27 May 2020

COVID-19 Pandemic Amplifying, Exploiting World’s Fragilities, Secretary-General Tells Security Council Debate on Protecting Civilians in Armed Conflict

In a world dramatically altered by COVID-19, civilians in conflict hotspots — weakened by fighting, cut off from aid and now facing escalating attacks by parties exploiting the pandemic — require stronger support from Governments and a more unified international response, delegates heard in a 27 May videoconference meeting* of the Security Council.

“The pandemic is amplifying and exploiting the fragilities in our world,” said Secretary-General António Guterres, addressing the 15-member Council as they considered in an open debate their agenda item on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.  While COVID-19 is causing enormous human suffering and straining health systems, economies and communities, those already weakened by years of conflict are particularly vulnerable.  Their protection is becoming even more challenging amid curtailed access to safety and services and as some leaders exploit the pandemic to adopt repressive measures.

Introducing his most recent report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (document S/2020/366), he said COVID-19 also poses a major threat to refugees and internally displaced people in crowded camps and to communities that lack sanitation and health-care facilities.  Cases have been confirmed in a refugee camp in Bangladesh and a protection of civilians site in South Sudan, he said, reiterating his call for a global ceasefire aimed at allowing the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to the world’s most vulnerable people.  Expressions of support from warring parties have largely not translated into concrete action, and in some cases the pandemic may even create incentives for an escalation of hostilities while international attention is focused elsewhere.

Spotlighting efforts by United Nations peacekeepers to support Governments as they protect civilians, health-care and humanitarian workers amid the pandemic, he detailed the findings of his latest report.  It found little progress in 2019 on compliance with international law, with more than 20,000 civilians reported killed or injured in just 10 conflicts — a figure which is just a fraction of the real total.  Noting the particularly severe impact of explosive weapons, he urged Governments to make explicit commitments against the use of such weapons in areas populated by civilians.  Conflict also severely affects children, women, persons with disabilities and those who go missing in theatres of conflict, and more than half of people suffering from acute food insecurity live in conflict areas.  “We expect COVID-19 to cause a sharp increase in this number,” he said.

Turning to attacks against humanitarian actors, he said that the World Health Organization reported 199 health-care workers were killed in more than 1,000 attacks in 2019 — a shocking increase from 2018.  A recent attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul amid the COVID-19 pandemic further demonstrates the urgent need for States to protect the provision of medical care in conflict.  In 2019, the world marked 20 years since the Council added the protection of civilians to its agenda, and 70 years since the adoption of the Geneva Conventions.  While those anniversaries sparked several important commitments — including a Call to Action to bolster respect for international humanitarian law — more compliance and accountability are still needed.

Against that backdrop, he reiterated his call on States to develop national frameworks to strengthen the protection of civilians in armed conflict, while ensuring accountability by prioritizing investigation and prosecution.  Governments should rethink their approaches to urban welfare and commit to protecting civilians, including by conditioning arms exports on respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.  Efforts are needed to reassert international legal authority over the use of drones, and the legal, moral and ethical implications of new lethal autonomous weapons systems must be addressed.  “Machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement must be prohibited by international law,” he stressed, also spotlighting the need to tackle the malicious use of technology to conduct cyberattacks on civilian infrastructure.

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), drew the Council’s attention to the death and destruction wrought by explosive weapons with wide-area effect — such as cluster bombs — when used in populated areas.  Stressing that their use raises serious questions about compliance with international law and signals an urgent need for a change of behaviour to protect civilians, he said a strong and unequivocal political declaration committing States to concrete action in that direction would be a good first step.  ICRC is currently drawing up a set of recommendations to that end.

However, he said divisions within the Council on critical elements of humanitarian law — notably access to populations in need — are creating greater suffering.  While ICRC is responsible for delivering humanitarian services in line with the Geneva Conventions, it is the Council’s responsibility to facilitate such work.  “You are obliged to proactively facilitate access, and not to pile mountains of bureaucratic and political obstacles on humanitarian organizations,” he stressed, adding that the Council should not try to tell humanitarian organizations who is in need — a task for neutral and impartial humanitarian actors.  International humanitarian law, principles and concepts are designed to protect people, not to score points against political adversaries.

“The COVID-19 crisis is fast threatening to become a protection crisis,” he continued, reporting that ICRC has, since March, recorded 208 coronavirus-related attacks against health-care facilities in more than 13 countries.  The manner in which States are responding to the pandemic demonstrates that without checks and balances, emergency health measures can be abused to control population movements or withhold services.  “We fear that some groups, perhaps those considered ‘the enemy’, may be excluded from life-saving measures,” he said, emphasizing that any potential vaccines must be distributed equitably.

Describing the pandemic as an opportunity for parties to recommit to humanitarian principles, he pointed to the release of detainees, the regularization of non-documented migrants and the adoption of unilateral ceasefires.  “It cannot be overstated — the extreme vulnerability of people in conflict zones to repeated shocks is in large part the result of a disregard of States’ and other belligerents’ legal obligations towards populations under their control,” he said.  The Council must ensure that its actions are guided by the utmost respect for the protection of civilians.  While consensus is difficult, “human life and dignity cannot be the price of inertia”, and the organ must be stronger both in word and in deed to ensure that people are protected without exception.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia, called for renewed efforts to protect the world’s most vulnerable people — especially women, children and persons with disabilities trapped by armed conflict — amid the ongoing COVID‑19 pandemic.  “Their lives have been defined, often shorted and narrowed, by conflicts they have had no part in creating,” she said, adding:  “We must find a way to end this cycle of immeasurable loss and human tragedy.”

Calling for bold and urgent action, she said the transformations called for in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development cannot be achieved without peace and stability.  The most effective way to protect civilians is to prevent conflicts in the first place.  “The conflict averted often does not make headlines, but it saves lives and livelihoods,” she said.

To that end, she urged the Council to take concrete steps to tackle current conflict hotspots and prevent new ones from emerging.  Where peacekeeping mandates need changing, “we must change them”, and where the Council needs to be broadened and strengthened, “we must adapt and reform”.  Indeed, where some of the organ’s members continue to hold the others back through their use of the veto power, a workable formula must be found to preserve collective interests.  She recalled that the United Nations — and the Council in particular — have long represented hope and peace to people around the globe.  “Seventy-five years ago, our nations acted with courage to end a global war,” she said, calling on Council members to find the political commitment long absent since that time.  “We — you — must act now,” she said.

Drawing attention to worsening conflicts, rising violent extremism and increasing desperation among the world’s youth, she demanded prompt action by a range of stakeholders.  The Council’s role remains pivotal and should become more representative of all the peoples of the world.  Outlining the Council’s support for interventions which ended the long conflict in Liberia, she went on to describe the COVID-19 pandemic as a grave human tragedy which is testing the international community’s ability to react.  Even amid the current emergency, many crucial lessons from the past remain salient, especially the importance of women’s leadership and the need for more multilateralism.

Spotlighting another critical and relevant lesson, she said leaving poor countries out of new medical and technological developments will not make wealthy nations any safer.  “This pandemic has humbled all of us,” she said, adding that it has once again demonstrated how interconnected the planet is.  Indeed, COVID-19 will certainly change the world of tomorrow.  “It is now upon us, upon you, to ensure those changes are for the better,” she concluded.

In a debate that followed, many speakers echoed the Secretary-General’s appeal for an immediate global ceasefire aimed at enabling countries to combat COVID-19.  However, a large number voiced concern that, far too often, both States and non-State warring parties flout their international legal obligation to protect civilians.  Some delegates spotlighted particular conflicts, especially long protracted ones, while voicing disappointment about the related international response — or lack thereof — since the devastating pandemic began.

Noureddine Erray, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Tunisia, joined other speakers in voicing concern that the protection of civilians may deteriorate even further amid the COVID-19 pandemic — “a context which might be seen by some parties to conflicts as an opportunity to strike”.  The challenge to civilian protection is not an inadequate legal framework, but poor compliance and little accountability.  Listing a range of factors contributing to protection challenges, he cited growing intercommunal, ethnic and religious tensions; the increased involvement of armed groups and non-State actors, including foreign terrorist fighters and mercenaries; the widespread availability of weapons; and the use of remotely piloted aircraft or drones.  The Council has a moral obligation to support the Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire amid the pandemic, he added, advocating for the unanimous adoption of a related draft resolution circulated by Tunisia and France.

Retno L.P. Marsudi, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, said the pandemic is not halting conflicts in many parts of the world.  Echoing the Secretary-General’s appeal for an immediate global ceasefire — which will require political will and Council unity — she described the Occupied Palestinian Territory as a textbook example of why compliance with international law is so desperately needed.  The imminent annexation of Palestinian lands will undermine a two-State solution, threaten regional security and shift the world’s focus away from combating COVID-19.  She called for women’s empowerment to be at the heart of the protection of civilians, declaring:  “Empowering women means empowering the whole nation.”  To that end, Indonesia plans to establish a South-East Asian Network of Women Peace Negotiators and Mediators and to grow the number of its female peacekeepers serving with United Nations missions.

The representative of South Africa emphasized that COVID-19 is impacting all countries, irrespective of their development levels and whether or not they are experiencing conflict.  However, countries in conflict will require additional support, as access to humanitarian assistance has been compromised, hospitals have been destroyed or used as military facilities, and medical transports continue to be attacked.  Stressing that protection of civilian facilities must maintain their civilian character and not be misused by warring parties, he spotlighted the plight of civilians in such protracted conflicts as the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Western Sahara.  All parties — both State and non-State actors — must comply with their international legal obligations, he said, calling for accountability mechanisms at the national level supported by broader regional and international mechanisms and for proper funding for peacekeeping operations.

Viet Nam’s representative agreed that the protection of civilians in conflict remains an arduous task for the international community and the Council.  It is high time to redouble efforts and transform political will and commitments into action.  Underscoring the paramount importance of conflict prevention and peacebuilding, he echoed other speakers in highlighting the need to tackle root causes of conflict and ensure equality, justice and development.  Regional organizations should play a lead role in promoting preventive diplomacy and confidence-building, he said, drawing attention to the many strides of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in that regard.  However, it is the primary responsibility of States to protect their citizens when conflict breaks out.  Calling for enhanced national ownership, he noted that peacekeepers can also assist in certain cases.  “It is essential that they be given a clear protection of civilians mandate and be adequately resourced and trained to meet the mandate’s expectations,” he stressed.

Louis Straker, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Trade and Commerce of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, underscored the link between the global climate crisis and the protection of civilians agenda.  The impact of extreme weather in the Sahel and the Greater Horn of Africa is being compounded by the expanding desert locust infestation.  “The complications of climate, conflict and COVID-19 must be systematically and simultaneously addressed to ensure durable security and development outcomes for all civilians in these regions and beyond,” he said, emphasizing that human dignity must remain the cornerstone of any credible attempt to promote lasting peace and security.

The representative of the United States said all parties to conflict must comply with international humanitarian and human rights law.  Pointing to situations in Syria and Myanmar, she said that the protection of civilians requires a collective effort.  The Council must help protect journalists, human rights defenders and others in civil society from reprisals, while Member States must address violations and abuses through relevant national, regional and global legal mechanisms.  She underscored her country’s support for the Secretary-General’s call for national protection frameworks and encouraged all Member States to endorse the Kigali Principles, thus helping peacekeepers to implement their protection of civilians mandate.  She also joined other speakers in stressing that efforts to protect civilians and build peace cannot be achieved without the full, equal and meaningful participation of women.

The representative of the Dominican Republic agreed with the briefers that the pandemic has laid bare many underlying and systemic vulnerabilities, particularly in countries affected by armed conflict.  Attacks on humanitarian workers, hospitals and schools, and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, undermine efforts to combat the coronavirus.  “Violations to international humanitarian law should not be the norm, they should be the exception,” he said.  Without concrete action, however, it will difficult to promote a culture of protection.  He called for an immediate halt to fighting in urban settings, adding that the protection of civilians is not a one-size-fits-all issue and that the United Nations must be equipped to address the particular protection needs of the populations they serve.

Tariq Ahmad, the United Kingdom’s Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the United Nations, welcomed the recognition that international interventions should go beyond addressing physical pain to tackle psychological harm and issues such as family separation.  Noting that the United Nations too often hesitates to use its tools — even where the need is great — he pointed out that in Syria, half the pre-war population is displaced and the regime of Bashar al-Assad continues to prevent aid from reaching millions in need.  Protecting civilians in also crucial in Yemen, whose conflict has claimed more than 100,000 lives, and in Myanmar, where a recent spike in hostilities has resulted in deaths, displacement and restrictions on humanitarian access.  Facing the potentially catastrophic impacts of COVID-19, States should redouble their efforts to protect civilians, including from those who seek to use the pandemic to their advantage.

The representative of France echoed some of those points, expressing regret that the Council has been unable to condemn violations of international law in Syria and Myanmar.  It is absolutely necessary that the organ renew the cross-border mechanism in Syria and that populations in need, including in north-east Syria, receive aid through the most effective and direct routes.  He announced that France is preparing a national plan of action to improve training in international humanitarian law for State and non-State actors.  A political declaration on improving the protection of civilians must address the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons, but it shall not stigmatize such weapons themselves.  He emphasized the need to protect journalists in armed conflict situations and for greater efforts to support justice for victims of mass atrocities.

Niger’s representative warned that many conflict hotspots continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate, noting that sub-Saharan Africa has seen a 37 per cent increase in violence with dozens of civilians killed in Mali, Burkina Faso and his country.  Meanwhile, the already grave situation in Libya is worsening amid the over-armament of its protagonists, in flagrant violation of the Council’s embargo.  The organ remains divided in the face of those tragedies, “instead of adopting a posture of unity that would have sent a clear message to the various actors committing this violence”.  Niger has developed a manual on humanitarian law for its armed forces and fully subscribes to the human rights compliance framework of the G5 Sahel joint force.  Underlining the crucial need for humanitarian access amid the pandemic, he also spotlighted the critical role of peacekeeping missions and the importance of inclusive peace processes that engage local communities.

The representative of China called for efforts to tackle the root causes of conflict, noting that poverty and hunger are the main drivers of violence.  He advocated for political dialogue, mediation and negotiation as the most effective ways to prevent conflict.  Many of today’s protracted wars resulted from breaches of the Charter of the United Nations, as in the case of unauthorized use of force in Syria and Iraq.  “This should not happen again,” he stressed, demanding that all warring parties abide by their commitments under international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention.  As COVID-19 brings new risks, parties should prioritize the interests of civilians and take proactive measures to combat the virus.  All unilateral sanctions should be lifted, he added, warning that such measures — along with foreign occupation and terrorist activities — cause suffering to civilians and cannot be tolerated.

The representative of the Russian Federation regretted that “unprecedented politicization of the humanitarian issue” continues, calling for more unified efforts to protect civilians amid COVID-19.  Responses to the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal will be incomplete without waiving sanctions that undermine countries’ ability to respond to the pandemic.  In Syria, for example, suffocating sanctions continue to prevent authorities from purchasing critical medical equipment.  Such coercive measures are even more shameful when used by a Government against its own people, as in Ukraine.  Underlining the need to comply with international law without any political manipulation, he said there is no need to develop new international legal concepts “that allegedly fill so-called gaps in the protection regime”.  In fact, such efforts would only weaken the protection of civilians.

Also briefing the Council was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia.

The President of Estonia, the Minister for State of Germany and representatives of Belgium and Viet Nam also participated.

[In addition to the participants in the videoconference meeting, non-Council members, observers and other delegations were also invited to provide written statements for the debate (under Rules 37 and 39), to be compiled and circulated as an official document of the Council, in accordance with letters from its Presidents for March (China) and April (Dominican Republic) on provisional measures and working methods during the COVID-19 pandemic (documents S/2020/253 and S/2020/273).]


* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.