Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See, stressed the importance of protecting civilians in war zones on May 23, 2019, during the UN Security Council Open Debate on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in New York.
Following are the Archbishop’s remarks
I would like to thank Indonesia for convening today’s Open Debate to consider the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.
As other speakers have already noted, this year marks the seventieth anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions that together form the cornerstone of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and the twentieth anniversary of Resolution 1265, adopted precisely in a context where respect for IHL and human rights law was eroding.
Two decades later, the strong condemnation of the deliberate targeting of civilians and calls urging all involved in armed conflict to strict compliance to IHL is more relevant and pressing than ever, considering that more and more victims in armed conflicts are innocent civilians. If in the early 1900s civilian fatalities in armed conflict were around 5 percent, in the 1990s non-combatant fatalities were over 90 percent. Civilian populations clearly pay the highest price.
The Secretary General’s Report notes that since the adoption of Resolution 1265 and the other protection-focused resolutions which have followed, the attention and action of the Security Council has “strengthened the framework for the protection of civilians in armed conflict and saved countless lives.” The same Report, however, as well as other sources of information, show us that much remains to be done to ensure the protection of civilians and humanitarian actors. As a response to this need, recent peacekeeping mandates have explicitly included the protection of civilians, the prevention of sexual violence in conflict and strict compliance with IHL and human rights law. Moreover, increased attention to pre-deployment formation and to context-specific training has improved the operational capacity and performance of the blue helmets.
A major part of the problem – although not the entire problem – is that today’s conflicts are more drawn out and fragmented. They increasingly involve also the engagement of non-State armed groups who, more often than not, act either in total ignorance of or in absolute disrespect for humanitarian law and principles. Places where civilians should feel safe are instead targeted: schools come under fire; hospitals, medical staff, and patients are attacked; places of worship, which should be havens of peace, become places of death and devastation; systematic attacks against cultural heritage turn into “weapons of war”; homes are destroyed and entire villages are burned to the ground; women and girls are raped; children are abducted and forced to join armed groups; in far too many places whole generations are deprived of education and other basic services, thereby increasing the danger of perpetuating this vicious cycle of violence and underdevelopment.
Protracted crises, restricted movement of goods and the denial of humanitarian access all have devastating effects upon civilian populations. They are ensnared in conflicts not of their choosing and are forced to flee their homes and to live in camps where they are vulnerable to diseases and exposed to abuses of all sorts. Even humanitarian workers and volunteers increasingly find themselves as targets of direct, intentional attacks, often made possible by the illegal sale and proliferation of small arms and light weapons. How ironic that food and medical supplies are often impeded while guns and ammunition circulate freely. The widespread and growing culture of impunity impedes warring parties from respecting the rules of war. If more robust legal mechanisms and sanctions were put firmly in place, a shift of mentality and culture would be at least given a chance to grow and flourish.
As we fail to spare too many from the scourge of war, we must focus our efforts to protect the most vulnerable, particularly women, children, the elderly and disabled, as well as to ensure that all those engaged in armed conflict, State actors and non-State actors alike, must adhere to the principles enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and to the provisions of this Council’s resolutions. Today’s Open Debate must serve as proof of the Council’s commitment to translate resolutions into effective action to better protect civilians in conflict. We owe them this.
I thank you, Mr. President.
1. S/2019/373 of 7 May 2019
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