Remarks at a UN Security Council Open Debate on Protection of Civilians

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
May 23, 2019


Thank you, Madam President, to today’s briefers, and to Indonesia for organizing today’s debate on protection of civilians.

We also welcome the Ministers who are with us in the Council today.

Madam President, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the Security Council adding protection of civilians in armed conflict to its agenda, we continue to see conflict and violence endangering civilians.  The 2019 Secretary-General’s Report on the Protection of Civilians paints a dire picture.

The United States strongly believes that the full implementation of international humanitarian law by all parties to a conflict is essential for the protection of civilians, but we also know that the laws of war are not always universally observed – often with grave consequences.

We agree Member States can and should do more to protect civilians.  And, while it is critical to acknowledge and focus on war’s tragic impact on civilians, it’s also vital to recognize and understand how harm has been successfully avoided.  Many countries, including the United States, have rigorous programs in their armed forces to implement protections for civilians under international humanitarian law.

Recommendations we identified during a study of civilian casualties in 2018 are being used to improve existing policies and practices.  The United States has been sharing and building upon good practices, including bi-laterally and during coalition operations.  We encourage others to do the same.

Madam President, globally, mass displacement and attacks on civilians have become all too common.  And, attacks on the very medical and humanitarian personnel working tirelessly to alleviate suffering and save lives are a hallmark of many conflicts.

In Syria, civilians have suffered during the eight-year conflict at the hands of a government that blatantly disregards their lives.  This includes the horrific use of chemical weapons and indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs in urban settings

And I must point out, Madam President, that the White Helmets, contrary to Russia’s repeated attempts at vilification, continue to heroically assist Syrian civilians attacked by their own government.  Attacks we know Russia chooses to ignore.

In Burma, more than 1.1 million civilians have been driven from their homes by the military and security services.  Nearly one million languish in refugee camps in Bangladesh.  Ongoing fighting in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin States continues to harm and displace people, many of whom desperately need humanitarian assistance.

In South Sudan, the lack of safe, rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access means that people starve and children suffer needlessly.  More than two hundred thousand South Sudanese have fled to Protection of Civilian sites knowing that they were not safe at home.  Their fears have been borne out in the blatant use of sexual and gender based violence against women going about their daily lives.  We must hold perpetrators accountable and ensure justice for the victims.

Madam President, it’s critically important that humanitarian actors have unhindered access to populations in need, and they should be commended for their work to protect civilians in the midst of the most challenging of circumstances.  We support the centrality of protection and continue to support humanitarian organizations in strengthening their protection efforts, particularly to expand community-based protection that draws on the capacities of local populations and partners.

Peacekeeping has become central to the protection of civilians in conflict. With more than 95-percent of UN peacekeepers now operating within mandates to protect civilians, the protection of civilians is at the heart of modern peacekeeping.

Unfortunately, Madam President, we still see far too many instances of peacekeepers failing to take necessary actions to protect civilians.  To address these shortcomings, we support the Secretary General’s efforts to institutionalize a culture of performance in which only the highest performing troops and police are deployed.  We look forward to the continued implementation of the Secretary-General’s performance policy framework and his commitment to creating a system that ensures accountability.

Madam President, the United States stands firmly behind the commitment to enhance performance for the protection of civilians and encourages all Member States to do the same by supporting the Kigali Principles, which were designed to help peacekeepers effectively implement their civilian protection mandates.

We also welcome the forthcoming publication of the revised UN policy on the Protection of Civilians in United Nations Peacekeeping, especially the integration of the addendum on accountability.  Significantly improving the protection of civilians in peacekeeping requires identifying standards, systematically evaluating records, and ensuring accountability for performance.

We also know that increasing women’s full, equal, and meaningful participation in peacekeeping improves operational effectiveness and a mission’s ability to fulfill protection of civilian mandates.  We support efforts to reduce barriers to women’s participation and promote their safety in peace operations.

Madam President, it’s not enough to be outraged by the accounts we hear of the horrors inflicted on civilians trapped in conflicts they did not create.  We must commit to protecting civilians by turning rhetoric into tangible action.  The international community should consistently bring attention to and develop responses for the protection of civilians.

I thank you for your attention.