In the 20 years since the U.N. Security Council added the protection of civilians to its agenda, the many safeguards it puts in place have continued to be strengthened, yet the anniversary commemorating decades of progress saw discussions turning to the deteriorating compliance to these protections.
The list of safeguarding successes achieved through Security Council mandates is vast, spanning from sheltering displaced civilians and supporting ceasefire agreements through to research-enhancing data collection and the conviction of war criminals. Yet despite these successes, and the growing “culture of protection” at the core of the Security Council, international humanitarian law continues to be disregarded and violated: creating a gap between principle and implementation. In a poignant address on Thursday May 23rd, Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the “vast majority” of causalities in violent conflicts are civilians. Recent warfare, such as the shelling and airstrikes in northwest Syria, overwhelming targets high-populated non-combat areas, such as schools, hospitals and market places. “When explosive weapons were used in populated areas, 90 per cent of those injured and killed were civilians”. Other tactics include purposeful disruption of civilian infrastructure, and unlawful denial of humanitarian assistance; with a recent Security report warning of allegations surrounding the ‘use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare’ (Security Council Resolution, S/RES/2417).
It is clear that, while legislation to protect non-combatants is well established, parties in armed conflict continue to ignore their obligations under international humanitarian law – not only by directly targeting civilians, but through impeding humanitarian assistance. In 2018 alone, the UN recorded the kidnapping, death or injury of some 370 aid workers, with the World Health Organization reported over 700 attacks against healthcare workers and facilities, killing 451 and injuring over 850. As noted by Mr. Guterres, the existence of legislation alone is not enough to ensure compliance, and States must continue to reinforce preventive measures and ensure accountability. “Chief among our challenges is enhancing and ensuring respect and compliance for international humanitarian law in the conduct of hostilities… in many cases, our information suggests that respect for those bodies of law is at best questionable”. Moving towards closing the gap between principle and practice will require clear national policy frameworks, continued collaboration between humanitarian organizations, state and non-state armed groups to negotiate humanitarian support, and – importantly – ensured accountability for serious violations.
It cannot take another 20 years for safeguards for civilian protection to be properly implemented. As put by Thursday meeting’s chair, Retno Marsuid (Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs): the Security Council must remember not only their political commitments, but also their “duties to implement those commitments… we cannot afford to let our people down”.