Achievements and challenges in civilian protection on its 20th anniversary

Peacekeepers providing protection to civilians during the UN mission in South Sudan Peacekeepers providing protection to civilians during the UN mission in South Sudan © UN Photo/UNMISS/JC Mcilwaine

2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the resolution for the Protection of Civilians in armed conflicts.

The UN has recently registered over 22,800 civilians victims, including dead and wounded, of armed attacks in war zones. In September 2018, the United Nations Security Council expressed outrage as civilians still counted as the largest number of deaths during armed conflicts. Protecting civilians during conflicts is not only a humanitarian task, but it also requires the joint efforts of all the stakeholders involved. The military in peacekeeping missions, the member States and the civil societies to guarantee human rights and the rule of law at national and international level, as well as politics and security. 

Prioritizing the inclusion of civilian protection began with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone in 1999. Protection activities included, inter alia, facilitating ceasefire and achieving local peace, as well as the stipulation of specific agreements in conflict zones. 

Over the years, the nature of conflict has changed. As a consequence, so have peacekeeping operations and missions. Protection of civilians needs continuous evolution, as does the participation and commitment of the various parties involved, including the member States of the Security Council. The latter, in fact, are increasingly called upon to develop national policies based on best practices as well as to establish clear responsibilities and institutional authorities committed to the protection of civilians during hostilities. 

Important goals have been achieved, for example, in the protection of vulnerable groups: such as women, child refugees, and internally displaced persons. For these groups, special security measures have been developed that allow them to address their needs in war contexts. These include the promotion of durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced persons, and support for their voluntary and assisted return, thanks to safety and informed ways.

Finally, measures have also been taken to reinforce and guarantee the accountability of States for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The Security Council emphasised the responsibility of each Member State to investigate and punish the perpetration of grave and serious violation of rights at the national level. Despite this, from 1 January to 31 December 2018, the review of the status on the protection of civilians showed that despite all the resolutions, recommendations, andefforts of the last twenty years, civilians constitute the largest number of deaths during armed conflicts, as well as being indiscriminate targets of attacks and other violations.

Undoubtedly this is also due to the nature of today’s conflicts and the proliferation of non-State armed groups. The impact of conflicts on civilians and on the most vulnerable groups continues to be devastating, as is the limited humanitarian access due to increased attacks on humanitarian workers and infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, and other facilities that should be protected according to international humanitarian law (IHL). 

The importance of civilian protection is not only a war zone responsibility, but it is also an issue of global interest. In fact, 60% of people affected by food crises live in countries touched by wars. Moreover,  in these same countries, there is an increase of people with disabilities, due to physical changes in the environment, stress, and lack of basic services.

The destruction of industrial facilities and the dispersion of polluting agents has consequences both for human health and the environment. 

Ensuring and improving compliance with the law during hostilities, as well as the responsibility to monitor and prosecute serious violation of human rights, are two of the biggest challenges that civilian protection still requires. Improved results could certainly be assisted by pursuing initiatives nationally. This involves maintaining ongoing dialogue between the United Nations, the Member States, and civil societies. Only in this way can concrete steps forward be made for the implementation of civilian protection.


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Author: Francesca Geuna, Editor: Ellen Barth

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