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Time to move beyond the rhetoric of protecting civilians in conflict
by UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
May 2020
Time to move beyond the rhetoric of protecting civilians in conflict, by Simon Bagshaw, Senior Policy Advisor at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (UNOCHA)
In his annual protection report to the United Nations Security Council, released this month, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has issued a clear call to parties to conflict and States: move beyond the rhetoric and make the protection of civilians a reality for the millions of people affected by armed conflict. And with good cause.
As reported by the New York Times and others, Guterres warns that the current COVID-19 pandemic may create 'incentives for some parties to conflict to press for an advantage, leading to an increase in violence, while others may see opportunities because the attention of governments and the international community is absorbed by the health crisis'.
State of the protection of civilians in 2019: Another year of suffering
Guterres bluntly describes the state of the protection of civilians last year as 'a year of suffering'. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, injured, and traumatized in attacks. More than 17,000 were killed and injured by bombing and shelling in urban areas, underlining the urgency of Guterres repeated call on parties to conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Attacks destroyed countless homes, schools, hospitals, markets, places of worship, and vital infrastructure, such as electricity and water supply lines, which civilians rely on for their survival.
Millions of people were forced from their homes, adding to the more than 70 million already displaced by conflict and violence at the beginning of the year. Women and girls, in particular, were subject to sexual violence. Tens of thousands of children were forced to take part in fighting. Older persons and persons with disabilities remained at considerable risk, while alarming numbers of people went missing in armed conflicts.
Throughout the year, the efforts of humanitarian organizations to assist and protect people in need were hampered by violence and bureaucracy, and attacks against hospitals and clinics continued. Meanwhile, armed conflict remained the principal driver of global hunger.
Protection of civilians in the era of COVID-19
Guterres notes that COVID-19 could devastate conflict-affected States whose ability to contain the virus, care for infected people, and sustain essential health services for the general population, is severely constrained.
Referring to his appeal in March for a global ceasefire to facilitate humanitarian assistance and bring hope to places most vulnerable to COVID-19, Guterres states that the multiple expressions of support have been encouraging. However, challenges remain, particularly in protracted conflicts, involving multiple armed actors and complex interests.
Moreover, the pandemic may create incentives for some parties to conflict to press their advantage or strike as international attention is absorbed by the pandemic. Both scenarios could increase violence, with civilians bearing the brunt.
In these and other conflict situations, international humanitarian law (IHL), human rights and refugee law continue to apply. For Guterres, they must be respected both to protect conflict-affected populations and to support the pandemic response.
Only by protecting civilians, including health and humanitarian workers and infrastructure, can we relieve pressure on overstretched health systems.
The principal challenges remain: ensuring respect for the law and accountability for its violation
Judged by the reality of last year, the prospects for effective compliance with the law are bleak. As Guterres states, civilian suffering would be significantly reduced if parties to conflict respected IHL. However, one simple truth remains: respect for law and accountability for serious violations are the two most pressing challenges to strengthening the protection of civilians.
Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the protection of civilians agenda in the Security Council and the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, the cornerstone of IHL. Throughout the year, governments reaffirmed their commitment to protecting civilians and implementing IHL.
In September 2019, France and Germany presented the call for action to strengthen respect for IHL and principled humanitarian action, endorsed to date by more than 40 States. The year ended with the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, at which States adopted a roadmap for better national implementation of international humanitarian law.
These initiatives are welcome, but as Guterres observes, we must move beyond the rhetoric of demanding respect for the law. States must take concrete steps to strengthen respect for IHL.
Possible steps proposed by Guterres include developing national policy frameworks on the protection of civilians and sustained engagement with non-State armed groups - both of which were recommended in his 2018 and 2019 protection reports.
Guterres welcomes the ongoing efforts of States to develop a political declaration to address the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and stresses - the fundamental need for such a declaration to, inter alia, commit States endorsing it to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and to develop operational policies against such use.
Guterres places particular emphasis in this latest report on the need to ensure accountability for violations as instrumental to enhancing respect for the law. Yet, efforts to that end remain insufficient.
Guterres notes that the Security Council has itself taken significant steps in the past to enhance accountability for serious violations, including the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as the referral of the situations in Darfur and Libya to the International Criminal Court.
Important initiatives have also been taken by the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council in relation to Myanmar, Syria, and Yemen, as well as by individual States, including through the application of the principle of domestic jurisdiction.
But the current approach is neither comprehensive nor systematic. For Guterres, war crimes 'require credible investigation and prosecution wherever and whenever they occur'.
The report outlines a broad set of recommendations for enhancing accountability, aimed at parties to conflict, Member States, and the Security Council, while emphasizing the need for greater political and financial investment in national processes in conflict-affected countries and other States.
Guterres also calls for action on issues that will assume increasing importance in the years to come.
First, States must rethink their approach to urban warfare. They must develop new doctrine, strategy, and tactics that recognize the vulnerability of civilians and prioritize their protection in the planning and conduct of military operations.
Second, the proliferation and use of armed drones to conduct attacks reinforce longstanding concerns over compliance with the law, accountability, and transparency, which must be addressed. So too must the legal, ethical, and moral concerns posed by lethal autonomous weapon systems.
Third, Guterres calls for action to prevent and respond to the malicious use of digital technologies to spread hate speech and incite violence; and to conduct cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, such as health and water systems, which could cause significant harm to civilians.
Fourth, efforts are needed to mitigate civilian suffering resulting from the impact of conflict on the environment; and to better understand the relationship between conflict and climate change.
As the world confronts the monumental challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Guterres notes that -the need to silence the guns could not be more acute.
Where conflict cannot be prevented or resolved, it is imperative that parties to conflict, governments, the U.N., and civil society work collectively to strengthen the protection of civilians.
In very basic terms, that means ensuring respect for the law in all circumstances and accountability for violations. As Guterres notes, the tools to achieve that already exist and are available.
What is needed more than ever is the political will and commitment to prioritise the protection of civilians in order to ensure that it becomes a tangible reality for those affected by armed conflict, today and in the future.
* Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Report of the UN Secretary-General; May 2020:
* Civil Society agencies renew call for Action to Protect Civilians:
May 2020
Conflict and COVID-19 are a deadly mix, by Mark Lowcock, Izumi Nakamitsu & Robert Mardini.
We are all grappling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic but it could not have come at a worse time for people already made extremely vulnerable by warfare.
In places such as Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the bombing and shelling of cities and towns has left people without access to water, electricity, sanitation or a functioning healthcare system - the basic services that will help protect them from the virus.
Back in March the Secretary-General of the United Nations called for an immediate, global ceasefire so aid workers could reach people in areas affected by conflict. So far more than 115 governments, several regional organizations, 200 civil society groups, and 16 non-state armed groups have publicly endorsed this call.
But many have ignored it. Protracted conflicts continue to rage in many parts of the world. Often this involves the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, with devastating effects on civilians. Right now, more than 50 million people are affected by conflict in urban areas. The impact on entire societies is profound and will endure for generations to come.
We urge warring parties to immediately and unconditionally adhere to a pause in fighting to allow aid supplies and staff to get to those in need. Not only will this save lives, it will give warring parties a chance to reconsider their weapons and tactics and take steps to avoid civilian harm if fighting resumes.
In cities more than anywhere else, the choice of weapon used has a significant impact on civilian suffering.
Many of the explosive weapons with wide area effects being used in urban warfare today were originally designed for use in traditional, open battlefields.
This includes inaccurate weapons that put entire neighbourhoods at risk, systems that fire multiple rockets simultaneously over a wide area, and munitions that produce large blast and fragmentation effects. It also includes large improvised explosive devices used mainly by non-State armed groups.
When used in populated areas, they inflict massive and often indiscriminate destruction. We can see it in the images of devastation from Mosul, Taiz and Donetsk.
The overwhelming majority of casualties are civilians. Countless are killed or gravely wounded. Hospitals are faced with multiple casualties and complex injuries that are difficult to treat, quickly overwhelming emergency rooms.
Many survivors are left with life-long disabilities or severe psychological trauma. Homes are destroyed, and people are forced to seek shelter with relatives or in overcrowded camps with poor sanitation and over-stretched healthcare services.
For victims of this kind of warfare, who are already reeling from injury, disability, displacement and insecurity, the threat of COVID-19 pandemic is too much to bear.
Health care systems already severely disrupted by bombing and shelling face huge challenges in providing the medical assistance and preventive measures needed to overcome the virus.
The use of heavy explosive weapons damages and destroys essential infrastructure needed to run healthcare systems, such as hospitals and other medical facilities, as well as power and water supply lines and sanitation networks. This sets off domino effects and more civilian death and suffering well beyond the weapons blast zones.
At a time when preventing the spread of the virus is key, lack of access to clean water and electricity makes it impossible to implement basic hygiene measures such as hand-washing and to access to critical internet-based public health information, crippling the capacity of conflict-affected societies to contain the current pandemic.
Back in September, the UN Secretary-General and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for specific actions. They recalled the protective power of international humanitarian law when its rules are faithfully respected, all the more so when armed conflicts are waged in populated environments, where civilians are at great risk of harm.
They also called on warring parties to employ strategies and tactics that take combat outside of cities and to reduce urban fighting altogether. And they appealed to them to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, because of the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects.
As the COVID-19 pandemic is now reaching some of these places this appeal is now more necessary and more urgent than ever.
Governments are working to develop a political declaration on addressing the humanitarian consequences of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. We welcome the ongoing efforts led by Ireland to develop such a declaration.
And we encourage all governments to support this effort and to commit to avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.
If action is taken now we can prevent further deterioration of the world's most fragile healthcare systems.
Instead of attacking and devastating cities, they should be supported in their fight against this new immense threat to humanity - COVID-19.
* Mark Lowcock is UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs; Izumi Nakamitsu is UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs; and Robert Mardini is Director-General of the ICRC.

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WFP head warns Covid-19 pandemic could provoke 'famines of biblical proportions'
by David Beasley
World Food Programme (WFP), France 24
The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) is warning of potential famines of "biblical proportions" as the Covid-19 pandemic affects countries in an already dire situation. In an interview with FRANCE 24, the United Nation's WFP Executive Director David Beasley said he was especially worried about a breakdown in the supply chain that allows his agency to provide food to nearly 100 million people in dire need around the globe.
WFP head David Beasley expressed his hopes that donor nations would respond to a $6.7 billion fundraising call launched this week by the UN to help those in need, despite the recession hitting many rich countries. He also stressed that top U.S. administration officials and key US congressional leaders had reassured him that they understood the need to maintain funding for the food emergency.
He also called on "the world's billionaires" to do more, saying, "It's time for you to step up in a way you've never stepped up before; people are in real need, this is a one-time phenomenon and we need your help."
He warned that the situation in Africa was likely to become much worse in the coming weeks, in large part because of the economic collapse provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic. "Almost a quarter of a billion people will be marching towards starvation because of the economic deterioration from Covid, wars, conflicts... It is a perfect storm. I do wish I were exaggerating, but we are really looking at what could be famines of biblical proportions in multiple countries, and especially in Africa," Beasley told FRANCE 24.
* Wealthy Developed Countries, European Governments have availed hundreds of billions to address Covid-19 in their countries, the American Government over 2 trillion dollars, the WFP and UN request is well within their means.
* Updated COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan:

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