In the past year, at least 20,000 civilians were killed or injured in conflict-affected countries; displacement has continued to rise to over 70 million people displaced globally; and the world faces a dual economic and public health crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, there is escalating violence and displacement in Cameroon, the DRC, Libya, Mali, and Yemen, and continued violence in Afghanistan and Syria. Amid all of this is nearly unheeded call for a global ceasefire with powerful states, including those who sit in the UN Security Council, continuing to arm or lift moratoriums on weapons trading, which contributes to nothing in drawing down any conflicts.
Highlights from the Debate
In this context, the Security Council held its annual open debate on the protection of civilians on 27 May. There were briefings by UN Secretary General (UNSG) António Guterres, former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Peter Maurer of the International Committee Red Cross (ICRC). In this year’s debate, Council members discussed developments such as the spread of the COVID-19 virus to conflict-affected areas; deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure including in northern Syria; the blocking of humanitarian access to communities in need; and the importance of accountability for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. To compound on the horrific loss of human lives from existing conflicts, the financial cost of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic impact of lockdown measures cannot be overstated on the lives of civilians currently and in the longer term.
In its May 2020 Monthly Action Points, NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, of which WILPF is a founding and active member, highlighted several key recommendations for the debate, including on gender mainstreaming, SGBV and access to justice, participation, resourcing the humanitarian work of local women-led civil society, and comprehensive access to services for survivors. Although some of these issues were mentioned, overall, the discussion failed to reflect the breadth and complexity of the issues faced by civilian populations in conflict areas, particularly from a gender-sensitive lens.
Stopping violence against civilians is a key human rights and feminist issue. But yet the Council discussions on protection of civilians rarely incorporate a substantive gender lens, let alone one that incorporates the different and intersecting forms of violence that people in conflict-affected areas face, including based on real or perceived sexual and gender identity, age, and disability. Women and girls were largely discussed as victims as in previous years,and discussed in broad strokes with people with disabilities, migrants and refugees, children, and detainees, despite the fact that these groups have diverse experiences and face different challenges.
Sexual and gender-based violence, often a key issue faced by civilians particularly women and girls, as well as sometimes by men and boys, was addressed by France, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia, and the United States in the context of heightened risk during the pandemic. The Secretary-General noted findings from his report that show women and girls have been increasingly subjected to SGBV through targeted attacks, forced marriage, abduction, and restrictions on their movement over the past year. Member states remained silent on the importance of a survivor-centered, non-discriminatory and holistic access to services including sexual health and reproductive rights and mental health treatment, a contentious topic last year in the Council.
Women’s meaningful participation is vital to all peace efforts, including measures to stop violence against civilians. Indonesia highlighted the role that local women civil society can play in developing and implementing civilian protection strategies and the role of local women in building and sustaining peace. Speaking in line with its National Strategy on Women, Peace and Security, the United States brought up the role of journalists and human rights defenders and protecting them from reprisals in other countries, and also highlighted the importance of women’s participation in the Syrian peace process. Vietnam also raised the issue of participation. Missing from the discussion was the need for stronger resourcing of the humanitarian and peacebuilding work of local women-led civil society, which is a vital lifeline in many communities.
In his report, the Secretary-General raised the issues of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and fully autonomous weapons systems, both of which our colleagues at Reaching Critical Will, the WILPF disarmament programme have extensively written on. The UNSG’s report highlighted that 90% of people killed by explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians. Civilian deaths are not an unavoidable consequence of conflict, and states can go beyond statements by taking action to protect civilians, including supporting a political declaration currently under discussion and led by Ireland.
An under addressed issue which was highlighted by the Dominican Republic, Germany, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines was climate change. Climate change was discussed as a “risk multiplier”, and as a contributing factor to desertification, vulnerability, displacement, and food and water insecurity. Climate change has already exacerbated conflicts including in Sudan and Syria. War leaves behind catastrophic environmental impacts, including from the use of explosive weapons. Currently, approximately 820 million people worldwide are food insecure, as a result of conflict, climate change, and scarcity produced by a lack of investment in human wellbeing.
From Protection to Prevention
A major gap throughout the debate was in the framing of the issue itself. China, the Dominican Republic, Tunisia, and Vietnam mentioned the importance of addressing root causes of conflict in their statements, but as a whole, the Council’s work largely continues to operate from a narrow focus on protection in conflict as the end goal rather than prevention. At the core of addressing the protection of civilians is removing the opportunity and ability to use violence against civilians by parties who are in competition for power through economic and political resources. This means states should go beyond listing out violations and assaults against women and children in their statements as a way to garner sympathy and vague action on protection of civilians. Instead, states should take bolder action that no longer makes war safe for civilians but makes war an implausible action to take to address differences.
In her briefing, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf shared this focus on prevention, noting that
“A conflict averted does not make headlines, but it saves lives and livelihoods. We must stop conflicts and prevent new ones. Preventing conflict is not easy. But our collective experience shows that it is less costly than ending it.”
Although all speakers talked about the importance of international humanitarian law and human rights law, and some brought up the necessity of holding violators accountable, these statements stand meaningless if they are not matched with action. Many states speak in support of peace and human rights, including Council members, all the while profiting politically and financially as some of the major direct and indirect contributors to armed conflicts, including through the arms trade and contributing to and remaining complicit in the deaths of civilians and destruction of generations. States can and must condemn brutal violations of international humanitarian law, such as the bombing of hospitals and schools. But for there to be lasting impacts in the lives of the millions of civilians affected by armed conflict, the Council must reorient its work to prevention and genuinely commit to multilateralism for peace.
The inability of the Council to come to a consensus around the efforts for a global ceasefire, including the most recent efforts led by France and Tunisia, has shown its failure to act decisively as a body tasked maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations among nations; to cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights; and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations when the lives of millions of people around the world are dependent on their decisions.