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UK Turns Back on UN Protection of Civilians

The UK is set to break with a 15-year tradition by refusing to hold an open debate on the protection of civilians during its presidency of the UN Security Council in November. Its plan to forego an open debate and instead host a briefing on next year's World Humanitarian Summit would be a downgrading of the protection of civilians agenda, all the more so as the UK is responsible for drafting Security Council resolutions on this topic. In a snub to the UN Secretary-General, this UK move means it will be the first time that the Secretary-General's report on protection of civilians will not be discussed in an open debate at the Security Council.

This development comes against the background of the UK's recent failures to provide international leadership on the protection of civilians. A review of 2015 alone provides serious grounds for concern.

In June the UK refused to join the 50 countries that endorsed the Safe Schools declaration on the protection of education in armed conflict and its accompanying (non-binding) guidelines on the military use and occupation of schools and universities in armed conflict.

The UK's continued refusal to recognise the humanitarian problem associated with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas meant that it was not amongst the group of states that met in Vienna in September to discuss the potential for a new international commitment to prevent harm from bombing and shelling in towns and cities.

On top of this failure to embrace progressive new initiatives on protection of civilians, the UK is slipping on its existing obligations. Ahead of the first 5-year Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the UK strongly argued against inclusion in the meeting's outcome document of a condemnation of "any use of cluster munitions by any actor". When this effort failed and the declaration adopted a comprehensive condemnation, the UK issued a reservation related to this phrase. The UK's refusal to condemn "any use by any actor" came as the UK refused to condemn the use of cluster munitions by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The UK found no such problem in condemning the use of cluster munitions in Syria or Libya.

Similarly, continued British arms transfers to Saudi Arabia fall foul of the UK's legal obligations under the recently adopted Arms Trade Treaty. As evidence mounts of war crimes in the conflict in Yemen, the UK is refusing to cease arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, which is leading the bombing campaign. The vast majority of civilians casualties are being caused by Saudi-led airstrikes, undertaken by an airforce largely equipped with UK-manufactured aircraft and munitions.

In both these cases the UK is seemingly putting its relationship with Saudi Arabia ahead of its commitment to and obligations under international human rights and international humanitarian law.

In relation to the use of armed drones, the UK's drone strike in Syria in September pushes Britain further towards the potentially limitless expansion of the area of military operations, with perverse legal arguments aimed at turning the whole world into a battlefield.

Each of these developments is profoundly concerning, but taken together they provide a stark picture of a UK foreign policy that has turned its back on the primacy of human rights and international humanitarian law. If the UK does not correct this course, it is not in a position to take responsibility for drafting Security Council resolutions on the protection of civilians, let alone call itself a global humanitarian leader.

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