Thank you, Madam President, for your presence and for convening this debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, an issue at the heart of the Security Council’s charge to maintain international peace and security. First, I would like to join the Secretary General, our briefers, and Council colleagues in paying tribute to fallen UN personnel and humanitarian workers on World Humanitarian Day, in the tenth anniversary of the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad. We owe humanitarian workers our deep gratitude for the work they do and they risks they take. I would also like to thank the Secretary General, High Commissioner for Human Rights Pillay, Undersecretary General Amos, and ICRC Director Spoerri for focusing our attention today on the many challenges facing civilians caught or targeted in conflicts. Madam President we see the horrific consequences when access to those in need is blocked, as in Syria; when the government’s armed forces and armed rebel groups traumatize civilian populations, as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and when impunity prevails and the perpetrators of atrocities are not held accountable, as in the Central African Republic. These devastating situations are particularly acute when community leaders – journalists, activists, religious figures, and scholars – are targeted for the critical work they do to sound the alarm, protect the vulnerable, and foster peace and reconciliation.
Today’s discussion is of great importance to the United States. We have made protection of civilians a priority, and, indeed, President Obama has made it clear that for the United States the deterrence of genocide and atrocities is “a core national security interest and core moral responsibility.” Too often warring parties fall short or blatantly disregard their obligations altogether. In truly appalling cases, including ongoing tragedies, as in Syria and in Sudan, parties to armed conflict deliberately target civilians. It is clear we must strengthen our commitment in the three key areas that Argentina has rightly highlighted for this debate: enhancing compliance with international humanitarian law; improving humanitarian access to areas in conflict; and ensuring effective accountability mechanisms for suspected war crimes.
Madam President, despite a strong body of international humanitarian law dedicated to protecting civilian populations in armed conflict, the Secretary General notes that most victims in recent armed conflicts have been civilians. In Syria, over 100,000 people have tragically lost their lives. Among these are innocent civilians including women and children who should have been safe from violence. We need to use the tools at hand to improve compliance with IHL to prevent the loss of innocent lives. In the context of this Council work, this means supporting and advancing the tools we have, including the Children and Armed Conflict Action Plans and the “naming and shaming” of perpetrators of sexual violence. It also means supporting the work of organizations like the ICRC, which helps promote IHL compliance and respect for legal and moral norms. And for each of our governments, it means raising awareness – especially through military training – about IHL and supporting the work of internal accountability mechanisms in our own governments and in the governments of other countries to which we offer assistance. This is why the international community’s military training work, including in countries like Afghanistan, is a critical component of fostering international peace and security while also ensuring the protection of civilians.
Humanitarian access is critical to protecting civilians. Timely, full, and unimpeded humanitarian access to populations in need of assistance must make the top priority for everyone. This is as true in Syria as it is in Sudan, where millions of vulnerable civilians lack access to food, water, shelter, and medicine. In addition to access, personnel engaged in humanitarian activities should be free from targeting and attack. As we have heard today, attacks against humanitarian personnel have continued unabated around the world. Attacks like the one on the UN compound in Mogadishu in June prevent humanitarian agencies from undertaking their life-saving work and should be condemned wherever and whenever committed.
Finally, without accountability, the cycles of violence continue. The United States strongly rejects impunity and supports the international community’s efforts to foster stability and sustainable peace through justice. In this regard, we have worked with national authorities to strengthen domestic judicial systems in conflict through post-conflict situations, including by funding military justice efforts in the eastern DRC, where rebel groups and the military have used rape as a weapon of war, among other atrocities. We have also strongly supported international justice mechanisms and endorse efforts to expose and document human rights abuses, including through international tribunals and commissions. In Syria, the United States is helping Syrians prepare for accountability by supporting the documentation of violations committed by all sides of the conflict and bolstering the capacity of civil society organizations to build the foundations for lasting peace. In addition, we cooperate with the International Criminal Court on its current cases consistent with U.S. law and policy, including through the recent expansion of our Rewards for Justice Program to include foreign nationals indicted by international criminal tribunals including the ICC.
Madam President, as we have seen from Syria and Sudan to the Sahel and the Great Lakes, failure to protect civilians threatens regional stability as conflicts escalate and populations stream across borders. Protecting civilians is the primary responsibility of states, but it is clear that the international community must keep our attention focused sharply on the practical steps we can take to improve the protection of civilians in armed conflict and we must redouble our efforts to ensure that this Council is not sitting on the sidelines when civilian populations are in grave danger.
- Cross posted from U.S. Mission to the UN