New York, 25 May 2017
Thank you for this opportunity to address the critical issue of protection of civilians in armed conflict.
During my ten years as High Commissioner for Refugees, I saw the tragic results of our failure to protect civilians caught up in conflict, in refugee camps and settlements that I visited all over the world. I heard countless horrific stories and met many of the women and girls, men and boys who fled for their lives. Their suffering is incalculable, as is the wasted human potential they represent.
But despite our efforts, civilians continue to bear the brunt of conflict around the world.
In Syria, the Commission of Inquiry has documented relentless attacks and sieges that show no signs of abating. In South Sudan, horrendous abuses continue as parties to the conflict target civilians including aid workers. In Yemen, civilians are trapped and targeted by all sides.
Attacks against humanitarian personnel and supplies continue, putting national staff at particular risk. The deliberate denial of access to aid and the abuse of bureaucratic restrictions are becoming more prevalent in conflict zones. Suffering is pushed to unbearable limits when civilians are deprived of food and healthcare in sieges that can last months, or in some cases, years.
Cities like Aleppo, Juba and Mosul have become death traps, while the destruction of housing, schools, markets, hospitals, and vital infrastructure will affect generations to come.
Attacks on hospitals and medical staff, and the removal of medical supplies from humanitarian convoys, are symptoms of a continued grave disregard for international law and the protection of civilians.
Endemic sexual violence including rape, abduction, human trafficking, sexual slavery and forced marriage contributes to the disproportionate suffering of women and girls in conflict. Women are particularly at risk in urban warfare, during house searches and operations in residential areas and at checkpoints.
This brutality has forced unprecedented numbers of civilians to flee in search of safety. More than 65 million people are displaced by conflict, violence and persecution worldwide, two-thirds of them within their own countries.
These unrelenting attacks on civilians, coupled with lack of access to aid, are also playing a major role in creating conflict-driven famines that threaten 20 million people in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.
One year ago, the Security Council took specific action to improve the protection of medical care during conflict, by adopting resolution 2286. In August, my predecessor submitted recommendations that I fully endorse, for the swift implementation of this resolution by Member States and other parties to conflict.
These developments created hope of an improvement in the lives of millions of people affected by war and violence.
But on the ground, little has changed. Attacks against medical workers and medical facilities continue. No one is spared.
According to the World Health Organization, attacks on medical care including hospitals, doctors, ambulances, and on the wounded and the sick took place in at least 20 countries affected by conflict in 2016. In most of these places, fragile medical systems were already at the breaking point as staff struggled to treat huge numbers of people. In most cases, no one was held accountable.
In Syria, Physicians for Human Rights has documented more than 400 attacks on medical facilities since the conflict began. More than 800 medical staff have been killed.
In Yemen, just a few months after the adoption of resolution 2286, 15 people including 3 medical staff were reported killed when a hospital was hit in an airstrike – even though the roof of the building was clearly marked and the GPS coordinates had been shared with all parties.
In Afghanistan, the number of reported attacks against health facilities and personnel almost doubled in 2016 compared with 2015.
These attacks are evidence of a broader trend: parties to conflict are treating hospitals and health clinics as targets, rather than respecting them as sanctuaries.
This goes against the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law, and our basic humanity.
These attacks not only cause immediate suffering to patients, medical workers and their families. They deprive entire communities of essential healthcare, making them uninhabitable and contributing to the global displacement crisis.
In Syria, more than half of all medical facilities are closed or are only partially functioning, and two-thirds of specialized medical personnel have fled the country.
In South Sudan, after years of attacks on medical facilities, less than 50 per cent are functional in areas affected by conflict. This severely restricts the services they can provide.
Resolution 2286 and the Secretary-General’s recommendations provide an important platform to enhance respect for the norms of international humanitarian law.
What is needed now is action that will turn these words into reality.
There is some progress. Switzerland and Canada have gathered an informal group of States to support implementation of Resolution 2286.
Several Member States are in the process of reviewing their domestic laws and policies to strengthen implementation.
In some conflict zones, parties to conflict and national authorities are discussing de-confliction arrangements, and are making credible efforts to investigate incidents.
The United Nations, for its part, is improving data collection so we can understand patterns and work to change them. The World Health Organization is consolidating and sharing information on attacks that obstruct access to medical care.
I welcome these efforts and thank the civil society organizations that have played such an important role in driving them. I urge all to use these as a basis for progress.
More broadly, there are three clear ways to improve the protection of civilians in armed conflict:
First, we must ensure greater respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.
I urge parties to conflict to take concrete steps to limit harm to civilians in their military operations, as they are obliged to do under international law.
And I call on all Member States to use their influence to promote respect for international law and ensure accountability for violations.
I urge those engaged in arm transfers to show greater responsibility and consider the potential consequences of those sales, for human lives and for our common security.
And I call on all to support the international accountability mechanisms that complement national efforts, including the International Criminal Court.
Second, we must step up the protection of humanitarian and medical missions, by implementing my predecessor’s recommendations on resolution 2286. Many of these measures can and should be extended to protect other humanitarian actors – and all civilians.
We must also prioritize the protection of civilians in UN peace operations, and ensure that missions have the capacity to deliver their mandates. The Security Council has a central role to play here. I call on all Member States to endorse the Kigali principles on the Protection of Civilians as an urgent priority.
Third, we must do more to prevent forced displacement and find durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced people. We need a strong and comprehensive agreement to reestablish the integrity of the international refugee protection regime, in line with international refugee law, and we must commit to action on the plight of the internally displaced.
We must also tackle the causes of displacement. That means addressing the root causes of conflicts by investing in inclusive and sustainable development, promoting all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural – and the rule of law, strengthening governance and institutions, and enhancing mediation capacity, from communities to national governments.
No one is winning today’s wars; everybody is losing. I appeal to all leaders, parties to conflict and those with influence to bring these raging conflicts to an end, and to do all in their power to prevent new ones from erupting.
Preventing and ending conflict is my first priority.
I call on you all to make it yours, for the sake of the millions of civilians who are suffering around the world.
Thank you very much.