Protecting Civilians ‘Must Be a Priority’ when Conflict Prevention Fails, Deputy Secretary-General Stresses at Event on Inherent Challenges

25 September 2013

Protecting Civilians ‘Must Be a Priority’ when Conflict Prevention Fails, Deputy Secretary-General Stresses at Event on Inherent Challenges

25 September 2013
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Protecting Civilians ‘Must Be a Priority’ when Conflict Prevention Fails,


Deputy Secretary-General Stresses at Event on Inherent Challenges


Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, to the high-level side event addressing the challenges to enhancing the protection of civilians in armed conflicts and other situations of violence, in New York on 25 September:

Let me begin by thanking the Government of Switzerland for organizing this event of crucial importance for millions and millions of affected civilians in conflicts around the world.  Switzerland has long been at the forefront of efforts to enhance the protection of civilians, lately through convening the “Group of Friends”, as well as through the development of a national strategy.

The presence today of the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), my friend Peter Maurer, is particularly fitting as the ICRC marks 150 years of work and respected service in protecting civilians from the ravages of war.  Advancing protection of civilians has also been an important element of my professional life, both with the United Nations and the ICRC.  I, therefore, take part in this meeting with particular interest and engagement.

When we cannot prevent armed conflict, the protection of civilians must be a priority.  It is enshrined in all major moral, religious and legal codes, and is not specific to any particular culture or tradition.  The protection of civilians is a human, political and legal imperative that recognizes the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.  It is a cause that unites us all in our responsibility to mitigate the impact of warfare, to alleviate suffering and to save lives.

We continue to see massive loss of civilian life in warfare.  In fact, we see growing brutalization in conflicts and, to a horrifying degree, through acts of terrorism.  Today, in Syria, we see civilians targeted, along with medical facilities and schools.

In 2009, there were large-scale violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the final stages of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka.  Last year’s report by the Internal Review Panel examined the UN’s response to that violence, and concluded that it was inadequate — on the part of the Member States and by the UN system itself.

We have worked intensively inside the Secretariat to identify ways to implement recommendations from the review.  Protecting people from atrocities is an overarching responsibility involving all the critical functions of the United Nations — human rights, humanitarian, political and peacekeeping.  This requires close coordination, information sharing, courageous advocacy and a strategy owned and delivered by the Organization as a whole.

Equally important, the Panel concluded that the United Nations can meet this responsibility only when it operates with the firm support of Member States, both within and outside the Security Council.  The Security Council’s Experts Group on the Protection of Civilians is to ensure that Council members are informed of protection challenges and can monitor implementation of its resolutions.  The “Group of Friends” has provided welcome support, and I hope we can make better and more systematic use of this forum.

Mandating peacekeeping missions to protect civilians remains one of the most significant actions taken by the Security Council to enhance protection.  Today, 9 out of 15 peacekeeping operations, representing 95 per cent of peacekeeping personnel, have such mandates.

Still, peacekeeping missions cannot replace the role of a functioning State and its own institutions of justice and security.  This we can see in Syria, where the serious lack of security coupled with bureaucratic constraints and limitations on non-governmental organizations continue to prevent aid from reaching those in need.

Yesterday, in the General Assembly, the Secretary-General made a strong call for the Government and opposition forces in Syria to grant immediate humanitarian access.  International humanitarian law is clear:  parties to conflict must give their consent to relief operations, and this consent cannot be withheld arbitrarily.  But, what constitutes arbitrary denial of consent?  And what are the consequences when consent is denied?  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in coordination with the ICRC and others, are working to bring clarity to this concept.

A second area in need of urgent attention is the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas.  Explosive weaponsmay be used in conformity with international humanitarian law and the principles of distinction and proportionality.  But, when we witness, again and again, the horrific consequences of the unchecked use of such weapons in cities and towns, we have to ask whether the law is adequate.

These are important questions; I trust you will reflect on them this morning, including on ways that we might use forthcoming UN meetings to move them forward.

I thank you for coming together during this very busy week to focus on this vital issue.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.