Security Council Open Debate: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, May 2019

Thursday, May 23, 2019

by Zarin Hamid, WILPF WPS Programme Coordinator


On 23 May 2019, the UN Security Council (UNSC) held its annual open debate on protection of civilians, having received the yearly scheduled report of the UN Secretary-General on the issue. Holding the UNSC Presidency in May, Indonesia distributed a concept note focused on “good stories, lessons learned, and positive experiences in implementing the protection of civilians agenda against international humanitarian law”. In particular, the announced focus of the debate called on Member States to share on: “(a) the involvement of local and affected communities in the design and implementation of a range of tailored, context-specific and effective protection of civilians measures; (b) the protection of civilians mandates in peacekeeping operations; and (c) the mechanisms established by Member States to prevent the escalation of armed conflict within their territories.”

Invited briefers to the Council included: UN Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres and Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Federico Borello, Executive Director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC). Considering that women are heavily impacted by armed conflict in grave and intersecting ways, and as the SG’s report points out that women and girls with disabilities are particularly at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse, there was a greatly missed opportunity by Indonesia to invite women to speak and be counted in the conversation.

Indonesia began the session highlighting the upcoming milestone anniversaries, including the 70th anniversary of the Fourth Geneva Convention concerned with the protection of civilians in times of war, and the 20th anniversary of the first UN SC resolution on Protection of Civilians. Chairing the open debate, Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi, stated that in addressing the recent situations in Palestine, Syria, and Yemen, the Council’s position must be crystal clear: the safety and security of civilians must come first. The protection of civilians must continue to underpin the work of the Council and the international community. Ms. Marsudi asserted that despite the momentous achievement of adopting POC into the Council’s agenda 20 years ago, implementation must be strengthened. Indonesia suggested this may be done by strengthening the national capacity of concerned States since the responsibility to protect relies primarily with the State in conflict. However, as States in conflict often do not have the capacity to do so, partnerships become more important. Ms. Marsudi also recognised that women and children face the highest rates of conflict, and civilian protection programs should be tailored to community requirements. Indonesia gave an example of its own work in empowering Palestinian communities to gain access to their basic needs. Indonesia also relayed the experience of its peacekeepers in the field where the mastery of soft skills is critical for building trust with communities.



Beginning the first of three briefings to the UNSC, the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres whose recent report on the protection of civilians was delivered to the UNSC in early May, informed States that while the normative framework on POC has been strengthened, compliance has deteriorated, stating “Chief among our challenges is enhancing and ensuring respect and compliance for international humanitarian law in the conduct of hostilities.” Highlighting the achievements of the last 20 years, SG Guterres outlined that a culture of protection has taken root in the Security Council and across the United Nations, becoming one of the core issues on the agenda. Over the last century and accelerated over the last twenty years since the Rwandan genocide, a comprehensive protection framework has developed that encompases international law and Security Council resolutions. SG Guterres reminded the Council that the protection of children and of all civilians from sexual violence in conflict (SVIC) has been strengthened through deployment of special advisers within peacekeeping operations, and that monitoring and reporting on violations against children and their participation with armed groups has supported the work of demobilization and reintegration of thousands of children. He warned that respect for IHL has never been more eroded and urgent action is needed to diminish the impact of warfare. Regarding the arms trade and armed conflict, SG Guterres called on Member States to “do more to condition arms exports on respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law.” Calling for greater accountability, SG Guterres echoed the recommendations of his recent report urging Member States to close the gap between allegations of serious violations and their investigation and prosecution.

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), its president Peter Maurer briefed the Council with recommendations for improving humanitarian action and space to support the protection of civilians and uphold the human dignity of civilians caught in armed conflict. Mr. Maurer reminded the Council that humanitarian action is the bedrock for protection of civilians and as an actor in the field, the ICRC calls on States to adapt their response to the real needs of civilians on the ground by setting clearer frameworks and ground rules for troops, and providing higher standards in arms transfers. Furthermore, he reminded the Council that in addition to being “exposed to war and violence, populations are stopped from reaching safer spaces, are constrained by bureaucratic obstacles and are limited in their free movement...[and] when an individual faces immediate threats to safety and dignity, harm can be greatly reduced by strict adherence to the rules regulating the use of force, through more stringent arms controls and through humane treatment in transfers of detainees and in detention.”

Throughout the open debate many Member States brought up the need to improve clarity in the mandates of missions sent to conflict areas, allowing for better response to the needs of civilians on the ground. Early in the debate Peter Maurer recommended to these Member States and the UNSC that any attempts to improve frameworks and grounds must be anchored in protecting civilians who experience the daily realities of war. Furthermore, he beseeched the Council that response to civilians caught in conflict must go beyond the victim mindset to acknowledgment of communities as agents of action and experts of their own situations. Mr. Maurer assured the Council that civilian communities do not wait for external interventions to address problems and face their situations head on as they decide how best to leave in groups, choosing in advance which routes to take and how to take care of those with disabilities. The ICRC took the opportunity to ask the Council’s present members and other Member States to refrain from limiting the movement of civilians as they try to protect themselves from violence within other countries.

Another issue of great consequence highlighted during the debate is of the hundreds of thousands individuals missing worldwide as result of conflict events. Mr. Maurer described them as “festering wounds of families [that] can harm the fabric of societies...undermining relations sometimes decades after original events.” Not only is this issue important from a humanitarian perspective, it is critical to overcoming the remaining contentious wounds brought on by the conflict. Guaranteed by at least six international and regional conventions and statutes, it is also a human rights issue that must be addressed by governments, who are bound to uphold the human rights of the missing to be free from enforced disappearance or torture, and uphold the rights of those survivors to truth, justice, and reparations. In its statement, Kuwait noted that the UNSC does not have normative language on the issue of missing persons and during its presidency in June will convene a briefing on this topic at the end of which a resolution will be likely be adopted. Nepal also echoed the importance of informing and including local communities during and after conflict in the humanitarian plans affecting their communities.

Federico Borello, Executive Director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), echoed the ICRC’s assertion that civilian communities know best and engaging with communities is critical to the protection of civilians. Community engagement should support and empower existing community foundations and humanitarian interventions should abide by the “Do No Harm” principle, with “a strong gender lens — recognizing that women, men, boys, and girls experience conflict differently and that they must all be protected equally.” There must be a greater commitment to avoid using explosive weapons in urban areas, with “a priority on civilian protection in arms transfers and security partnership…[with] rigorous safeguards [...] especially where there are risks of violations by partners.”

Member States

On the whole statements made by Member States in response to the SG’s report and the three briefings were the following issues: 

(1) Targeting of medical services, hospitals, schools, places of worship

There were over twenty-one references to safe schools for children by States such as Peru, Romania, Spain, Canada, Austria, Mexico, and Italy, among others. Most of these States support the Safe School initiative and the upcoming third International Conference on Safe Schools to be hosted by Spain. States focused on attacks against Medical personnel, facilities, and their work, all of which are protected under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and by the First, Second, and Fourth Geneva Conventions, particularly under Common Article 3, which “requires that the wounded, sick and shipwrecked be collected and cared for,” thereby requiring protection of medical personnel, regardless of civilian or otherwise, to do their job.

Violence against humanitarian medical workers and facilities continue to persist despite it being a violation of IHL. In the last year there have been at least 973 attacks on health workers, health facilities, health transports and patients in 23 countries in conflict. The Dominican Republic and Norway stressed the need to take serious response measures for the protection of medical personnel and medical infrastructure in armed conflict. Kuwait and Costa Rica went further by calling the issue, along with targeting of schools and places of worship what it is: a war crime. With certain UNSC Permanent Members playing a hand directly or indirectly supporting current conflicts, France decried attacks on medical personnel and infrastructure, citing its concern for Syria where attacks against hospitals are common. France assured the assembled Member States of the Council of its commitment to ensuring the protection for medical personnel is integrated from planning onwards.

(2) Safeguarding IHL and task of consistently implementing its rules

Over 68% of Member States discussed the importance of IHL and the critical need to ensure compliance and accountability to its tenets. The Secretary-General was encouraged to speak up loudly on violations of IHL and use his office to work toward prevention of violations from happening in the first place. States like South Africa, Kuwait, and Canada called on all parties of conflict to fully comply with IHL despite the geopolitical interests that can impede or sway actions. South Africa underlined that nothing should prevent the UN Security Council from acting to protect civilians caught in armed conflict. Aptly summarizing the issue, Canada stated that the violation of IHL is an assault on rules-based intl order. Urging the Council to preserve humanitarian space in counter terrorism exercises in accordance with IHL and human rights law, Canada was also joined by the likes of Kuwait, Lichtenstein, El Salvador, Pakistan, Nepal, and Switzerland in calling for accountability and compliance by conflict parties to international humanitarian law. Pakistan pointed to the continuation of IHL being flouted with women bearing the greater brunt of atrocities, with violations of IHL triggering endless violence and division. Lichtenstein informed the Council of it’s key responsibility to ensure compliance, which is cornerstone of IHL strength, encouraging the Council to refer issues to the ICC as way to ensure accountability for grave violations in armed conflict.

Regarding the transfer of weapons, the arms trade, and respect for the values of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), multiple States made statements condemning the trade of weapons to countries embroiled in conflict. France, which has been involved in controversy over it’s weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia in its offensive in Yemen, informed the Council of its commitment to seeing the universalisation of ATT, and called for a responsible approach for arms importers and exporters. As a signatory of the Arms Trade Treaty. Echoing the Secretary-General’s remarks, Costa Rica and Mexico voiced disagreement over with arms transfers to places that are currently in conflict, and asked Member States to join the treat and stop the trade in arms to such areas. Some States denounced the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and called on the international community to adopt measures of a protection framework on indiscriminate use of these weapons.

(3) Targeting violence against vulnerable groups, such as children, women, the disabled; recruitment of children by armed groups; and sexual violence

Similar to the SG’s report, much of the statements lumped together women and children as part of a vulnerable category of people, and within this group focused largely on the impact of armed conflict on children and the use of children in recruitment by armed parties. As more than half the population of civilians affected by armed conflict, women as a stand alone group were nearly invisible in the statements. Sexual violence in conflict against women was raised by about 22% of Member States, including Bangladesh, Germany, Italy, Japan, Jordan, South Korea, Paraguay, Latvia, Netherlands, Norway, and Senegal, who condemned the use of SVIC as a weapon and tactic of war.

Despite this unfortunate continuation on clumping women with children, nearly 80% of all States stressed the need to ensure protection of women, children, and persons with disabilities during armed conflict. Italy called for the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Costa Rica called for data on those with disabilities to ensure adequate protection through informed policies and solutions. Morocco also highlighted the situation of refugees, who human rights are daily violated by various actors, and reminded the Council of States’ collective obligation to the refugee community as essential. Armed conflict is often supported through the hegemony of a violent masculinity, where there is exploitation of the gendered norms that motivates social interaction within communities. There was a missed opportunity to discuss the  issue of men and boys or masculinities in the context of armed conflict and protection of civilians.

(4) Lack of accountability for violations of IHL because violations go unpunished and a support for the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other such bodies

Nearly 62% of statements mentioned the issue of accountability, rule of law, and justice. Most Member States spoke in support of greater accountability measures for violations of IHL as a way to ensure that whatever progress is made on implementation, addressing violations will strengthen respect and compliance for the normative framework. To address the violations of IHL, numerous Member States recommended that the ICC should play the leading role in holding parties accountable and restoring justice. Ukraine, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Lithuania, Pakistan, among other States called for a fight against impunity and accountability for violations. France also called on the Council to make more consistent use of sanctions as way to ensure that justice is provided for victims.

There were over 25% mentions of the International Criminal Court (ICC) by Member States concerned that examples of accountability have been few and far between. States like Ireland, Poland, Brazil, and Mexico reiterated the central role of the ICC in addressing violations and holding parties accountable, and impressed upon the Council the importance of referring violations and situations to the international judicial body.

(5) Adequate financing of peacekeeping missions; provision of clear mandates and mission specific training for peacekeepers

Federico Borello of CIVIC called on the  UNSC to support peacekeeping missions through diplomacy and political action where governments and non-State actors threaten civilians; through mandates matched by resources; and the right mix of civilian and military capabilities to bring and maintain peace in a situation. Almost 65% of Member States chose to discuss the issues faced by peacekeeping missions, which naturally affect the lives and limbs of civilians. Germany, Guatemala, Brazil, Thailand, Ireland, among others repeated the call for improved resourcing and training of peacekeeping missions and peacekeepers. Guatemala pointed out that implementation of mandates depends on critical factors that need to be well defined, realistic, and achievable.

Peacekeeping missions are a response to situations that have gone past the first brewing stages of conflict, and there is outright violence that directly disturb civilian life or force entire communities to internally relocate or flee across borders. A critical challenge facing efforts to protect civilians in conflict is that UN peacekeepers serve as the primary agents for the job. Member States pointed out that peacekeepers are often expected to do more than what they are mandated by the missions, and with limited resources. In order to respect the “Do No Harm” principle, it is critical that peacekeeping missions have clearly defined and resourced mandates, with specific tasks delineated to peacekeepers who receive pre-deployment training to carry them out.

Gender Analysis

In order to fully understand the complete elements of a conflict, a gendered analysis must be conducted, which allows for development of strategies that meets specific challenges and needs of women, girls, men, boys, and others, including LGBTQI people, migrants, and individuals with disabilities. 

Given the context of this Security Council Debate on Protection of Civilians as occurring so shortly after adoption by the Council of the 9th Resolution on Women, Peace and Security resolution, UNSCR 2467, this debate provided an opportunity to address protection from a gender perspective. UNSCR 2467 calls for a survivor-centred approach (2467 OP16) that ensures nondiscriminatory access to services and ensures freedom from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (2467 PP18). It affirms the need to ensure prevention and response are non-discriminatory and specific, and respect the rights and prioritise the needs of survivors, including groups that are vulnerable or targeted, including in the context of their health, education, and participation (OP16). It also raises issues important to protection, including affirming links between protection and participation, and addressing accessible and appropriate services, effective redress, reintegration, gender related persecution, discrimination in decision making and laws as well as their application, justice and justice sector reform, and reparations.

However, although there was some attention to addressing sexual violence in conflict, for the most part, this was a missed opportunity. A few States, including Argentina, Austria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, and South Africa made reference to UNSCR 1325 and the most recent resolution UNSCR 2467 tabled by Germany in April 2019. Many of these particular States linked WPS with a increased presence of women in peacekeeping to address protection of civilian measures. Bangladesh informed Member States, that “since adoption of UNSCR 1325, we are committed to reaching target of women peacekeepers. We have seen how rape and sexual violence can be reported to women peacekeepers. We are committed to helping overcoming SGBV.” Making the connection with the protection of civilians agenda and the women, peace and security agenda, Austria told the Council that next year both would help center human security in their agenda. About 22% of Member States, including Bangladesh, Luxembourg, Japan, connected sexual and gender-based violence in conflict against women with protection of civilians. Other gender and protection issues remaining on the sideline included sexual violence against men and boys and violent masculinities that contribute to building up conflict within a region. It is important to talk about sexual and gender-based violence in conflict alongside the issue of protection of civilians in armed conflict. Sexual violence and gender-based violence are not natural by products of war, and are instead used purposefully to assert psychological or military objectives by armed parties against civilian populations, whether to control territory, inflict terror and trauma upon communities or forcibly displace people and is largely targeted against women and girls, and sometimes men and boys. During this particular debate Member States, including those who mentioned UNSCR 2467 or the WPS agenda, did not delve in any meaningful way on this connection and the critical need to address protection of civilians from this context.

A number of Member States announced their continued or new initiatives to increase the number of women peacekeepers. According to Germany, raising the number of women in peace missions is an essential part of protection of civilians in armed conflict as it helps to raise the trust between local communities and peacekeepers. Romania was one of the few countries to acknowledge, albeit indirectly, that women need special protection measures different from other civilians, and that the solution is to have more women in peacekeeping.

Only eight speakers addressed protection within the context of the WPS protection pillar which calls on parties to armed conflict “to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms ofsexual abuse, and all other forms of violence in situations of armed conflict”. Armenia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, and the European Union, Bangladesh, Member States all made statements in this regard. For example, Italy stated “Regarding women, in the recent sexual violence in conflict debate, we strongly condemn that it continues to be widely deployed as a weapon and tactic of war.” Algeria noted that “with regard to the protection of civilians much has changed but much remains to be done, including addressing serious human rights abuses like the use of starvation on populations and sexual violence in conflict as weapons of war.”

About 25% of Member States recommended the importance of conflict prevention as a way to preemptively respond to protection of civilians. Mitigation of conflict before it begins or it escalates to direct violence is a human rights approach to addressing the growth of armed conflict. Just over 7% of Member States mentioned addressing and resolving root causes as a means for protection of civilians. The Philippines reiterated support for General Assembly  resolutions on conflict prevention and protection of civilians. Meanwhile, Estonia, Canada, South Korea, and Argentina urged Council to work together on prevention, mitigation, and gender-based violence in conflict. Guatemala underline that prevention must be a part of the protection of civilians agenda, with focus on early warning and mitigation measures. Bangladesh called for a upstream of prevention activities, urging the UN to improve its capacity to translate early warning into early action, with efforts made to find local solutions.

Disarmament, respect for human rights, including equality and non-discrimination, access to basic life services, along with preventive diplomacy, mediation and other tools can play a role in conflict prevention. A small number of Member States linked the need for disarmament (12%) and the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons (SALW) or adherence to the ATT(6%). Lichtenstein reminded the Council “the conventions make clear that war is illegal, and we believe the criminalization of war is key”. Bangladesh called on Member States to respect disarmament commitments, including those concerning landmines and explosive weapons. Overtaking the discussion on arms were repeated calls by various Member States for conflict parties “avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas”. Most cited concerns that these weapons lead to large numbers of victims within urban spaces and create large scale destruction of homes and access to humanitarian assistance as well as environmental damage. The WILPF program Reaching Critical Will has developed analysis on the far reaching effects of explosive weapons on women, who “tend to have more limited access to emergency care and longer-term rehabilitation assistance” among the many other detrimental human costs associated with these weapons.


Given the context of this Security Council Debate on Protection of Civilians as occurring so shortly after adoption by the Council of the 9th Resolution on Women, Peace and Security, UNSCR 2467, this debate provided an opportunity to address protection from a gender perspective. The consideration of sexual violence in conflict was an important step to moving forward in this regard. However, this was a missed opportunity to connect the prevalence of sexual violence in conflict directed against women and girls, and sometimes against men and boys, and the role violent masculinities play in fueling conflict. The outcome text of UNSCR 2467 introduced new language on a “survivor-centred approach”, calling for prevention and response to be non-discriminatory and specific and to respect the rights and needs of survivors, including vulnerable or targeted groups. This agreed upon and necessary response element to addressing protection of civilians in conflict was missing in this May open debate as well.

Furthermore, a debate on the protection of civilians requires discussion of the specific vulnerabilities faced by men and boys, particularly in the case of detention or recruitment. Member States did bring up the issue of recruitment of children by armed groups, forgoing any mention of the gendered aspects of recruitment or violence, whether sexual or physical against girls and boys by armed groups. The importance seeing the intersectional gendered realities facing women and girls in armed conflict, and seeing men and boys as victims and survivors of violence, including sexual violence, was a missed opportunity by the Council and Member States who are serious about addressing the full breadth of needs, gaps, and challenges in protection of civilians in armed conflict.

The 70th anniversary of the Third Geneva Convention and 20th anniversary of the  first UNSC Resolution on Protection of Civilians must serve as a reminder to Member States to meet their duties to implement commitments that respect human life and dignity enshrined in the conventions and resolutions, including the lives of women and girls. If State actors stop using war to achieve economic and political goals and instead reallocated resources toward peace, they would increase opportunities for success in this area.

Protection of civilians in armed conflict requires addressing the root causes and gendered implications of both the violence and the responses and solutions available. Human rights, including women’s human rights,  and gender equitable international humanitarian law must inform every aspect of efforts made by the UN, governments, and civil society. The principle of “Do No Harm” is more relevant than ever as violence and armed conflict ravage multiple continents, in new and protracted conflicts spanning decades and multi generations. The normative framework on protection of civilians began formation in response to wars of the last century that took millions of lives across the globe. The lack of respect and compliance for international humanitarian law and human rights of civilians are bolstered by the geopolitical interests powerful UN Member States who speak easily on respect for IHL but contribute indirectly or directly to the continued destabilisation and detriment of multiple conflicts in the world’s most pressing hotspots. Accountability and respect and compliance for the Geneva Conventions, the Arms Trade Treaty, Rome Statue and other upholders human dignity must be requirement for those Member States who speak with impassioned concern for civilians at the UN Security Council, with women’s meaningful participation and lives as a central priority. Moving forward, all Member States should address the experience and needs of women in armed conflict as as a key priority in protection, including addressing interlinkages with participation and gender equality.


Monthly Action Points (MAP) for the Security Council: May 2019

Concept Note: May 2019 Open Debate on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

May 2019 Report of the Secretary-General on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict S/2019/373