Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a UN Security Council Open Debate on Protection of Civilians in Urban Settings

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
January 25, 2022


Thank you, Prime Minister Store, for convening this very important session. And thank you Mr. Secretary-General and President Maurer for your remarks today. I would also like to express my appreciation to Ms. al-Mutawakel for her presence with us today. And I’d also like to take a moment to welcome the presence of Ghana’s Vice President and Gabon’s Foreign Minister here with us; we reiterate our welcome to the Security Council.

As we all know, around the world, cities are growing. The latest UN estimates predict that two-thirds of the world will live in urban areas by 2050. These trends are exacerbated by conflict and the climate crisis. The clear truth is, protecting civilians in urban settings will only become more important going forward and the threat to civilians is horrifying, as we’ve heard from our briefers today.

Explosive weapons have made it devastatingly easy to threaten and kill large groups of civilians. In some instances, armed actors go so far as to use civilians as human shields. In others, they deliberately place military objectives near civilians – sometimes purposely seeking out the highest concentration of innocent people. Putting schools, hospitals, civilian infrastructure in deliberate danger is wrong. So is the terrible and prevalent sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls – as well as boys, which is not often discussed. And I’m particularly concerned by children pulled into conflict in urban settings. Boys and girls are often recruited as child soldiers, while attacks on schools and hospitals have disrupted their ability to receive an education, medical care, and humanitarian aid.

On the subject of humanitarian access: we also all know that one technique of armed groups is to throw up unnecessary and dangerous impediments, ones which prevent civilians and displaced persons from accessing and receiving lifesaving aid. Humanitarian workers and medical workers in urban settings are also getting attacked more and more frequently.

I do not want to dwell on this long list of challenges because we all know them too well. Instead, I want to focus on what we can do about them. And I am optimistic that we can work together on this, because we have had recent consensus on this issue in the Security Council. Last April, during Vietnam’s presidency of the Council, we unanimously adopted Resolution 2573, demanding that all parties to armed conflict fully comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. We also strongly condemned the starvation of civilians as a weapon of war.

To build on this consensus, we should make progress on some of the practical steps the Secretary-General laid out in his 2018 report on Protecting Civilians in Armed Conflict. As a first step, parties to armed conflict must respect applicable international humanitarian law. To make this commitment clear, Member States should adopt and enforce national policies to support the effective implementation of international humanitarian law.

Of course, often the perpetrators are non-state armed groups. They, too, must abide by these laws. We all need to clearly communicate that to them and hold them accountable. To start, states should implement improved accountability measures to hold themselves to a high standard; that means conducting assessments and investigations, acknowledging civilian harm when it happens, and making serious efforts to assist harmed civilians. And we should work together to develop frameworks for addressing the most pressing challenges. As just one example, the United States has been working with a number of other states, led by Ireland, to develop a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas.

Our claim to maintain international peace and security is only as strong as our results. We have an obligation to uphold international humanitarian law, to turn those lofty and important words into real and practical protections for civilians. The world’s civilians are counting on us. Let us live up to their expectations, enable their hopes and dreams, and do everything in our power to protect them.

Thank you, Mr. President.