Speech given by Mirjana Spoljaric, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross to the UN Security Council in New York on the protection of civilians
NEWS RELEASE 23 MAY 2023
President Berset, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.
For the International Committee of the Red Cross, the issue of protection of civilians lies at the core of our mandate.
As we meet, countless civilians in conflicts around the world are experiencing a living hell.
Any minute, the next missile can obliterate their home, their school, their clinic and everyone in it.
Any day, their loved ones might be abused, raped, detained, or tortured.
Any week, they might run out of food or medicine.
Everywhere I look – and in my short time as president of the ICRC, I have visited conflict-affected countries in Africa, Europe and the Near East – I see a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation.
Entire regions are trapped in cycles of conflict without an end in sight.
ICRC’s figures show that the number of non-international armed conflicts has, over the past 20 years, more than tripled from less than 30 to over 90.
Many of these are protracted conflicts, bringing ceaseless suffering – suffering that is compounded by climate shocks, food insecurity and economic hardship.
Civilians are gravely unprotected because they suffer a relentless accumulation of attacks, threats, destruction, as well as political stalemates.
When conflicts are characterised by widespread destruction and violation of international humanitarian law; then development and peace become an unachievable ambition.
It is clear: the protection of civilians is a pre-condition of stability, peace, and recovery.
My calls to States today are urgent.
First, protect civilians and critical infrastructure in urban areas.
The widespread and often indiscriminate destruction of homes and critical infrastructure disproportionately raises the cost of war.
Across the places I visited in the past months, I saw how the shock of losing one’s home is compounded by the interruption or prolonged absence of essential services such as water, electricity, healthcare, and education.
As fighting envelops towns and cities, such as in Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, the ICRC is seeing large-scale and compounding patterns of harm.
We need to break the pattern of violations: and this can be done through strong political will and sustained action.
State and non-state parties must do more to prevent, reduce, and mitigate the damage that armed conflict causes in urban centres. In adopting resolution 2573 more than two years ago, this very Council demanded that parties to armed conflict do more. I echo that call again today.
The ICRC urges all parties engaged in urban warfare to:
- Ensure that the protection of civilians is prioritized in urban settings;
- Comply fully with international humanitarian law and notably the principles on distinction, proportionality, and precaution;
- Avoid the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas – and endorse and faithfully implement the Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas; and
- Ensure that the protection of essential services encompasses the infrastructure, people and consumables that keep hospitals, water, and power functioning.
Second, States must step up to prevent and mitigate food insecurity in conflict-affected areas.
During my visit to the Horn of Africa earlier this year, I saw how conflict and climate shocks are having a devastating impact on already vulnerable communities.
In Somalia, more than seven million people are in urgent need of food and water.
The combination of drought, lack of investment in climate adaptation in conflict zones and the knock-on effects of the international armed conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine is seriously impacting people in conflicts around the world.
The ICRC calls on states and other actors to:
- Respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law, including rules on the conduct of hostilities, to reduce the risk of food insecurity and famine.
- Invest in practical solutions and adaptation measures to mitigate the effects of climate change in conflict-affected regions.
Third, I call on States to enable neutral and impartial humanitarian access:
This means: access to civilians in need, notably besieged communities…
Access to overcrowded detention facilities where we continue to see worrying trends in relation to ill-treatment and torture…
Access to the estimated 175 million people who live in areas fully or partially controlled by armed groups…
This requires enabling a humanitarian dialogue with non-state armed groups, for instance through the implementation of the humanitarian carve-out to sanctions regimes adopted by this Council in resolution 2664. This is critical for an organization like the ICRC which maintains a dialogue with more than 300 armed groups worldwide.
In today’s operating environment, misinformation and disinformation also present a threat to populations and hinder humanitarian operations. Misinformation can fuel dangerous community divisions and undermine community acceptance of humanitarian organisations.
We urge States and other actors to take all necessary measures to prevent and mitigate the impact of harmful information on the safety, dignity, and rights of civilians, and to preserve the space for neutral, impartial humanitarian action and to protect it from political instrumentalization.
Finally, I must underscore: the protection of civilians means the protection of all.
There is no chance of enduring stability or security until international humanitarian law is upheld for all genders.
The ICRC urges states to:
- Ensure that all persons, regardless of their gender, are protected in conflict and equally benefit from humanitarian assistance.
- Ensure that the clear prohibition of sexual violence under international humanitarian law is integrated into national laws, military doctrine, and training.
- Commit to applying a gender perspective into the application and interpretation of international humanitarian law.
The ICRC continues to insist on the preventive and protective effects of international humanitarian law.
Compliance with the law protects civilians. It prevents violations and abuses.
It reduces the cost of war while maintaining a pathway to ceasefire agreements, and eventually to lasting peace, functioning economies, and a healthy natural environment.
I call upon all states to uphold international humanitarian law, including through their influence over others.
In times of compounding global trends and geopolitical tensions, compliance with international humanitarian law must become a political priority.