General Assembly Security Council

Statement by 

Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin, Permanent Representative


UN Security Council

Open Debate

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflicts

22 May 2018

Madam President,


We thank the delegation of Poland for holding this Open Debate.  We have listened attentively to the remarks made by the Secretary General on this issue.  We also thank the other briefers for their valuable inputs, perspectives and recommendations.


2.   Listening to their submissions, it is clear that there is no dearth of feeling around the horseshoe table of this Council to try and address the issue of Protection of Civilians in armed conflict situations. Yet, judging by the heart-wrenching narratives that we hear, it is obvious that there is a crisis facing the implementation of this concept.


3.   While it would be historically incorrect to say that there was ever a time when civilians were entirely shielded from the harrowing effects of conflict, the human toll of conflict today is a tragedy that requires redressal by translating the concept into feasible actions and operational responses.


4.   Throughout history, ways have been sought to limit the effects of conflict. Respect for international humanitarian law and other relevant human rights laws by all parties to the armed conflict; ensuring safe and unhindered access for medical and humanitarian agencies to people in need of assistance, are norms that are well established. Hence, it is not the absence of norms that is the cause of today’s challenges.  It is the inability to abide by established norms that is perhaps the reason for the dismal situation we are faced in addressing this multi-dimensional and cross-cutting issue.


5.   While the canvas that the rubric of protection of civilians covers is vast, in view of time constraints I limit my comments to the application of this concept of Protection of Civilians to the UN peacekeeping missions that are directly mandated by the Security Council. For, if we can’t set our house in order and address the issues with the tool that this Council designs and oversees, then broader endeavours may be more difficult to address. 


6.   The need to protect civilians in the context of UN peacekeeping operations has gained prominence since the 1990s, as armed conflict situations evolved rapidly in the changed global geo-strategic context from inter-state to more intra-state situations, often involving non-state actors and terrorist networks and led to large scale violence against civilians.


7.   From the beginning, the issue has been a complex one because of the vastly different nature of the armed conflicts themselves; possible contradiction with the longstanding agreed principles of UN peacekeeping; as also the limitations of the mandates and the serious inadequacy of the resources made available for peacekeeping missions.


8.   The issue continues to be debated in the Security Council, which has by now adopted several resolutions and other documents, focused on this concept.  These efforts, however, have not really helped in addressing the main challenges.


9.   The difficulties involved in achieving the aims of protection of civilians are well-known. 


10.   The responsibility of protecting the civilians lies, first of all, with the national governments. Yet, very little is done in terms of bolstering the societal capacities of protection. There is a tendency to assume that protection is about how civilians can be protected by others – i.e., somebody other than those affected – the parties to the conflict, peacekeepers, and humanitarian organisations.  


11.   Strengthening national and societal mechanisms is primary. Outside agencies can only supplement and not supplant them.


Madam President,


12.   While 9 of the current 14 UN peacekeeping missions include protection of civilians as one of their mandates, this aspect is only one of the many other mandated components, at least 10 on an average, that each of these missions is individually expected to fulfill.


13.   Every time this Council reviews a peace keeping operation, it is incumbent that it undertakes a serious examination of whether the peacekeepers have the ability to do what they are expected to carry out in extremely trying circumstances. 


14.   It is clear that the expectations that the UN peacekeepers can effectively ensure protection of civilians in the absence of clear mandates are not realistic.


15.   Therefore, the Council’s membership needs to frame mandates with clarity and specificity.


16.   The responsibility also lies with those deciding the resources to be made available to peacekeepers so that they are able to fulfill the tasks that they are mandated to do.


17.   The growing instances of serious attacks on peacekeepers and the high level of casualties suffered by peacekeepers in different missions point out to the difficulties of being able to implement so-called robust mandates in situations involving rival warring groups mixed with civilian populations.


18.   This also risks the credibility and the image of the United Nations neutral presence in armed conflict situations.  


Madam President,


19.   Conflicts where peacekeeping operations are deployed are inherently messy, complex and difficult. However, these should not be taken as an excuse to accept the devastating impact of conflict on civilians.


20.   A number of courses of action and mechanisms and processes are available to address the operational issues. It is up to the Council to harness these in a collaborative effort. For this, it is also useful to consider evolving a normative architecture for protection of civilians as part of a broader endeavor. A framework that is politically attuned, but not politicised or seen as being instrumentalized. It is only then can we move forward with cohesion to address issues that have exacted a heavy price of civilian lives.  


 I Thank you, Madam President.