(Editors’ Note: In addition to the study featured in this article, the Secretary-General’s 2019 protection of civilians report also summarizes achievements and challenges and makes practical recommendations for improving the plight of civilians in armed conflict. It will be published and featured in a blog post on Just Security in the coming days.)

This year marks two decades since the protection of civilians in armed conflict became a specific item on the agenda of the Security Council. In 1999, at the close of a decade marked by genocide in Rwanda, atrocities in the Balkans, and brutality and displacement in West Africa and the Great Lakes region, the Council formally recognized the relevance of protection of civilians to international peace and security. As memorably put by Lloyd Axworthy, then Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, which resolutely spearheaded the effort to add protection of civilians to the Council’s agenda, the Council acknowledged that it “is no sideshow to the Council’s mandate for ensuring international peace and security; it is central to it. The ultimate aim of the Council’s work is to safeguard the security of the world’s people, not just the States in which they live.”

The 20th anniversary of the protection of civilians agenda provides an opportune moment for reviewing progress, building on insights and charting a course for the future, in the hopes of achieving tangible improvements for the protection of civilians. To inform this reflection, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in consultation with other organizations and UN entities, has prepared a stocktaking analysis of key developments in the Security Council’s protection of civilians-related work.

Below are some of the study’s key observations.

Building Blocks of the Protection of Civilians Agenda and Evolution of the Council’s Approach

UN Security Council Resolution 1265– the Council’s first resolution on protection of civilians adopted in 1999 – set the building blocks of the agenda: enhancing compliance with applicable international law and relevant Council decisions in the conduct of hostilities; facilitating access to humanitarian assistance; protecting forcibly displaced persons, women and children; providing protection through UN peace operations; and responding to violations through targeted measures and the promotion of accountability. In the 20 years since resolution 1265, the Council’s work has focused on the adoption of thematic resolutions, the integration of protection concerns in context-specific resolutions and actions, and the development of tools that seek to ensure the effective protection of civilians on the ground. The evolution of the Council’s approach – from its initial recognition as a matter of international peace and security in 1999, to its prioritization as a core item on the Council’s agenda in 2019 – is discernible for all key items that comprise the protection of civilians agenda.

On enhancing compliance with international law in the conduct of hostilities, the Council has progressed from broadly condemning attacks against civilians and civilian objects to a more robust promotion of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL). This includes, for example, specifying the actors bound by IHL and IHRL, those protected by these obligations, as well as the types of attacks prohibited. The Council has promoted compliance frameworks, supported and established accountability mechanisms, and developed tools of implementation, manifesting protection of civilians in the conduct of hostilities as the inherent cornerstone of the agenda.

Similarly, the Council’s approach to the facilitation of access to humanitarian assistance has evolved from promoting compliance with parties’ obligations under IHL to operationalization. For example, the Council has mandated peace operations to support and enable access and designated obstruction of access as a sanctions criterion. It has also passed resolutions aimed at enforcing the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief to civilians in need through cross-border operations in Syria. And it has adopted dedicated resolutions on the protection of UN and humanitarian personnel, medical care, and food security in armed conflict.

On the prevention of and response to forced displacement,the Council has gone from emphasizing the vulnerability of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs)to addressing a wide range of related topics as relevant to international peace and security. It has focused on the protection of refugees and IDPs as well as the pursuit of durable solutions and – to a lesser extent – prevention, freedom of movement and housing, land and property issues. It has mandated peace operations to protect refugees and IDPs and deemed forced displacement a listing criterion in sanctions regimes.

To enhance the protection of children in armed conflict, the Council has established an integrated system of protective tools. These include the public listing of perpetrators of grave violations against children combined with the incentive of de-listing through the development and implementation of action plans to end and remedy violations. The Council has also created a monitoring and reporting mechanism to feed the listing process with reliable data, and a dedicated working group to provide recommendations. By 2018, these mechanisms had led to the signing of 27 action plans with parties to conflict and the release of over 115,000 child soldiers.

To combat conflict-related sexual violence, the Council has, to a certain extent, replicated the tools of the Children and Armed Conflict agenda. It has developed a mechanism of listing and de-listing perpetrators and monitoring and reporting on violations and created a dedicated, informal expert group. Following a Council request in 2009, the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General was established to provide strategic leadership, and a team of experts created to assist in ensuring criminal accountability.

Development of a “Toolkit” to Foster the Protection of Civilians on the Ground

The trend towards the gradual prioritization of protection of civilians is further evidenced through the tools developed by the Council to advance effective efforts on the ground.

Civilian protection mandates of UN peace operations have evolved from reactive, physical protection mandates to comprehensive, whole-of-mission protection strategies integrated in the design and operation of missions. Elements covering the range of protection of civilians issues – from physical protection to the facilitation of humanitarian assistance, enhanced protection for displaced persons, women and children and the promotion of accountability – are increasingly mainstreamed across missions throughout their life-cycles, including in the Central African Republic, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and South Sudan. Moreover, protection of civilians now acts as a yardstick for measuring a mission’s performance.

UN sanctions regimes have increasingly been used as vehicles to protect civilians through designation criteria related to IHL or human rights violations. The listing criteria originally featured general references to serious violations of IHL and IHRL. Today, they range from IHL and human rights violations including forced displacement, violations against women and children, and attacks against specific protected persons and objects, to stand-alone listing criteria for the obstruction of humanitarian assistance, child recruitment and use, and conflict-related sexual violence in places like the Central African Republic, Somalia and South Sudan.

Monitoring and reporting processes have been set up to inform, implement and enforce the Council’s protection of civilians-related decisions, creating a feedback loop with protection actors in the field and enabling more targeted protection activity. Processes range from human rights monitoring, civilian casualty-recording and reporting, and Secretariat-issued reports, to the work of dedicated working groups, sanctions committees and panels of experts, and the integrated systems of monitoring and reporting on grave violations against children and conflict-related sexual violence. These processes have led to the adoption of measures by parties to conflict to mitigate civilian harm in places like Afghanistan, the listing of perpetrators of IHL violations in sanctions regimes, and the development and implementation of action plans with parties to conflict to end and remedy grave violations against children and conflict-related sexual violence.

Finally, the Council has played a fundamental role in promoting accountability for protection of civilians-related violations. It has created international and hybrid tribunals and investigative mechanisms such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Investigative Team on crimes committed by ISIL, supported the establishment and operationalization of national and hybrid mechanisms in places like South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and referred the situations in Darfur and Libya to the International Criminal Court. The Council’s focus has increasingly shifted from the activation of international justice mechanisms to the promotion of national and regional accountability as well as localized transitional justice, capacity-building and stabilization efforts.

Overarching Trends

The evolution of the protection of civilians agenda over the past 20 years demonstrates five overarching trends.

First, the Council has gradually elevated protection of civilians to a key priority in ensuring international peace and security, proclaiming it as “one of the core issues on its agenda.”  It has placed protection of civilians at the heart of both its thematic and country-specific work and fostered the engagement of the larger UN community with the agenda, such as through the consideration of the Secretary-General’s protection of civilians reports in open debates. A culture of protection of civilians has thereby gradually been instilled not only at the Council, but across the United Nations.

Second, the Council’s language has grown increasingly specific, detailed and prescriptive across the range of its protection of civilians engagement, often delineating the obligations of parties and other actors during armed conflict with great specificity – both for the substance of the obligations and for their performance. While this has created a more robust normative framework, it has also, at times, led to a disconnect between required tasks and long-term objectives. Particularly in the mandates of certain peace operations, the multitude of tasks and priorities delineated has contributed to so-called “Christmas-tree mandates” lacking a clear connection between the vast number of output-focused, process-oriented tasks, their protective impact, and the long-term objectives of the mission.

Third, the Council has developed a robust “toolkit” to translate the normative protection of civilians framework into concrete actions on the ground: peace operations have been provided with comprehensive protection mandates; sanctions regimes have been given designation criteria pertaining to IHL and human rights violations; monitoring and reporting processes have created a feedback loop between the Council and the field; and accountability mechanisms have deterred, ended and remedied violations.

Fourth, the Council has streamlined protection language into country-specific contexts with increasing consistency, enhancing clarity of standards and predictability of expectations and contributing to an overall stronger protection of civilians agenda. However, such consistency varies depending on Council dynamics, and an existing “base line” of protection language has yet to be mainstreamed across all relevant contexts.

Fifth, while the Council adopted a series of holistic thematic resolutions on protection of civilians across the first decade of its engagement on this issue, it increasingly focused on sub-themes of the agenda in the second decade, including UN and humanitarian personnel, journalists, medical care and food security. While dedicated discussions on certain issues facilitate their comprehensive consideration and may result in more targeted outcomes, they may also fragment the agenda by isolating the issue from a greater vision of integrated protection.

Despite these gains, gaping disparities remain between the quality of normative and actual protection. The tools for protection exist and have the potential to translate the law into pragmatic action, which will require consistent improvement, operationalization and financing. To achieve this, the Council must ensure greater consistency in its approach to protection of civilians, including by ensuring that a “base line” of issues across the board of the major themes of the protection of civilians agenda is routinely addressed within and across relevant contexts. protection of civilians mandates in peace operations must be clearer, linked to the missions’ long-term objectives and equipped with adequate resources and capacities. Sanctions regimes must be implemented and enforced. Monitoring and reporting must be systematized. Accountability measures must be proactively established, supported and funded.

Member State initiative is key. Council members should continue to strive ambitiously towards strengthening protection of civilians by creating and taking advantage of opportunities. Other Member States should work towards aligning protection of civilians policy priorities and promoting the allocation of requisite financial resources across and within the United Nations. When the inherently political nature of the Organization inhibits effective action, or the limits of its implementation arms are met, Member States should work together to promote effective action and leverage political and financial support.

The protection of civilians is not only the responsibility of the Council, or of the United Nations; it is a shared and global responsibility of every one of its members.

(The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.)

Image: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks to journalists on the situation in Yemen regarding the famine.