Remarks at a UN Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Ambassador Kelley Currie
U.S. Representative for Economic and Social Affairs
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
May 22, 2018


Thank you, Mr. President, and welcome to the Council. I wish to thank Secretary-General Guterres for his comments this morning, and I also want to thank Mr. Daccord for his briefing today. Yves it is good to see you again after many years. I believe the last time was when I was still working for the ICRC, which seems like another lifetime ago. And it’s unfortunately under not such great circumstances; you’re here giving us a stark reminder of the horrific situation that far too many innocent civilians now endure in conflict across the globe. Ms. Hanaa Edwar, we are strongly encouraged by your presence here today and your testimony before the Council. Briefings such as yours give us a real sense of the reality on the ground and we encourage the Council to continue this important practice.

The 2018 Secretary-General’s report paints a dismal picture of the protection of civilians in the field and describes a “state of unrelenting horror and suffering affecting millions of women children and men across all conflicts.”

The state of affairs for the protection of civilians is desolate. Millions of people are bearing the consequences. Tens of thousands innocently dying from unlawful attacks involving explosive weapons and chemical weapons, deliberate attacks on schools and medical facilities, extra judicial killings, starvation, sexual violence, and blatant disregard for international humanitarian law. Many more civilians are either missing or have been forced from their homes; and medical and humanitarian personnel are being targeted at an alarming number. Sexual violence increasingly is being used as a tactic of war, and victims continue to be targeted based on their ethnic and religious backgrounds. Member States seemingly feel no qualms about routinely denying humanitarian access to civilians in dire need, from Burma to Yemen.

We all have an obligation and moral duty to demand and uphold the international community’s resounding rejection of the use of chemical weapons in war 100 years ago after the world first witnessed the horrors of chemical warfare during World War I. We all have an obligation to uphold UN Security Council resolutions that call for the protection of schools, medical facilities, and even journalists from being targets in war. We have an obligation to insist on unhindered humanitarian access for all those in need and safe, voluntary evacuations of civilians compelled destruction to flee their homes, consistent with our obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law.

It is critical that all UN Member States do their part to protect civilians. The United States welcomes the Secretary-General’s steps to improve peacekeeping and revive a sense of collective responsibility for the success of UN peacekeeping operations. But we need to be honest and clear when Member States are not living up to their commitments, and we – especially we in this Council – should be willing to apply meaningful pressure when parties to a conflict do not change course.

In missions across the globe, peacekeepers today serve at great personal risk and act heroically in many cases to protect civilians. However, we also still have far too many examples of peacekeepers failing to take necessary action to protect civilians. We continue to see units retreat from towns they are supposed to protect, rather than standing their ground as armed attackers approach. We continue to see those who are responsible for protecting civilians abuse their positions of trust.

Improving the protections of civilians in peacekeeping requires increased accountability and the United States welcomes the Secretary-General’s steps to institutionalize a culture of accountability for performance in UN peacekeeping, starting with the development and implementation of a comprehensive performance policy that identifies transparent standards for performance and details measures to hold underperformers accountable.

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 protection of civilians mandates. For example, the Principles call for troop-contributing countries to empower military commanders of peacekeeping contingents to use force to protect civilians – knowing that if a commander has to wait hours and hours for guidance from capital, it may be too late to prevent a fast-approaching attack on a nearby village. If properly implemented, there is little doubt that the Kigali Principles would make peacekeeping missions more effective, improve civilian security, and save lives.

We also join our UK colleagues in support of the human rights elements of peacekeeping missions. Their work fulfills crucial protection and prevention aspects to Council mandates, to which all Council members – but especially the P5 – have agreed.

But what else can we as the Security Council or as Member States do to promote respect for international humanitarian law?

For one, we as the Security Council should stand in solidarity against genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing, and work together to adopt urgently needed resolutions in all such cases.

Secondly, we as the Council should use the entire range of tools at our disposal that can and should be employed to compel parties to comply with applicable IHL and international human rights law and to promote accountability for breaches or violations. This includes sanctions, arms embargoes, fact-finding missions, independent mechanisms to gather, collect, and store evidence, and justice mechanisms to bring those responsible for these violations to justice.

Thirdly, each state should ensure that they have appropriate legislative and institutional arrangements to address current – and prevent future – violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of fundamental human rights. Accountability is essential to provide both justice for victims of such violations and to end the culture of impunity that leads to them in the first place. Individual states should also investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute crimes committed within their jurisdiction. Credible national accountability efforts should be encouraged and supported along with other mechanisms, including fact-finding missions, commissions of inquiry, and international and hybrid tribunals. These mechanisms are critical when national options are unavailable or futile.

Fourth, we should use all the prevention tools we have at our disposal to stop cycles of conflict, build social cohesion, and promote and protect human rights. We note the Secretary-General’s important leadership on the prevention and peacebuilding agendas.

And finally, the international community must give this issue the attention it deserves. Today is an important step in this regard.

We all know it’s not enough just to be outraged by the accounts we’ve heard here today – and pretty much every other week that we sit in this Council. It’s not enough to say the right things in this room, and then walk out of here and do nothing. We must remain committed to promoting the protection of civilians by doing our own part, as well. We have to use the tools that we have to ensure that we are doing our part to protect civilian lives and fulfill our own conventional and customary obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law. This not something any of us can do alone, but that should not stop all of us from taking the robust national and regional steps we can. We will need solid commitments and urgent action by all of us to truly and effectively protect innocent human lives.

Thank you.