Protection of Civilians in Conflict: A Test for the International Community

13/06/2016 15:52

On 10 June 2016, the French Presidency of the Security Council organized a high level open debate on "Protection of Civilians in the Context of Peacekeeping Operations". It followed to other recent open debates in the Security Council on related matters: the protection of civilians in armed conflicts in January, the peacebuilding architecture in February, countering terrorism in April, and the cooperation between the UN and the African Union on peace and security in May, thus confirming the acute actuality of the topic. Civilians remain the target of unacceptable violence in situations of armed conflicts, with statistics showing that they represent 93% of victims. It is a figure deeply disturbing, placing the protection of civilian population at the core of the international efforts for peace and security, and as a moral responsibility for the UN.

The Report of the UN Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts, published in June 2015, revealed that prevailing disrespect for the international humanitarian law by some States and non-State actors, and the impunity of perpetrators, became a critical challenge for the international community. Deliberate targeting of civilians, of schools and hospitals are on the rise in many armed conflicts, bringing the number of refugees and internally displaced persons to alarming levels.

The primary responsibility to protect the civilian population during wars and conflicts belongs to States, but when national authorities are unable or unwilling to fulfill their responsibility, then the international community must intervene. In cases where atrocity crimes are committed, accountability is crucial. This is why Romania endorsed the French-Mexican initiative that permanent members of the UN Security Council should voluntarily agree to refrain from using their veto in situations involving mass atrocities crimes, and we joined the Code of Conduct proposed by Liechtenstein on the Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.

Protection of civilians is also a task for peacekeeping operations. It is even decisive for the success and legitimacy of the UN presence in the field. In many cases in the recent past, peacekeepers did not use force to protect population coming under attack, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. Therefore, UN missions need to be equipped with appropriate tools in order to address both the causes of crises and their consequences, including the protection of civilians, with a special attention to women, children and vulnerable persons.

Quite often, the complex reality on the ground makes difficult for peacekeepers to fully understand the action they have to perform for protecting the civilian population. In this respect, pre-deployment training is essential, as well as a zero tolerance policy to any kind of abuse. Training must be anchored in the respect for human rights and in the standards of integrity required by the United Nations. It has to include how to interact with local people and civil society organizations, especially those focused on the protection of women's and children's rights, because nothing is more damaging to the reputation and credibility of peacekeeping missions, and to the efforts to regain the trust of local populations, than Blue Helmets abusing those they have mandate to protect. Here, it is the Security Council's responsibility to ensure that the protection mandate is clearly defined, achievable and backed with adequate resources. Out of the 16 UN peacekeeping operations in place today, ten have a mandate for protection of civilians. Romania is present in six of them.

Romanian experience proves the benefits of mixed teams, where female members of peacekeeping operations interact with women and vulnerable individuals from local communities. Complementary between training courses provided both at national and international level, in a way that they can offer to peacekeepers the skills to identify early warning indicators of potential risk for atrocity crimes, is also important.

For instance, prior to their deployment in peacekeeping operations, Romanian troops attend a three months period of strict training which includes protection of civilians and respect for human rights. As a result, in 25 years of continuous presence in UN peacekeeping missions and with a total of more than ten thousands Blue Helmets all over the world, Romanians have never been involved in incidents of disrespect of the civilian population. Currently, we are present with military, police and close protection officers in ten peacekeeping operations and in two special political missions.

At the same time, we must not neglect the serious danger peacekeepers continue to face to fulfill their mandates in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. They risk so much to advance peace in profoundly hostile environments, and we pay tribute to the men and women who so admirably dedicate their lives to protect the lives of others. Unknown by the public opinion, criticized sometimes for not doing more, many of them made their ultimate sacrifice. In 2015 only, 129 Blue Helmets died in mission and, unfortunately, others followed this year.

To limit the number of victims both among civilians and peacekeepers, a renewed focus has to be on conflict prevention and mediation. From this perspective, negotiated political solutions, early warning mechanisms to anticipate risks of atrocities, accepting the norms of Responsibility to Protect, and respect of the Kigali Principles on the protection of civilians in conflicts, are part of the solution. At present, 29 countries, including Romania, have endorsed the Kigali Principles, accounting for more than 40,000 troops serving under the UN flag.

Last but not the least, effective protection of civilians in armed conflicts needs an enhanced cooperation with regional and sub-regional organizations, because of their knowledge of the cultural, social and historical regional realities. The African Union and the European Union are two good examples, both organizations being strategic partners of the UN in the peacekeeping efforts.

Finally, proper implementation of the Agenda 2030 will further contribute to tackling the root causes of conflicts, because many conflicts and crises they generate have roots in poverty, in the lack of basic resources such as water and food, denied access to education, inequality, migration due to climate change, and the absence of any hope for a better future. Therefore, the Agenda 2030 marks a paradigm shift in approaching emerging challenges and requires us to commit to eradicating extreme poverty, fighting inequality, empowering women and girls, protecting the vulnerable ones, improving governance, encouraging sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and leaving no one behind.