Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, Address to the Security Council on “Protecting Civilians in Armed Conflict: Indispensable Civilian Objects” – Global


As delivered

Good evening, Mr. President. Hello, hello everyone.

The whole world is grappling with the greatest crisis of our lives. Our only battle today should be with COVID. The time has come to end all other conflicts. But wherever violent conflict persists, we must strengthen the protection of civilians.

Over the past 30 years, progress has been made in upholding international humanitarian law to protect civilians and the objects on which they depend for survival, such as food and medicine, hospitals and water facilities.

But it was not enough.

Over the past two decades, we have seen the emergence of transnational terrorist groups that totally reject the laws of war. Groups that use their nihilistic ideologies to justify indescribable violence against civilians. They do not even claim to adhere to basic humanitarian standards. They see civilians, including aid workers, as legitimate targets.

At the same time, major military powers are reorienting their planning, training, and military spending to deter and defeat enemy states.

And when states and armed groups do not respect or violate international humanitarian law, other states and non-state actors see it as an invitation to do the same.

So I am deeply concerned about what this means for our ability to protect decades of hard-won progress.

I want to outline the impact of these trends in four critical areas.

First, the food.

David Beasley, Qu Dongyu and I updated you on the destructive link between conflict and food security last April.

The impact of armed conflict on food security can be direct, for example through the destruction of food stocks and agricultural assets.

Attacks on food force people to relocate and disrupt food systems and markets, leaving few able to feed themselves or have access to water and fuel to prepare food.

Last year in Nigeria, an attack on a paddy field on the outskirts of Maiduguri killed more than 110 farmers.

Looting of food and livestock was widely reported in South Sudan between 2013 and 2020.

In Yemen, airstrikes and shelling hit farms, markets, food storage sites and fishing boats.

And even now we are hearing reports that agricultural inputs and infrastructure in Ethiopia’s Tigray region have been systematically destroyed in this conflict.

Any attack on the food supply and food infrastructure is unacceptable. I’ve been reporting to the Security Council on the risk of conflict-induced famine since 2018. And we at the UN, along with partner NGOs and the Red Cross – and you’ll hear from Peter Maurer in a few moments – have recently put Warning of the risk of famine looming in Yemen, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria and elsewhere if urgent action is not taken.

Second, the water.

In January 2016, ISIL cut off the water supply to the Aleppo governorate in Syria, affecting some 2 million people.

Boko Haram is known to have poisoned water sources such as wells and streams, making water use unsafe for people and livestock.

Cutting off drinking water supplies during conflicts leads to health and sanitation crises. Even an incident that disrupts the water supply can have enormous health consequences.

Evidence shows that even a brief interruption in the supply of drinking water – lasting only a day – can increase the risk of contracting water-borne diseases like cholera. And this particularly affects very young children, for whom infection poses the greatest risk of death.

Water and sanitation services are often affected in armed conflict. In Ukraine and Libya, fighting damaged water infrastructure and hampered maintenance of facilities, leading to supply cuts and shortages.

The deliberate interruption or shutdown of a water supply is also used as a tactic of war.

In South Sudan, SPLA soldiers stole pumps that were used by local people in the town of Mboro to pump water from boreholes, depriving them of access to water for consumption and l sanitation.

Third, medical care.

Violence, attacks and threats against health care seriously weaken the ability of health systems to function.

What I found particularly difficult to digest were the systematic attacks on medical facilities in Syria.

The World Health Organization counted 250 such attacks between 2018 and 2020 alone.

About 1,000 health workers have been killed in these attacks there over the past 10 years.

In addition to being acts of sheer cruelty, these attacks devastated the Syrian health system. My predecessors and I have regularly appeared before you in this Council to denounce these violations and to advocate on behalf of those trapped in the fighting.

In Burkina Faso, ambulances were set on fire and health establishments looted. In Mali, equipment and medicines were destroyed or looted and vehicles hijacked.

Attacks like this have also affected the COVID response. In Libya last year, for example, airstrikes and bombings damaged hospitals treating patients with COVID. In Yemen, the quarantine centers were damaged during the hostilities.

And as a result of frequent attacks like this, medical staff flee and facilities are often forced to close, leaving millions without access to health care.

Facilities that remain open face a severe shortage of staff, drugs and supplies. At the end of June last year, only half of the 113 Syrian hospitals checked were fully functioning. By March of last year, up to 70% of health workers had left the country.

Fourth, we see horrific cases of the use of rape and other sexual violence in pursuit of political and military goals, and the intentional destruction of the infrastructure that supports survivors.

This is what we saw as part of the deliberate effort to force hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas out of Myanmar in 2017. I will never forget some of the stories the women I met at Cox’s Bazaar told me of their experience – systematically organized rape by men in uniform in front of families and children. This is also what we have seen over the past six months in northern Ethiopia. The rapes did not stop there. They are deliberately and systematically organized, targeted, ethnically based, and they are intended to terrorize, humiliate and brutalize.

Mister President,

It is not just what is targeted in a conflict, but where and how it is targeted that can produce horrific results.

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas puts large numbers of civilians at risk of death or injury. When these weapons were used in populated areas last year, 88% of those killed and injured were civilians, compared to just 16% in other areas.

The use of explosive weapons in urban areas also has devastating consequences for essential infrastructure and services.

A study conducted last year in Yemen showed how the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas disrupted all of the country’s resources and systems, including water and electricity supplies, hospitals and sanitation systems.

Fewer people want to return if their supplies of vital services have been destroyed. Fewer people can.

In an increasingly digital world, cyber attacks also pose a threat to critical infrastructure.

As the Secretary-General has noted, the number of cyber attacks – with their impact on healthcare, power and water infrastructure – could become increasingly prevalent.

Disruption of power grids, for example, can deprive large numbers of people of electricity.

Mister President,

There are three ways to strengthen the protection of civilians and objects essential to their survival.

The first is to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law.

This can be done by improving the identification of these must-have items and by regularly updating and complying with the “no-strike” lists that include them.

At the same time, we must continue to use political dialogue, sanctions and arms transfer decisions to ensure respect for the law and the protection of civilians and the objects on which they depend for their survival.

The second thing that could be done, as the Secretary-General has often emphasized, is to avoid the use of explosive weapons with widespread effects in populated areas.

Some good practices are already followed in this area, for example in Afghanistan and Somalia, where the use by multinational forces of certain aerial weapons has been limited, or their use of artillery and other indirect fire ammunition has been limited. been limited.

In 2017, my office – OCHA – published a compilation of military policies and practices aimed at reducing the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

And the third point is that, unless they are held to account, the disbelievers will learn the lesson that serious crimes pay off. Essentially, what is not punished is incited.

If war crimes go unpunished, things will get worse. Ensuring accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law is therefore one of the greatest challenges we face in strengthening the protection of civilians. It is particularly important to ensure accountability for serious violations when such violations are themselves a tactic and a deliberate choice made by the perpetrators.

As the Secretary-General said, “our power at the UN is a power of persuasion, a power of speech… denouncing what must be denounced. But we cannot order countries to do what they have to do. “

The world has a strong legal framework governing the behavior of parties in times of war. We have more and more good practices to implement it.

What we need now is the political will of Member States and all parties to an armed conflict to play by the rules and do the right thing.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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