secretary-General. I would like to follow up on Evelyn’s question, because it always comes back to the fact that you have 74 speakers today, and then people say well, what is the UN doing, the UN is really not doing anything concrete to try and end this except to make a lot of speeches and raise the issue. But this has been going on for years. I mean the Security Council has been calling for the lifting of sieges for at least two years. And this hasn’t happened. So how do we turn, or how do you turn words into actions that are actually going to have a meaningful impact?
DSG: Well, first of all, I want to make a very strong case for all the people that are out there, the thousands and thousands of people from the UN agencies, from the ICRC, from the Médecins Sans Frontières, from the whole NGO community, who are out there right now. Every morning I receive news about people we have lost or who have been wounded out in the field. It is usually nationals. For instance, in Syria, I don’t know the figure, but it is staggering how many people we are losing. I was talking to Yacoub El Hillo the other day, and it is not only a question of very sensitive and difficult negotiations, it is also getting out there, passing roadblocks and reaching people. And then having the material ready, with convoys and cars and going to different places. I have been in this myself, out there in the field, so I really want to pay tribute to them. It is not just words. It is just not words.
We would like to do more. We are no world government, we have the instruments there, and we expect Member States to live up to it. And a propos accountability, we have of course an International Criminal Court, and the calls for nation states to set up tribunals themselves to live up to these obligations. But I think we have come to a point now where we really have to raise voices in a different way, and I think this meeting today was such a chance, such an opportunity. And by the way we must not give up. It is not dignified to give up. We have got to keep fighting.
Q: The UK Ambassador mentioned sexual abuse.
Q: He did. And so I wanted to know…
DSG: I did also.
Q: So, since that report came out about the Central African Republic, what has the Secretariat or the 38th floor done to ensure that in the future if a UN staffer becomes aware of child rape, that it goes to the right people?
DSG: This is very serious. As you know, the Special Representative in Central African Republic resigned, was asked to resign. One of the others who were named by the Deschamps group, panel, was considered to have abused authority has left the United Nations, retired. And we have a group set up right now, led by the Chef de Cabinet - Edmond Mulet - that is going to work very, very quickly on following up the recommendations of the panel. Mr. Mulet and his group will report to the Secretary-General by the end of this month. We will look into both issues of individual responsibility, but also primarily on the systemic problems. This reminded me of my reaction to the Sri Lanka tragedy back in 2009. The panel came to the conclusion that it was systemic failure, so we drew the [conclusion] to that – we need to have a systemic response. That was the origin of Human Rights Up Front. This time also the Deschamps report talks about, almost in the same language – systemic reactions. I also expect, or we also expect, Member States again to draw the conclusions from this. In so many cases we have passed on to the Member States very damning reports, but very little sometimes has been done by Troop Contributing or Police Contributing countries. So we need to have nation states following up these [inaudible].
Q: Deputy Secretary-General. I don’t want to be disrespectful to you or to the Security Council, but beyond this room people will be looking at another debate on protection of civilians and looking at the reality of the wider world in the Middle East and saying, well, this is not achieving anything. The United Nations is not protecting civilians. The Security Council is not protecting civilians. The system isn’t working. Isn’t it time for complete reform?
DSG: Well, if we do what we are asked to do, or required to do, by the binding resolutions, by the instruments of international humanitarian law, we would not have this type of problems. But I would say that there is work, there is progress being made, and we need to, I think, work in a new way, working much more hand in hand with non-governmental organizations – with the ICRC, with Médecins Sans Frontières … I spent some time earlier this week with Joanne Liu, the very impressive President of Médecins Sans Frontières, and I think we simply have to live up to what we are expected to do. And I would say that this particular attention that is being given to the Medaya situation is something that we are now building upon, and if we can achieve further progress in this area and show that progress is being made, then I think that we can report progress. But I know our whole life here is now seeing huge conflicts, and conflicts getting out of control, and above all the new elements coming in from a combination of sophisticated weapons and an enormous flow of weapons, and then groups that use fear – fear-mongering – as a method. We are faced now with terrorist groups that actually use this type of violence, unspeakable violence, unspeakable cruelties, like a competition of brutality, in order to instil fear. Therefore, we must be cool, keep our heads cool and keep working and doing our duty and making progress. I can list situations where we are making progress but I will not. It is not enough. That is why it was [inaudible] I think expressed this cri du coeur – this outcry – that we really have now to go back to the basics of human dignity, but not only to human dignity but also existing humanitarian law.
Q: You mentioned the need for accountability and the respect for international humanitarian law…do you think it is time to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC, and what can countries and the international community do to give teeth to justice systems?
DSG: Well, right now we are focussing on trying to end the war through a political process, but these issues have been raised that they are of such seriousness that they should be brought to some element, some stage of accountability. What the ICC actually says, and I was part of the creation of it in the late 1990s, is that we expect Member States to have set up processes that will bring in the aspects of accountability, and if they don’t do that then of course there are different ways of bringing it to the ICC. But in this case, and you have seen that many times, and you have shown this frustration yourself, this Council hasn’t been unified in bringing it to the ICC. But if you look at the statements by Zeid Al Hussein, our Human Rights Commissioner in Geneva, you will see that he is listing a number of situations around the world right now as areas where they border to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and in some cases even ethnic cleansing. There should be accountability. If we don’t have accountability, there will be proliferation of this in the future.
Now we all have a huge task in front of us. I am not trying to be too optimistic. I usually say, when I get the question if I am an optimist or a pessimist, these days I say ‘I am still an optimist, but I am a worried optimist.’
Thank you very much.
Press Conferences on 19 January 2016