Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
April 27, 2021
Thank you, Mr. Foreign Minister, for bringing this important aspect of the protection of civilians agenda to the front of the Security Council’s attention. We welcome Vietnam’s efforts on the resolution accompanying this open debate, and we were proud to support it. And thank you to our briefers for your comprehensive and honest accounting of the challenge of protecting civilian infrastructure in conflict situations.
Our charge – to advance peace and security – has to put people first. Their lives, their dignity, their wellbeing – that is what we are here to protect. And although we have not spoken at such length to the specific issue of civilian infrastructure before, I’m glad we are now. Because it is not hyperbole to say every person in the world relies on their civilian infrastructure system. But far too often, armed actors target these basic services. And especially when they violate international humanitarian law, we must make a point of holding them accountable.
Imagine: Your farm is intentionally destroyed. Your water pipes were intentionally contaminated or damaged. Your community health facility was targeted for bombing. Civilians are then forced to leave their homes and communities to find electricity, running water, or adequate food supplies. Their search is often arduous. Too often, it’s deadly.
This is not hypothetical. It’s happening right now in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. There, fighting has resulted in decimated civilian communications systems, caused electrical grids to fail, and led to the looting and destruction of protected hospitals. To meet their basic needs, the people of Tigray have been forced to flee and travel long distances – often facing threats of violence, particularly sexual and gender-based violence. This is simply intolerable. There must be an immediate cessation of hostilities in Tigray.
Schools and other public buildings are essential during conflicts as places for children to stay safe. These buildings can serve as shelter, spaces for communities to reconnect, or as sites for distributing aid and services. So, when these essential, protected buildings are deliberately targeted, it has a unique and devastating impact on women, caregivers, and families. When armed actors occupy a health center, women and girls who need maternal care often die as a result.
Again, this is not hypothetical. It’s happening right now in Syria, where the Assad regime – with documented help from Russia – has devastated the country’s civilian infrastructure and displaced over half the population through its campaign of atrocities. They have attacked and destroyed protected schools, hospitals, markets, residential communities, and places of worship. We saw this regime’s depravity as recently as March 21, when the al Atareb Surgical Hospital in Aleppo was destroyed. Sixteen people – mostly medical staff – were injured. Six patients – including a child – were killed.
When civilian infrastructure is intentionally targeted, humanitarian actors also often bear the brunt* against civilian infrastructure. When roads and bridges are destroyed, when health facilities are targeted for bombings, the capacity to deliver much-needed relief and supplies to those in dire circumstances is diminished or denied.
And sadly, this is exactly what’s happening right now in Yemen, where violence inflicted by all parties to the conflict has destroyed schools, hospitals, and markets. The WHO recorded 142 attacks on health facilities alone from March 2015 to March 2020. Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But the humanitarians who are trying to help – the do-gooders risking life and limb to save others – are being blocked by attacks on basic infrastructure. This is horrific, and it’s wrong. And we must protect civilians by demonstrating that we will hold bad actors to account when they violate international humanitarian law.
So today, let us recall our charge. The UN Charter demands that we maintain international peace and security. That means protecting civilians and the systems and infrastructure that serve as their lifelines.
Thank you, Mr. President.
*brunt of attacks