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Report of the UN Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict
by Antonio Guterres
United Nations Secretary-General
May 2017
Armed conflicts are tearing apart vast swathes of the world and record numbers of people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. Some 97 per cent of humanitarian assistance goes to complex emergencies, the majority of which involve armed conflicts.
Globally, more than 65 million people have been displaced by conflict, violence or persecution. More than 20 million people, including 1.4 million children, are on the brink of famine in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. At the same time, among the international community there is a growing sense of fatigue, even resignation, in addressing the suffering of civilians in conflict.
All State and non-State parties to conflict must respect international humanitarian law, and all States must ensure such respect. Yet, in many conflicts, parties flout their obligations and show contempt for human life and dignity, often with impunity.
Civilians are routinely killed in direct and indiscriminate attacks. As conflict becomes increasingly urbanized, the impact on civilians reaches new lows, with bombs and rockets destroying schools, hospitals, markets and places of worship, while children are pulled from the rubble of their homes.
Sexual violence shatters lives and undermines community cohesion. These horrors are exacerbated when civilians are deprived of basic relief items and services, sometimes even besieged for months at a time. Faced with such brutality, millions of civilians are forced to flee their homes in search of safety. The result is a global protection crisis.
In the present report I set out a path to protection ó my vision for collective action to strengthen the protection of civilians in armed conflict. My overarching priority is to galvanize the international community to prevent and resolve conflicts and build sustainable peace.
In the long term, the best way to protect civilians is to tackle the root causes of conflicts, promote human rights and the rule of law, strengthen governance and institutions and invest in inclusive and sustainable development.
There must be a shift from perpetual reaction to early action, including the ability to identify and act upon signs of impending or potential conflict and threats to civilians.
A commitment to conflict prevention also compels us to address illicit and irresponsible arms transfers, which enable conflict and undermine protection and peacebuilding efforts. Indeed, although beyond the scope of the present report, my vision of prevention encompasses not only violent armed conflict, but also the increasingly complex array of crises that take a significant toll on humanity and produce unsustainable levels of human suffering.
Where prevention fails, we must make every effort to protect the lives and dignity of civilians caught up in conflict. In this regard, three protection priorities clearly emerge across conflicts.
First, we must enhance respect for international humanitarian law and international human rights law and promote good practice by parties to conflict.
Second, we must protect the humanitarian and medical mission and accord priority to the protection of civilians in United Nations peace operations.
Third, we must prevent forced displacement and pursue durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced persons. These protection priorities are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. In particular, strengthening respect for international law is a prerequisite to achieving priorities two and three.
Achieving these goals necessitates a multi-faceted approach encompassing a diversity of actors. An intensified global effort is needed at the international, regional and national levels to raise public understanding of the human cost of conflict and enhance respect for international law and the protection of civilians. The Security Council and Member States must be at the forefront of this effort.
In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Member States committed themselves to leaving no one behind and to reaching those furthest behind first. The World Humanitarian Summit, held in 2016, reinforced this vision.
Member States must now take specific action to implement their commitments and ensure that civilians in conflict, who are among the most vulnerable, are protected. I am personally committed to ensuring that this becomes a priority in all aspects of United Nations work.

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Syria: International law prohibits chemical attacks
by UN News, Al Jazeera, HRW, news agencies
Geneva, 4 April 2017
UN Syria Commission Condemns Khan Shikhoun Attack
The Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic condemns in the strongest terms the attacks on the town of Khan Shikhoun in southern Idlib today which killed scores of civilians, including a number of children.
Reports suggesting that this was a chemical weapons attack are extremely concerning. The Commission is currently investigating the circumstances surrounding this attack including the alleged use of chemical weapons and reports of a subsequent attack on a medical facility where a number of injured persons were receiving treatment.
Both the use of chemical weapons, as well as the deliberate targeting of medical facilities, would amount to war crimes and serious violations of human rights law.
The Commission notes that the UN Security Council has passed resolutions specifically designed to investigate instances in which the use of chemical weapons has been alleged and to identify perpetrators.
In that respect, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons fact-finding mission currently operating inside the Syrian Arab Republic and the independent Joint Investigative Mechanism should be given full support to investigate these incidents, in addition to the Commission of Inquiry. It is imperative for perpetrators of such attacks to be identified and held accountable.
The Commission would like to extend its heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and wishes a speedy recovery to the injured.
4 April 2017
''Toxic gas attack'' in Syria kills at least 80 people, with many children among the dead. (Al Jazeera, agencies)
At least 80 people, including 11 children, have been killed in a "toxic gas" bombing raid on a rebel-held Syrian town, doctors and a monitor said, in an attack the United Nations quickly said it would investigate as a possible war crime.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province caused many people to choke or faint, and some to foam from the mouth, citing medical sources who described the symptoms as signs that gas was used.
It would mark the deadliest chemical attack in Syria since sarin gas killed hundreds of civilians in Ghouta near the capital in August 2013. Western states said the Syrian government was responsible for the 2013 attack. Damascus blamed rebels.
Locals said the attack began in the early morning, when they heard planes in the sky followed by a series of loud explosions, after which people very quickly began to show symptoms. They said they could not identify the planes. Both Syrian and Russian jets have bombed the area before.
Russia''s defence ministry denied it was responsible, telling the state-run RIA news agency that it carried out no bombing runs in the area on Tuesday.
The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using such weapons in the past. On three previous occasions, though, United Nations investigations have found it guilty of using chemical weapons.
In a statement, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said the use of chemical weapons, as well as any deliberate targeting of medical facilities, "would amount to war crimes and serious violations of human rights law".
"It is imperative for perpetrators of such attacks to be identified and held accountable," said the independent panel led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro.
The AFP news agency, citing one of its journalists on the scene, said a rocket later slammed into a hospital where the victims were being treated, bringing rubble down on medics as they struggled to deal with victims.
Al Jazeera''s Alan Fisher, reporting from Beirut, said locals on the ground expected that the number of dead would increase and that many of the wounded were children.
"There were people fainting, they were vomiting, they were foaming at the mouth," Fisher said.
"In that situation, the treatment tends to be to try and strip people off, to get the chemicals away from their bodies, to hose them down as quickly as possible. But even then some of the pictures that have been posted on social media in the last couple of hours show very young people struggling for breath, many people dead where they fell."
Fisher reported that hospitals in the area were overwhelmed with the scale of the apparent attack and that footage showed them struggling to cope with the number of victims.
Medics reported that "nearly a third of the casualties they have seen are children, presenting at hospitals pale and unconscious or struggling to breathe after rockets were dropped from the air," according to Save the Children.
Save the Children reported that a second gas attack struck the area again midday. "A further rocket releasing a currently undetermined chemical substance was alleged to have been dropped in the same area at lunchtime today and many families are said to have fled desperate to escape a further attack," the charity said.
In a press statement, Sonia Khush, the organization''s director in Syria, described the scene.
"Doctors at a health clinic run by our partner Syria Relief told us they received three children under six years old today," Khush said. "They were struggling to breathe and barely conscious, with running noses and contracted pupilsódoctors say these symptoms are consistent with the use of nerve agents such as sarin."
Khush further noted that if use of such a banned substance is confirmed, "this would be in clear violation of international law and a worrying indication that not all chemical weapons have been destroyed in Syria as UNSCR 2118 reached in September 2013 demanded." Both Save the Children and Amnesty International are calling for an immediate and impartial investigation into the attack.
A member of the White Helmets, a rescue group that operates in rebel-held areas, told Al Jazeera that over 400 people had been injured.
Medical workers in the town of Khan Sheikhun said that victims had been brought in vomiting and fainting after the air raid, and on top of the dead there were dozens of patients suffering respiratory problems. The Syrian Medical Relief Group, an international aid agency funding hospitals in Syria, said at least 500 people were injured in the attack.
Firas al-Jundi, a health official with the opposition-aligned Idlib medical council, said the symptoms were consistent with a gas attack.
"The symptoms were clear on the patients, suffocation, respiratory failure, foaming at the mouth, loss of consciousness, convulsions and paralysis," he said. "These symptoms usually appear as a result of poisonous gas leading to convulsions in body."
Leaders across the world condemned the Syrian government and its allies following reports of the attack, and called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be held to account.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that Tuesday''s attack served as a "dramatic reminder of the fact that the first priority is, as in any conflict, stopping the fighting," adding that the Assad regime had the "primary responsibility of protecting its people and not attacking its people."
April 4, 2017
Dozens feared dead from Chemical Exposure in Syria, writes Ole Solvang, Deputy Director of Emergencies, Human Rights Watch
Dozens of people showed symptoms consistent with exposure to chemicals after aircraft attacked Khan Sheikhoun, a town in northern Syria, witnesses told us. While we are continuing to investigate, early reports suggest dozens were killed. Khan Sheikhoun is controlled by armed groups fighting against Syrian government forces.
International law prohibits chemical attacks. With 192 member states, the Chemical Weapons Convention is one of the strongest weapon bans in international law. Syria joined the convention and gave up its chemical weapons program in 2013 after a chemical weapons attack, likely carried out by government forces, killed hundreds in a suburb of Damascus.
The United Nations Security Council has condemned chemical attacks in Syria on several occasions, Russia and China have used their vetoes to block sanctions on the Syrian government. Those responsible for past chemical attacks might have taken the lack of consequences as a green light to conduct more attacks.
The continued use of chemical attacks in Syria by government forces and armed groups threatens to undermine the very strong ban against chemical weapons in international law, which may encourage their use by others.
The Security Council, including Russia and China, should condemn this latest attack and support steps to hold those responsible to account.

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