PoC week 2023 - Debate on the Protection of Civilians

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On the occasion of the sixth edition of the week for the protection of civilians, the UN Security Council meeting on the protection of civilians in conflict was held on May 23, 2023

The specific topic of the debate of the UN Security Council on the occasion of PoC week 2023 was “ensuring the safety and dignity of civilians in conflict: addressing food insecurity and protecting essential services”. Secretary-General António Guterres' annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict focused, among other things, on food insecurity caused by conflict and related challenges, such as protecting civilian infrastructures and essential services. The meeting was held in the form of an open debate and was chaired by Alain Berset, President of the Swiss Confederation, in his capacity as chair of the Security Council for May 2023. In addition to the speech by Secretary General António Guterres, Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Aichatou Mounkaila, Civil Society Representative, and State or government representatives from Member States attended the discussion.

The meeting provided an opportunity for the Security Council and its members to take stock of the implementation of Council Resolution 2417 (2018) on Conflict and Hunger, five years after its unanimous adoption. Given the unhappy situation of protecting civilians in armed conflicts, the session also examined the challenges related to protecting essential services for the survival of civilians, such as those essential for food production and distribution, water and sanitation, energy and health care, and other related civilian infrastructures and personnel, as envisioned by the Council in its Resolution 2573 (2021). Member States were invited to share their views on challenges and best practices, including preventive and preparedness measures on how to better ensure the survival, safety and dignity of civilians in times of conflict. The discussion also stressed the importance of implementing concrete measures to ensure compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) by all actors involved in armed conflicts, and that these should be adopted by the Security Council, the Member States, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other actors.

Secretary-General António Guterres opened the meeting by recalling the devastation caused by the war around the world. In Sudan, in less than six weeks, hundreds of civilians have been killed, including members of the United Nations, and 250,000 people have fled the country. This situation is not an isolated case: in 2022, 94% of casualties caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians. The total number of people displaced and refugees due to conflict has reached 100 million. Hospitals and schools have been destroyed, aid workers threatened and critical facilities damaged, causing hunger and food insecurity. Starvation is a direct result of conflict and more than 117 million people have suffered and are suffering from acute hunger. Water infrastructure has been damaged and explosives have contaminated agricultural lands making them uncultivable. Food prices have risen exponentially, due in part to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has contributed to the global increase in food energy and fertilizer prices. The climate crisis, exacerbated by conflicts, has led to reduced harvests and further suffering. In this regard, some actions have been taken to protect civilians and alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Reena Ghelani, newly appointed UN Coordinator for Famine Prevention and Response by the Secretary-General, is leading a broad system to respond to growing food insecurity, while the UN Action Agenda on Internally Displaced Persons has outlined a plan to respond to record numbers of refugees and prevent further crises. The Black Sea Initiative and the Memorandum of Understanding to Promote Russian Food and Fertilizers on Global Markets are helping to stabilize markets, driving down prices and alleviating the food crisis. In addition, the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences of Explosive Weapons Use in Populated Areas, EWIPA) was adopted in November 2022 and endorsed by 82 countries, with the aim of restricting the use of explosive weapons in those zones. Finally, the Secretary General concluded by reiterating the importance on the part of states to translate these declarations into concrete actions, stressing the relevance of compliance with IHL by all armed countries and groups.

Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, during her remarks, began by recounting her visits to the Horn of Africa, where she has concretely observed how conflicts combined with the climate crisis can result in acute hunger, food insecurity, and severely impact the population. The ICRC emphasized how strengthening civilian protection is essential to prevent and address hunger and destruction, protect vulnerable groups, prevent forced displacement, minimize harm to civilians, and find lasting solutions. A significant point Mirjana Spoljaric Egger focused on is the need to ensure safe access for humanitarian workers. These are a pivotal element for the safety of civilians in conflict, but today they are threatened by misinformation and disinformation that fuel dangerous divisions between communities and cause their non-acceptance, making it impossible for them to reach the critical areas and risking their safety due to death threats. In conclusion, the ICRC urges all states to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their nationality, gender, function and so on, are protected from conflict and that their rights are guaranteed.

Main concerns

Some of the specific cases presented by Council members included:

  • The situation in Haiti, where due to gang violence and climate change, the population is suffering from increasing food shortages and general insecurity.
  • The conflict in Ukraine where, since the beginning of the Russian invasion, more than 800 attacks have been documented against hospitals, medical personnel and other health infrastructures, that is 70% of the total attacks on health care.
  • The blockade of the Lachin corridor, imposed by Azerbaijan six months ago, which is causing severe food shortages. About 120,000 people, including 30,000 children, need humanitarian assistance but the area is inaccessible even to UN personnel.

The conflict in Sudan, where more than 250,000 people have fled in less than six weeks, and missing or displaced civilians has reached record numbers. A similar situation is unfolding in Somalia, which is experiencing one of the worst crises in decades; an estimated 43,000 people died in 2022 alone, half of them children, and billions of people were forced to flee their homes.

Member state representatives based their speeches on three main points: starving civilian populations as a weapon constitutes a war crime, exacerbates food insecurity and is unacceptable; climate change combined with armed conflict poses growing challenges, such as water and energy shortages and land contamination; protection measures for vulnerable groups, such as children, women, the elderly and the disabled, must be strengthened. In this regard, certain limitations placed by the defecting authorities have dangerous repercussions on the lives of hundreds of civilians, such as the ban on women in Afghanistan from working in the humanitarian sector, despite the fact that they play a vital role. Regarding the connection between armed conflicts and food insecurity, it was noted how these make it difficult to achieve the three pillars of food security: stability, availability and access. Three key areas where the Council should focus more efforts are: improving adherence to international humanitarian law and doing more to demonstrate that non-compliance is in fact a crime; making better use of the UN warning system to take timely action; and ensuring coherence and coordination among diplomatic, humanitarian and security activities. Specifically, in terms of improving the data collection and alert system, the need for a regular cycle of reports was advanced in order to have timely information and be able to take immediate action. Another key issue raised was that of the phenomenon of non-state groups, a factor that increases risks because of the difficulty of communicating with them and the consequent difficulty in verifying their compliance and adherence to international humanitarian law. In addition, it was discussed how, if not respected and translated into concrete measures, Security Council resolutions and mandates remain only words on paper, as currently demonstrated by the Russian Federation - a permanent member of the Council- with its invasion of Ukraine. In conclusion, the effectiveness of international law is also determined by how states collectively respond to breaches.

Concluding remarks

Strengthening the protection of civilians is imperative for five reasons:

  1. Minimize harm to civilians: data collected by the United Nations in 2022 show that in 17 countries and territories affected by conflict, nearly 94% of the victims of explosive weapons used in populated areas were civilians.
  2. Preventing and addressing hunger and famine: conflict and insecurity were the most significant factors leading to high levels of acute food insecurity for some 117 million people in 19 countries and territories in 2022.
  3. Protect vulnerable groups: in 2022, 95% of girls and young women were victims of sexual violence. Children were abducted, recruited and used in conflicts, losing their right to access education. People with disabilities were trapped in hostilities without food, water, health or humanitarian assistance.
  4. Ensuring safe access for humanitarian workers: hostilities, explosive devices, bureaucratic impediments, state sanctions, and counterterrorism measures have slowed or stalled humanitarian operations. Reports also show that humanitarian workers have been victims of killings, injuries, looting and abductions.
  5. Prevent forced displacement and find durable solutions: last year, the number of people displaced by conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution exceeded the alarming figure of 100 million.


Improved protection and prevention measures and the adoption of specific protections for vulnerable groups, such as children and people with disabilities, are therefore recommended. There is a need for all states and parties to conflicts to incorporate International Humanitarian Law into their legislation, military manuals and training, and they are strongly urged to adhere to the EWIPA Political Declaration. Finally, all states are called upon to ensure unhindered humanitarian access and protection for all humanitarian workers and supplies and to ensure that sanctions and counterterrorism measures do not negatively impact the delivery of assistance.


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by Chiara Cacciatore

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