New York

19 January 2016

Deputy Secretary-General's Briefing to the Security Council debate on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

I warmly welcome Uruguay’s initiative to host today’s debate. The number of speeches is a clear sign of the urgency and importance of today’s subject of discussion.

Over the past 40 years, progress has been made in establishing international norms to enhance the protection of civilians and to make sure that perpetrators of violations are brought to justice.  The Security Council has played a central role in this regard.

Despite this, the reality on the ground is grim and bleak.  In conflicts around the world, great numbers of civilians are deliberately or recklessly killed, maimed, tortured and abducted. Sexual violence is rampant.

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. 

Today, I echo the words of the Secretary-General and the President of the ICRC, Peter Maurer, who last October called for an end to these blatant violations of international law.  They said:  “Enough is enough.  Even war has rules.  It is time to enforce them”.

In 2014, 92 per cent of people in conflicts killed or injured by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians.  This carnage of innocent people must not continue.  Only today, we learnt that 19,000 civilians were killed in Iraq between January 2014 and October 2015. We must all work towards solid political commitments to refrain from using explosive weapons in populated areas, in accordance with international humanitarian law.

We have all seen the horrible reality in Madaya, Syria, where thousands of people have been denied food and medical treatment for months, leading to starvation and death.  Let us remember that Madaya is just one place where this, shamefully, is happening – and this, today, in the 21st century.

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, which the Secretary-General in the clearest of terms has condemned these past days naming these violations as war crimes.  These crimes simply must stop, end now.

The barbarity of non-State extremist armed groups such as Daesh, Boko Haram and others present new challenges.  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.

Their aim is to instill fear, to divide and to destroy the social fabric of our societies.  I urge you to do everything to address this threat in a determined, comprehensive and rights-based manner.

In the face of these violations and these developments, what can the international community do?

First, we must consistently remind parties to armed conflict of their obligations to uphold international law, to respect and protect all civilians and civilian objects, including humanitarian workers and facilities.  The loss of life is mounting among humanitarian workers who courageously are striving for access to people in need. 

We must all unequivocally condemn violations and use all the tools at our disposal to bring about compliance with international humanitarian law.  For this, we need the Council’s leadership. 

Second, we must do much more to prevent conflicts and situations which place civilians at risk. This requires consideration and action on the part of the Security Council, also on the basis of monitoring violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Generally, the whole UN system must continuously seek to resolve tensions and conflicts through mediation and other peaceful methods to settle disputes listed in article 33 and article 34 of Chapter VI in the UN Charter.

  Third, where violations persist, there must be accountability.

Governments should adopt robust criminal legislation and strengthen their judicial systems in order to prosecute perpetrators.  They need to establish national fact-finding mechanisms and set up independent commissions of inquiry.

Judicial bodies such as the International Criminal Court are to be used when national prosecution options are not available.  All States should accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. 

When violence erupts, and the threat of conflict is growing, we all have a responsibility to act.  The Human Rights Up Front initiative requests all UN staff to react early and with courage in the face of escalating risks or large-scale violations.

We are committed to bring situations of concern to the attention of Member States.  Failure to give early warning to ensure accountability is in itself a threat to peace and security.  The resulting impunity emboldens perpetrators to scale up their brutality.  It contributes to the erosion of international human rights and humanitarian law and to further loss of civilian lives.


Fourth, governments must do more to protect people displaced by conflict, particularly those who are vulnerable, primarily women and children.  Policies and legal frameworks to protect refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) must be strengthened and strictly implemented.

The high-level meeting of the General Assembly on large movements of refugees and migrants on September 19th will also be an opportunity to focus on these issues.

Mr. President,

The report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations pointed to a significant gap between expectations and reality when it comes to the ability of missions to protect civilians.  The Secretary-General’s subsequent report announced several measures to close this gap.

Peacekeeping operations must respond with speed and determination in the face of threats to civilians.  The opening of mission gates to desperate people in South Sudan is one example of such determination in practice. Missions must also report directly and frankly on obstacles and failures to act.

Missions are to advocate strongly for the protection of civilians.  They should support host governments to protect their people by strengthening human rights, the rule of law and inclusive institutions.

Dialogue between the Security Council, the Secretariat and troop-  and police-contributing countries is critical.  Each must ensure that the United Nations never stands idly by in the face of attacks on civilians.  States should build on the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians through peacekeeping which were agreed last year.

Zero tolerance for cases of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel must be strictly adhered to.  The recommendations by the Panel set up after reported abuses in CAR are taken seriously by the Secretary-General.  We are now working on a robust programme aimed at strengthening prevention, enforcement and remedial action in the area of sexual exploitation and abuse.


I welcome the Security Council presidential statement of November 2015 which recommitted the Council to address the protection of civilians as a core issue. 
When civilians are under violent attacks, often from all sides, as we now see far too often, it is particularly important that protection of civilians is at the centre of the Council’s deliberations.

In closing, let me say that protecting civilians in armed conflict will be one of the central themes of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul 23-24 May this year.  We must seize the opportunity of the Summit to make progress on the serious challenges we face today. Respect for the norms that are to safeguard our humanity will be one of the priorities at the Summit.

We must redouble our efforts and take ever more concrete action to ensure the protection of civilians and enhance respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.

It is time to restore knowledge, awareness and faith in these instruments and demonstrate in practice that we are serious about placing human beings at the centre of our work at the UN. 

Thank you.