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Protection of civilians in armed conflict

UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL

Statement by HE Mr Gary Quinlan, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations

20 August 2013

 

Madam President   

Thank you for convening this debate and for your presence. And for Argentina’s strong leadership on protection of civilians.

Thank you also to the Secretary-General for his consistent leadership on protection matters and to High Commissioner Pillay, Under-Secretary-General Amos and Dr Spoerri for their unwavering efforts.

Today’s debate is an apt way to mark World Humanitarian Day and to pay tribute to those working tirelessly to address humanitarian challenges – people to whom we owe so much. We also of course pause to reflect on the life and legacy of Sergio Viera de Mello, a humanitarian of courage and conviction and his 21 UN colleagues killed ten years ago in Baghdad in pursuit of the United Nations’ ideals.

As we know, international humanitarian law obliges all parties to a conflict to protect civilian populations against the effect of hostilities and sets out a range of fundamental protection guarantees. It also extends specific protections to relief and medical personnel. Yet humanitarian actors are still too often – and at times systematically – subject to indiscriminate and deliberate attacks.

In June, the Council expressed our outrage over the attack on the UN compound in Mogadishu. We learned last week that Médecins Sans Frontières has ended its engagement in Somalia following attacks on its personnel. In Syria, 20 Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff have been killed during the conflict. Over the past decade, 47 aid workers have been killed in Darfur. We know that some of these killings were the result of deliberate attacks – an intolerable situation.

The reality is that humanitarian actors operate in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Their work is hard enough. But constraints on humanitarian access continue to further undermine the ability of humanitarian actors to reach people in need. Delayed, impeded or denied access causes unnecessary death, avoidable disease, and needless suffering.

Under international humanitarian law, each party to a conflict has the responsibility for meeting the basic needs of civilians under its control. For these provisions to have any meaningful effect, it is imperative that consent to relief operations not be arbitrarily denied. We support the call by USG Amos this morning for further attention to this.

Nowhere are the challenges to humanitarian efforts more evident than in Syria. The Syrian Government has systematically used bureaucratic and operational obstacles to deny, delay and impede access for the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian assistance – including, alarmingly, medical supplies. Denying civilians access to medical personnel and facilities is a grave failure of the Syrian Government’s protection obligations to its own citizens.

Tens of millions of civilians continue to suffer in conflicts. Not because of a lack of legal protection: obligations under international law are clear and longstanding. But because international humanitarian law is routinely breached both by States and non-state actors. Further promotion of international humanitarian law is therefore essential. We commend the ICRC for its determined leadership in strengthening compliance.

Increasingly, situations on the Council’s agenda involve non-State armed groups, many of whom are unaware of the international legal obligations that bind them or refuse to be constrained by these provisions. These groups must act in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law.

We applaud practical measures such as the “Deeds of Commitment” to encourage armed non-State actors to comply with humanitarian and human rights norms. An outstanding example is Geneva Call’s Deed of Commitment banning anti-personnel mines, signed by 42 non-State armed groups from 10 countries. This Council should continue to explore creative ways of promoting compliance by non-State armed groups, as it has done to prevent grave violations against children.

When laws protecting civilians are violated, we need to ensure that all efforts are made to bring those responsible to justice. Indeed, as the Council stated in Resolution 1894, accountability for serious international crimes is necessary “to prevent violations, avoid their recurrence and seek sustainable peace, justice, truth and reconciliation”.  As a first step, we support the Secretary-General’s recommendation that the Council establish and support fact-finding missions to document violations of the law to inform decision making and to pave the way for criminal justice processes.

Investigating and prosecuting violations of those laws protecting civilians is in the first instance a national responsibility. The Council should ensure peacekeeping and special political missions are mandated to assist host States strengthen the rule of law and to boost their capacity to investigate and prosecute serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

There will, however, be occasions when national authorities are unwilling or unable to do so. In such cases, this Council must be proactive in ensuring an appropriate international response so as to avoid any impunity for the perpetrators. It is vital that the Council consider the referral of situations involving genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes to the International Criminal Court and that the Council supports ICC action.

To conclude, Madam President

Protecting civilians is primarily a national responsibility. But where national authorities fail and mass atrocity crimes occur, the international community – including this Council – must be prepared to act to meet our responsibility to protect. Australia will continue to be a voice for Council action in such circumstances. This is the legitimate expectation of those many millions of civilians who desperately need protection. And it is a defining benchmark against which the United Nations itself should – and will – be judged.

Thank you Madam President.

Check against delivery.

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