The United Nations (UN) yesterday released the Secretary-General’s annual report to the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. It is an unequivocal call for parties to conflict to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law and international human rights law in military operations.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Security Council’s adoption of the protection of civilians as a thematic item on its agenda. Much has been achieved in that time. However, as the Secretary-General observes, civilians continue to account for the majority of casualties in armed conflict and are subject to attacks and harm by parties to conflict, often in violation of the law.

Thus, the protection of civilians agenda remains “as relevant and pressing as ever”. The “central challenge” is to enhance and ensure respect for international humanitarian and human rights law, in particular in the conduct of hostilities. The Secretary-General’s report provides concrete recommendations for national governments, humanitarian actors, and the Council itself to achieve sustained progress. These include the development of national policy frameworks on the protection of civilians; sustained engagement with non-State armed groups; and strengthened efforts to ensure accountability for serious violations.

20 Years of Protection of Civilians

The report summarizes achievements and challenges to the United Nations’ work on protecting civilians over the last 20 years, which are detailed in separate analysis and were addressed in a related Just Security article yesterday. During those two decades, the protection of civilians has become a “core issue” on the Council’s agenda, permeating the Council’s situation-specific decisions and resulting in practical actions to strengthen the protection of civilians. Chief among these practical actions are the mandating of UN peace operations to protect civilians, including through the use of force, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan; a willingness to use targeted sanctions, specifically asset freezes and travel bans, as a response to violations in Central African Republic and Libya; and to support accountability for international crimes through the establishment of commissions of inquiry and other investigative mechanisms and referrals to the International Criminal Court.

Ensuring Respect for the Law in the Conduct of Hostilities

While the Council’s actions over the last 20 years have strengthened the framework for the protection of civilians and saved lives, as the Secretary-General observes, the central challenge of ensuring respect for the law in the conduct of hostilities remains. The failure of parties to conflict to take constant care to spare civilians in military operations “initiates a downward spiral characterized by the death, injury and maiming of hundreds of civilians in conflicts every month; and by the displacement of thousands more, forced to flee their homes, communities and livelihoods towards a very uncertain and tragic fate.”

In some cases, mounting allegations and evidence of violations indicate that respect for the law in the conduct of hostilities is “questionable at best.” In such cases, the apparent absence of credible actions to ensure the protection of civilians “reinforces the perception of disregard for the law.” It is cases such as these that “underscore the urgent need for more effective and robust approaches to ensuring accountability for serious violations.”

In other cases, the Secretary-General observes, parties assert respect for the law and implement sophisticated targeting and collateral damage estimation practices to minimize the impact of attacks on civilians. However, the effectiveness of these practices is questioned by mounting civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian objects resulting from their operations. While it is essential that such practices exist, “they must be implemented effectively and their use standardized across all Member State militaries and theaters of operation.” The Secretary-General also reaffirms previous calls for States to condition arms exports on respect for the law; and to ensure respect for the law and the protection of civilians by partner forces and in coalition operations.

The Problem of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

The Secretary-General highlights his continued concern with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. His report recognizes the immediate and cumulative, complex and long-term pattern of harm that this gives rise to. Noting the growing interest among States in addressing this problem, the Secretary-General reiterates his support for the development of a political declaration “that would commit States to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and develop operational policies based on a presumption against such use.”

Looking to the Future

The Secretary-General makes a series of recommendations both for the Council, as well as for States and other actors, going forward. With respect to the Council, he emphasizes the need to be more systematic, comprehensive and consistent in how it addresses protection concerns within and across different conflict situations. He also calls for the Council to take into account the role of armed groups and the challenges of protecting civilians in urban warfare; to promote safe and unhindered humanitarian access; and be proactive in seeking accountability for violations.

Turning to States, humanitarian, human rights and other actors, the Secretary-General observes that progress in enhancing and ensuring compliance with the law and accountability for its violation, “is most needed and most likely to be forthcoming” at the national level. He calls for concrete progress in implementing the three actions recommended in his 2018 report:

First, the development of national policy frameworks that establish clear institutional authorities and responsibilities for the protection of civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of hostilities. This should include the establishment of capacities for civilian casualty avoidance, tracking and response; the adoption of operational policy to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas; measures to ensure respect for the law by partner forces; and the development of legislation conditioning arms exports on respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.

Second, sustained engagement by humanitarian actors to change the behavior and improve the practices of armed groups. This could include training and the development of codes of conduct, unilateral declarations and special agreements, as envisaged under international humanitarian law, through which groups expressly commit to comply with their obligations or undertake commitments that may go beyond what are required by the law.

Third, ensuring accountability for serious violations, including greater political and financial investment in national processes in conflict-affected States; sharing good practice; and provision of technical assistance to develop legislation and establish war crimes units.


The Secretary-General concludes by stressing the importance of ongoing and sustained engagement and dialogue with States on the three actions described above and calls for that engagement to extend beyond the Council’s consideration of the report at its open debate on May 23rd. “We must keep the conversation going – for Member States, United Nations actors and civil society to come together and discuss the actions and identify concrete steps for their implementation.” For as bleak as the current state of the protection of civilians is, “there is considerable scope for concrete improvements in the promotion and implementation of the law for the benefit of all those confronting, now and in the future, the horror, pain and indignity of conflict.”

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

Image: United Nations, New York