UN: protecting civilian objects in armed conflict is fundamental

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In Focus by Eleonora Gonnelli; Editor: Carla Leonetti

On 27 April 2021 the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, stressed the need to protect civilians and civilian infrastructures wherever violent conflict persists. Indeed, over the last 30 years, there has been a development of instruments of international humanitarian law protecting civilians as well as food, water, hospitals, and medicines. Nevertheless, the emergence of transnational terrorist groups, who disrespect the basic humanitarian norms and  consider civilians as legitimate targets, has set the levels of civilian protection back. 

These negative trends particularly affect four critical areas namely food, water, medical care, and sexual violence. Indeed, during armed conflicts, the destruction of food stock and agricultural assets is very common, as it happened in Yemen, where airstrikes have hit farms, markets and food storages sites, as well as in Ethiopia’s Tigray region where agricultural infrastructures are systematically destroyed. Water and sanitation services too are often hit during conflicts, with the interruption of water supplies also used as a tactic of water. For instance, in January 2016, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) cut off the water supply to the Aleppo governorate in Syria, affecting some two million people, while Boko Haram is known to have poisoned water sources, causing sanitation and health crises. Systematic attacks against medical care have been registered too. The World Health Organization counted 250 attacks between 2018 and 2020, and more than 1,000 healthcare workers have been killed over the last ten years. These attacks have also affected the COVID-19 response as, for example in Libya and Yemen, hospitals treating COVID-19 patients and quarantine centres have been damaged. As a result, millions of people in conflict zones are often left without access to health care. Finally, sexual violence and rapes are being used in the pursuit of military goals, as it happened in Myanmar where the use of sexual violence forced thousands of Rohingya people to flee. Additionally, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas exposes 88% of people to death, compared to just 16% in other areas, while destroying also resources and infrastructure. Thus, healthcare, sanitation and electricity, must also be protected to ward against public health risks, since the spread of epidemics in communities where sanitation infrastructures have been destroyed is common but preventable.

As a result, there are three ways to strengthen the protection of civilians: enhance compliance with international humanitarian law, avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and ensure accountability. Indeed, it is fundamental to identify the indispensable civilian objects and add them to the “no-strike” list, to ensure the protection of civilians. Furthermore, given its persuasive power, the UN shall denounce the serious violations of international humanitarian law to ensure the accountability of the perpetrators. 


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