Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, in New York today:
I thank the Government of Poland for convening this open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
The most effective way to protect civilians is to prevent conflicts and to end them. This is why conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding are, and will remain, the highest priorities for the whole United Nations system.
Conflict around the world is unleashing relentless horror and suffering for millions of civilian women, girls, men and boys. More than 128 million people around the world need immediate humanitarian aid, and this staggering figure is mainly driven by conflict.
Last year, the United Nations recorded the death and injury of more than 26,000 civilians in just six countries affected by conflict: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. Ten thousand of these were in Afghanistan.
Civilians in conflict zones are also subject to horrific violations of human rights, including rape and other sexual violence. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, the United Nations documented more than 800 cases of conflict-related sexual violence last year — a 56 per cent increase on 2016. The consequences of such attacks remain with survivors for the rest of their lives.
Conflicts continue to force millions of people to flee their homes for an uncertain future, often with limited access to basic help and protection. At the end of 2016, 65.6 million people were uprooted by war, violence and persecution. Countless others go missing.
The bombing and shelling of towns and cities kills and injures tens of thousands of civilians every year and lays waste to homes and vital infrastructure, including water and power systems. In Syria, for example, attacks involving air and ground-launched explosive weapons reportedly killed and injured significant numbers of civilians in Aleppo, Dayr al-Zawr, Homs, Idlib, Raqqah and Rif Dimashq, destroying essential infrastructure, schools and hospitals.
Around the world, medical facilities are routinely attacked. Humanitarian and medical personnel are targeted or prevented from carrying out their duties. In 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded 322 attacks resulting in 242 deaths among medical personnel and patients. This is unconscionable.
In some cases, caring for the wounded and sick — the most basic acts of humanity — can lead to criminal proceedings against health workers. Medical supplies are looted or removed from convoys. Parties to conflict resort to threats or impose bureaucratic procedures that prevent people from accessing the health care they desperately need. Women, particularly those who are pregnant or need antenatal care, are often disproportionality affected.
Conflict is also an important driver of global food insecurity. Ten of the 13 major food crises in 2017 were conflict-driven. In Yemen, for example, nearly 3 million women and children are acutely malnourished and more than 8 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from.
Bleak as the situation is, my report outlines some reasons for hope. There is growing recognition that respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law contributes to reducing conflict and countering terrorism.
In a General Assembly resolution in May last year, Member States stressed that, when counter-terrorism efforts violate international humanitarian and human rights law, they betray the values they seek to uphold and fuel violent extremism. I welcome this acknowledgement.
Some parties to conflict and Member States have also taken steps to enhance respect for the law and improve the protection of civilians. These include measures to reduce the harm resulting from the use of certain types of explosive weapons and mechanisms to track civilian harm in Somalia; and the adoption of a national policy on preventing civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The United Nations strongly supports these efforts.
We also see Governments, civil society and others stepping up to advocate for change. Nineteen African States adopted a communiqué on protecting civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in Maputo last November. I was proud to join the campaign based on the slogan, “civilians are not a target”, launched by the United Nations and partners on World Humanitarian Day last year.
Such initiatives have the potential to translate into concrete change. To that end, my report recommends three actions.
First, all Governments should develop national policy frameworks to protect civilians in conflict. These should set out proactive measures that mitigate and respond to civilian harm by national militaries, partner forces and international coalitions. They should make arms exports conditional on respect for international humanitarian and human rights law, in line with the Arms Trade Treaty, and they should improve their ability to protect civilians in urban warfare, including finding alternatives to the use of explosive weapons.
Second, Member States should support the United Nations and others in engaging with non-State armed groups to develop policies, codes of conduct and action plans to protect civilians. Seventeen non-State armed groups have already signed action plans with the United Nations to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers. We need more of these initiatives.
Third, Member States should support heightened advocacy on the protection of civilians; and take concerted efforts to ensure accountability for serious violations to end the climate of impunity. This should include credible national investigations into serious violations and full support for the work of the International Criminal Court.
I urge this Council and all Member States to give these practical measures serious consideration. I urge Council Members not to allow political differences to prevent or undermine action to protect civilians. This is vital not only to save lives and safeguard our common humanity. Protecting civilians in conflict is also the only way to lay the foundations for sustained peace.
Violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in situations of armed conflict are correlated with protracted wars, with radicalization and violent extremism.
Avoiding civilian casualties and providing unhindered access to humanitarian assistance speak to who we are as members of one human family. They are essential to avoid a cycle of instability and resentment, and make lasting peace and reconciliation possible. I urge you to do everything in your power to protect the millions of civilians caught up in conflict around the world.