Protection of civilians in armed conflict – USG for Humanitarian Affairs briefs SecCo, debate – Verbatim record (extracts)

Security Council
Sixty-fourth year

6066th  meeting
Wednesday, 14 January 2009, 10.25 a.m.
New York




Mr. Ripert   







Mr. Mayr-Harting  


Burkina Faso  

Mr. Kafando 



Mr. Liu Zhenmin 


Costa Rica  

Mr. Urbina 



Mr. Vilović 



Mr. Okuda 


Libyan Arab Jamahiriya  

Mr. Ettalhi 



Mr. Heller 


Russian Federation  

Mr. Churkin 



Mr. İlkin 



Mr. Butagira 


United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland  

Ms. Pierce 


United States of America  

Ms. DiCarlo 


Viet Nam  

Mr. Le Luong Minh 





Protection of civilians in armed conflict

The meeting was called to order at 10.25 a.m.



Adoption of the agenda


 The agenda was adopted.


Protection of civilians in armed conflict


 The President ( spoke in French ): I propose, with the consent of the Council, to invite those countries inscribed on the list of speakers to participate in the consideration of the item, without the right to vote, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Charter and rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

  There being no objection, it is so decided.

  At the invitation of the President, the representatives of the following countries took the seats reserved for them at the side of the Council Chamber: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, Indonesia, Islamic Republic of Iran, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Morocco, Myanmar, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Qatar, Sudan, Switzerland, Syrian Arab Republic, United Arab Emirates, United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay and Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela .

  The President (spoke in French ): I shall take it that the Security Council agrees to extend an invitation under rule 39 of its provisional rules of procedure to Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.

  There being no objections, it is so decided.

  I propose, with the consent of the Council, to invite the Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations to participate in the meeting, as requested in a letter dated 13 January 2009, the text of which is contained in document S/2009/31, and in accordance with the provisional rules of procedure and the previous practice in this regard.

  There being no objections, it is so decided.

  I propose, with the consent of the Council, to extend an invitation under rule 39 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure to Mr. John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

  It is so decided.

 The Council will now begin its consideration of the item before it.

  At this meeting, we will hear a briefing by Mr. John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

  I now give the floor to Mr. Holmes.

 Mr. Holmes : Thank you, Mr. President, for this opportunity to brief the Council this morning. I will cover a number of urgent issues, but the main focus today must be the conduct of hostilities and the need for strict compliance with international humanitarian law.

  The current situation in southern Israel and Gaza is pressing and desperate. Civilians in southern Israel have long had to live under constant threat of rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian militants. Considering the number of rockets and mortars fired, civilian casualties have been limited, but the frequent and indiscriminate nature of these attacks inflicts severe psychological suffering. Four Israeli civilians have been killed and dozens injured since the current hostilities began.

  These attacks are contrary to international humanitarian law and must cease. Yet any Israeli response must itself comply with international humanitarian law. Here too, there is considerable and grave cause for concern. The population of Gaza was already suffering severely after more than 18 months of closures. Since the current hostilities started, the Palestinian Ministry of Health reports, as of yesterday, 13 January, that the number of Palestinian casualties stands at 971 killed, of whom 311 are children and 76 women, and 4,418 wounded, of whom 1,549 are children and 652 are women. Many of the male casualties are no doubt also civilians. The number of child casualties has reportedly tripled since the beginning of ground operations on 3 January. The Israel Defense Forces are no doubt trying, as they say they are, to take steps to minimize civilian casualties, but they are clearly not succeeding.

  Israeli operations are also causing extensive damage to homes and public infrastructure and seriously jeopardizing water, sanitation and medical services. United Nations schools sheltering displaced persons have been hit; humanitarian workers have been killed and ambulances hit; the sick and wounded have been left trapped and unassisted; and up to 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

  The situation for the civilian population of Gaza is terrifying, and its psychological impact is felt particularly by children and their parents, who feel helpless and unable to protect them. It is a situation from which civilians have only minimal respite: three hours a day, with no escape, as borders and crossings remain closed. Only a full and fully respected ceasefire will spare the civilian population from these horrors, and even then, their need for assistance will remain both urgent and overwhelming.

  In the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population from the effects of hostilities. This requires strict compliance with the principles of distinction and proportionality and the requirement to take all feasible precautions in attack and against the effects of attack.

  For those launching attacks, this includes doing everything feasible to verify that the objectives to be attacked are neither civilians nor civilian objects and refraining from any indiscriminate attacks, including those that may be expected to cause incidental civilian casualties that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from that specific attack.

  For those in defence, it means removing civilians and civilian objects from the vicinity of military objectives and avoiding locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas. It also means not ordering or using the presence or movement of civilians to render certain points or areas immune from military operations or to shield military objectives from attack.

  Can we look at what has been happening in Gaza in the past three weeks and say that either Israel or Hamas has come close to respecting fully these rules? I think not. I repeat that violations of international humanitarian law by one party to a conflict offer no justification for non-compliance by other parties. Allegations of violations must be fully investigated and those responsible held to account.

  As much as the world’s attention is focused on Gaza, that is, sadly, by no means the only situation to raise profound concerns over the degree of respect for these rules and for international humanitarian law.


  Meanwhile, we must urgently find better ways to prevent and reduce that pattern of behaviour. It is relatively straightforward, if not always easy or productive, for the United Nations to engage with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, or with national armed forces, and to raise our concerns. But whether in Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian territories, Somalia or elsewhere, we cannot talk only to one side. If we are serious about sparing civilians from the effects of hostilities and about obtaining access to those in need and seeking to ensure that humanitarian workers can operate safely, humanitarian actors must have consistent and sustained dialogue with all parties to conflict, be it the Taliban, Hamas or Al-Shabaab.


  The President (spoke in French ): I thank the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator for his briefing.

  In accordance with the understanding reached among Council members, I wish to remind all speakers to limit their statements to no more than five minutes, in order to enable the Council to carry out its work expeditiously. Delegations with lengthy statements are kindly requested to circulate their texts in writing and to deliver a condensed version when speaking in the Chamber.

  I now give the floor to members of the Council.

 Mr. Liu Zhenmin (China) ( spoke in Chinese ): The Chinese delegation would like to thank Under-Secretary-General Holmes for his briefing and express its appreciation to the various United Nations agencies for their work over the years in the humanitarian field.

  The Security Council has been seized with the question of the protection of civilians in armed conflict for nearly a decade and has adopted many resolutions and presidential statements on that topic. However, because of the changing character of conflicts and the interlinkage among various complex factors, many civilians the world over still suffer from the harm and damage inflicted upon them by armed conflicts. The recent resurgence of conflict between Israel and a Palestinian armed faction has caused numerous deaths and injuries among innocent civilians and given rise to a severe humanitarian crisis, which has become a matter of serious concern for the international community. The grim reality tells us that the international community has a long way to go towards fulfilling its duty to protect civilians.

  In order to improve the protection of civilians in armed conflict, I wish to emphasize the following three points.

  First, the Security Council should fulfil its primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. As the core of the world’s collective security system, the Security Council should take prompt action within its spheres of competence to reduce and address the root causes of conflicts and mitigate the harm brought by armed conflicts to civilians. As a result of the joint efforts of the Arab countries and other countries concerned, the Council adopted resolution 1860 (2009) 13 days after the outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for a ceasefire between the two parties. We urge the parties concerned to implement the ceasefire immediately, as requested by the resolution, so as to avoid more civilian casualties and ease the humanitarian crisis.

  Secondly, the Security Council must not view the protection of civilians in isolation; instead, it should look at the context of a particular conflict in terms of the peace process and the political situation, taking an integrated approach. We have seen in recent years that deteriorating security situations in places such as the Middle East and Afghanistan have made victims of countless civilians in armed conflicts, whereas positive progress in peace processes in countries like Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire have brought hope for a better future to local civilian populations. This shows once again that the Security Council should focus more on how to deal with and address conflicts. In this connection, we are not in favour of establishing a Security Council working group on the question of civilians.

  Lastly, the role of Governments in the protection of civilians should be respected and supported. Governments bear the primary responsibility for protecting their civilians. While the international community and external forces can provide constructive support, they must follow the provisions of the Charter, fully respecting the wishes and refraining from undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries concerned, and even more so from forceful intervention.

  The efforts of the Security Council alone are far from adequate to address the protection of civilians in armed conflict. We expect the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council to play bigger roles, and encourage international institutions, such as the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank, and regional organizations, such as the African Union, to do their part to help the countries concerned with their economic development, settlement of conflicts and civilian protection. We also welcome a positive role for non-governmental organizations in this respect.

  China is willing to work together with other members of the international community to make pragmatic and effective efforts to achieve more constructive results in the protection of civilians in armed conflict.


 Mr. Ettalhi (Libyan Arab Jamahiriya) (spoke in Arabic ): As usual, my delegation prepared a statement that was a bit long, and that statement is now before me. However, I find it extremely difficult and am extremely embarrassed to speak before the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict when it has become clear to everyone that there is a huge gap between what the Council says and what it actually does.

  The continuing events in Gaza attest to that fact. The civilian population of Gaza has suffered long months of siege and starvation, trapped in a collective prison unprecedented in human history in terms of its scope and nature. Mercilessly deprived of food, medicine, fuel and all of life’s necessities, they have, in legal terms, been subjected to an attempt at genocide by an occupying force that has, regrettably, flouted all international law, including international humanitarian law, and mocked and disregarded all moral and ethical standards.

  The tragedy of Gaza has raised serious doubts as to the credibility of the Security Council. The Council has remained unable or unwilling to shoulder its responsibilities during the siege. The position that the Council took regarding the siege sent a clear message to the aggressor that it could escalate its aggression, because that aggression continues. However, could any aggression be more serious than aggression that deprives the people of all of life’s necessities? Thus, Israel has attacked a civilian population that has been deprived of water, starved and weakened by a blind war machine that indiscriminately bombs residential areas, refugee camps, houses of worship, schools and universities, United Nations facilities, humanitarian assistance convoys, ambulances and rescue personnel.

  Council members have heard that the numbers of dead and wounded are increasing by the minute; they have seen the magnitude of the destruction, which is increasing every minute; they have seen the child victims of phosphorus bombs; and they have heard that the aggressor has even prevented the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from gaining access to affected areas and reaching victims. The Council has heard statements by eyewitnesses who cannot be doubted, including Mr. Jakob Kellenberger, President of the ICRC, and officials from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), describing Israel’s brutal practices against the civilian population in Gaza.

  However, the Security Council continues to be unable or unwilling to do anything. After much procrastination and hesitation, it adopted resolution 1860 (2009). The resolution had absolutely no effect, and the reason for that is clear. Thus, the Israelis have continued to pursue this brutal massacre, unfortunately with the active financial and technical support of some who have also provided the aggressor with munitions to perpetrate its crimes. Those abettors do not hesitate to offer flimsy excuses for their actions, while at the same time setting conditions for an end to the fighting. Those who do so are in no way embarrassed to speak today of the protection of civilians in armed conflict .

  Developments in Gaza over the past three weeks have surpassed in brutality anything we have seen before. As described by Mr. Ging, Director of UNRWA Operations at the Gaza Field Office, they are a test of our humanity.

  I believe that the failure of the Security Council to assume its moral and legal responsibilities for the events in Gaza and its complicity with certain actors in those events have made it extremely difficult for people to hear us speak of legitimacy, ethics and values. This has become an extremely embarrassing exercise for a person like myself, at least, who was raised on Islamic teachings that prohibit attacks on civilians and condemn duplicity and selectivity.

  Mr. Le Luong Minh (Viet Nam): …


  As this meeting of the Council is taking place, more and perhaps many more innocent civilians may be being killed or plunged into desperate conditions by unjustified military operations and acts of violence in and from Gaza. We urge the parties concerned to heed the call of the international community and of this very Council for an immediate ceasefire, put an end to acts of violence and implement the measures stipulated in resolution 1860 (2009) , adopted by the Council six days ago, including the opening of border crossings to allow and facilitate humanitarian assistance.

  As a gesture of solidarity with Palestinian civilians affected by the ongoing crisis, the Vietnamese Government has decided to extend $200,000 in assistance to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East .


  Mr. Mayr-Harting (Austria): At the outset, let me thank you, Sir, for organizing this very important debate and Under-Secretary-General Holmes for his important and impressive presentation. It was impressive, if I may say so, in its general thrust and important in particular in what you said about ongoing conflict situations, such as that in Gaza and southern Israel.


  With regard to the ongoing conflict in and around Gaza, Austria calls upon all parties to fully abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law. This includes the obligation by parties to an armed conflict to refrain from targeting civilians, to facilitate humanitarian operations and to allow rapid and unimpeded passage of relief consignments, equipment and personnel. One point that should be underlined particularly these days is that the protection of organizations and institutions providing humanitarian assistance, as well as humanitarian workers, must be ensured at all times. We agree with the Under-Secretary-General that the incidents that have occurred should be investigated, and we are happy that the Secretary-General has made this one of the messages of his current trip to the region.


 Mr. İlkin (Turkey): …


  I am aware that this is not a specific debate on the tragic situation in Gaza, but it is absolutely relevant to what we are discussing today. So allow me to express our strong appeal to all the parties involved to cease the hostilities without further delay and comply with the terms of Security Council resolution 1860 (2009).


 Mr. Heller (Mexico) (spoke in Spanish ): …


  In this regard, as it has done before in the Council, Mexico reiterates its deep concern about the violence unleashed over the past 19 days and condemns the Israeli army’s excessive use of force in Gaza, as well as the launching of rockets into Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip by Hamas, which has also resulted in deaths and injuries among the civilian population.

  It is of particular concern to Mexico that in any conflict situation the parties should recognize that it is imperative to respect the provisions of international humanitarian law, in particular those set out in the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. In particular, my delegation reiterates its call for the parties concerned to respect and fully implement resolution 1860 (2009), which will lays the foundations for the immediate attainment of a durable ceasefire that will permit the humanitarian needs of the civilian population to be addressed and put an end to the pointless loss of innocent lives in the region. We consider that this objective can be reached only through the establishment of an international ceasefire monitoring mechanism that, among other provisions of the resolution, will allow unrestricted access for humanitarian assistance, ensure the protection of the civilian population and address the human rights situation.


 Mr. Okuda (Japan): …


  In this context, Japan continues to be seriously concerned about the situation in and around Gaza. Japan fully supports Security Council resolution 1860 (2009), which was adopted with the broadest possible political support. We would like to emphasize the importance of the safety and well-being of all civilians, and we emphasize that the Palestinian and Israeli civilian population must be protected. Japan condemns all violence and hostilities directed against civilians as well as all acts of terrorism.

  The people in Gaza require immediate humanitarian assistance, and Japan will provide $10 million in aid, of which $3 million will be immediately provided through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Japan also renews the call for an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. We fully support and appreciate the diplomatic efforts made by various countries to bring about a ceasefire, especially those of Egypt.


 Mr. Churkin (Russian Federation) (spoke in Russian ):…


  We strongly condemn deliberate attacks on and the killing of civilians through the indiscriminate or disproportionate use of force, which is a gross violation of international humanitarian law. In that regard, we are deeply concerned about the escalation of the crisis in Gaza as a result of Israel’s military operation. The situation in Gaza is on the very brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The Russian Federation has provided urgent humanitarian assistance to Gaza’s population through Egypt.

  As a result of full-scale military operations, there has been a sharp increase in casualties among the Palestinian civilian population, more than a third of which have been women and children. We are deeply concerned about reports of Israel’s use of cluster bombs, whose use is prohibited in populated areas, the destruction of infrastructure, including United Nations schools, and the deaths of humanitarian personnel from Israeli fire. Those actions are absolutely inappropriate and are flagrant violations of international law. We call upon all parties to comply with resolution 1860 (2009) and to immediately cease fire.


 Ms. DiCarlo (United States of America): …


  The situation in Gaza gives us all pause, as we contemplate how the conduct of hostilities and violence in both Gaza and southern Israel impacts the civilian population. As suggested by resolution 1860 (2009), intra-Palestinian reconciliation and the implementation of the two-State solution will provide the ultimate guarantee of the protection of civilians in both Gaza and southern Israel.

  For the immediate term, the United States reiterates the call, recently made in resolution 1860 (2009), that all violence against civilians, including acts of terror, be halted, with an eye towards a durable and fully respected ceasefire. We must not forget, however, that this outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas, a terrorist organization that called for the destruction of Israel, by its barrage of rockets and mortars that deliberately targeted Israeli civilians.

  Ongoing hostilities in Gaza have exacerbated the plight of the Palestinian people by making it more difficult for the international community to deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance and goods to the people in Gaza. The United States echoes the call for the unimpeded provision and distribution of adequate humanitarian assistance to meet the growing humanitarian needs of Palestinians in Gaza, including provision of food, fuel, shelter and medical treatment, as well as protection for the displaced. We further note an additional obligation of all parties to refrain from deliberately using the civilian population and religious, educational and civic institutions to shield active combatants, command and control facilities and munitions stockpiles. The United States calls on Hamas to immediately cease this reprehensible and cowardly practice that places innocent civilians at grave and unacceptable risk.

  While Israel has an unquestionable right to defend itself against terrorist attacks, we urge the Government of Israel to take all appropriate steps to ease access and movement for humanitarian goods and workers, to avoid civilian casualties and to minimize the impact on innocent civilians.


  The President (spoke in French ): I shall now make a statement in my national capacity.


  Our debate is taking place in a particular context, which everyone has stressed. We are, of course, deeply concerned by the situation in Gaza. Once again, the civilian population is paying a terrible price. We urge the parties to the conflict to spare civilians. International law, in particular international humanitarian law, must be respected. We condemn violence against civilians, whether they be Palestinians or Israelis. We also condemn terrorism in all its forms.

  In our view, the absolute priority should be the implementation of a ceasefire, as requested in resolution 1860 (2009). In that regard, we hope that the diplomatic efforts under way, in particular the Franco-Egyptian plan, will very soon succeed. The news reaching us from Cairo appears promising in that regard.


    Mr. Terzi di Sant’Agata (Italy): …


  Today we have heard once again from Under-Secretary-General Holmes a very disturbing description of the negative effects of conflicts around the world, especially in Gaza and southern Israel: denials of humanitarian access and the appalling consequences of hostilities, including the scourge of sexual violence. When sexual violence targets or is part of a widespread attack against a civilian population, it becomes a method of warfare. This is inadmissible. In such cases, sexual violence constitutes a threat to international peace and security and the Security Council, in our view, should be able to intervene.


 Mrs. Viotti (Brazil): …


  The disproportionate response by Israel has taken a dramatic toll on civilians in Gaza. The numbers of people killed and injured grow by the hour. As we have just heard, the number of dead is now over 900 people and the number of injured is fast approaching 5,000, and an unacceptably high proportion of the victims are civilians, in many cases women and children. Hospitals are near breaking point. Several thousand people have left their homes. Around 35,000 people have sought refuge at United Nations facilities. Food, water, sewage treatment, fuel, electricity and other basic items are lacking or are gravely insufficient for the overwhelming majority of the population. According to information from the United Nations, civilians are terrorized, traumatized and feeling trapped and helpless in a deadly rage of violence and destruction.

  The firing on humanitarian convoys last week and the shelling in the vicinity of United Nations schools being used as safe havens for displaced people are intolerable and cannot be justified under any circumstances whatsoever. We join the United Nations in asking for an independent investigation of the incidents, which must not be repeated. Full accountability is indispensable. We are encouraged by the fact that United Nations humanitarian aid, which was briefly interrupted, could be resumed after reassurances given by Israel were considered credible.

  The Minister for Foreign Affairs of Brazil, Mr. Celso Amorim, has just concluded a visit to the region, during which he spoke to the leaders and his counterparts in Syria, Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian National Authority. He left the region even more convinced that a ceasefire is imperative.

  The call made by resolution 1860 (2009) must be heeded immediately. That is so because innocent civilians are being killed in large numbers, and that must stop. It is also so because the lack of implementation of the resolution will erode the credibility of the Security Council, with consequences that go far beyond the present crisis. We therefore call for a mobilization of the international community to ensure full and immediate compliance with resolution 1860 (2009).


  Mr. Natalegawa (Indonesia): …


  The issue of the protection of civilians in armed conflict has become even more prominent in view of the deep suffering being inflicted by Israel in the Gaza Strip. Israel continues to stubbornly defy the call by the international community, principally through Security Council resolution 1860 (2009), to end its military operation. Far from heeding that call, Israel has persisted in breaking international human rights and humanitarian law. It is especially galling that Israel has claimed that its actions are intended to protect civilians. Far from it: Israel’s policy of collective punishment and its utter disregard of well-established humanitarian principles are deeply repugnant.

  In the past few days, Israel has not only continued to intensify its air and ground operations, but has also moved into densely populated Gaza City, causing a spiralling death toll among Palestinian civilians. With the escalation of military attacks, it is even more difficult, if not impossible, for humanitarian workers to operate and deliver aid to those civilians in dire need. The consequences are absolutely clear: the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza Strip will only get worse.

  If we commit ourselves to protecting civilians in armed conflict — a commitment that underpins our deliberations today — this is clearly the moment to act to protect civilians and to ensure that the fighting comes to an immediate end.

  Finally, we welcome and appreciate the efforts of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in preparing the updated aide-memoire that will be adopted by the Council.

  In this context, we wish to reiterate our belief that the protection of civilians should and must be based on the three pillars of the United Nations: human rights, security and development, which are closely interlinked. Efforts to protect civilians in armed conflict situations will be rendered futile should we lose sight of that paramount perspective.

  The tragic situation in the Gaza Strip clearly shows not only that civilians need their rights and security to be protected, but also that they require the basic necessities for survival and for weathering the conflict until a resolution is achieved. Clean water, food and shelter are some of the basic needs that have to be provided by all parties to all civilians in armed conflict as a matter of necessity, not least in the Gaza Strip.

 The President (spoke in French): Some 30 speakers remain on my list for this meeting. I intend, with the concurrence of the members of the Council, to suspend the meeting until 3 p.m.

The meeting was suspended at 1.15 p.m.




This record contains the text of speeches delivered in English and of the interpretation of speeches delivered in the other languages. The final text will be printed in the Official Records of the Security Council . Corrections should be submitted to the original languages only. They should be incorporated in a copy of the record and sent under the signature of a member of the delegation concerned to the Chief of the Verbatim Reporting Service, room C-154A.


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