Protecting Civilians in Armed Conflict: The Importance of Humanitarian Disarmament

Branka Marijan, Project Ploughshares

UN Security Council debate on civilian protection.
Credit: Cesar Jaramillo, 2019.

On May 23, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held its annual open debate on the “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.” This year’s debate is important as it comes twenty years after the UNSC adopted Resolution 1265, the first to address the protection of civilians. The year 2019 also marks the seventieth anniversary of the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions, which aimed to protect people not, or no longer, taking part in hostilities during times of armed conflict.

At the open forum, speakers urged compliance with the rules of war and the guiding principles of earlier conventions and resolutions to protect civilians. But even a cursory examination of our world today reveals the gap between the inspiring rhetoric in the UNSC open debate and the everyday reality of life for millions of people living in combat zones.

As many country representatives noted, a worrisome normalization of extreme violence marks recent events in conflict areas around the world, with civilians and humanitarian workers being the main targets. The “new normal” is characterized by more attacks on hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, a lack of transparency relating to remote operations in which civilians are killed, and the use of famine as a weapon.

The gap between rhetoric and reality clearly shows that the need to put people at the core of the security discussions remains critical. But more than just engaging in lofty rhetoric, states should take practical steps and make commitments to ensure follow-through. Compliance with existing regulations on weapons is one step that countries can take to uphold their promises to protect civilians. Another is to create new regulations limiting and/or prohibiting development, stockpiling, transfer, and use of weapons that would cause excessive injury to civilians and destroy necessary civilian infrastructure. Without follow-through on these steps, the gaps between rhetorical commitments to civilian protection and realities on the ground will continue to widen.

This was well exemplified at the May 23 UN debate in presentations that highlighted the need to monitor arms transfers and ensure that arms are not sent to areas where they could be used against civilian populations. Here the statements of various countries did not reflect actual practice.

The case of Yemen is perhaps the most striking. Several countries that noted the need to ensure the protection of civilian lives—such as the United Kingdom and France—continue to export arms to Saudi Arabia, despite clear evidence that the Saudi-led coalition has engaged in indiscriminate attacks on Yemeni civilians.

Adding to the sense of disingenuity, if not outright hypocrisy, is the fact that global regulation of arms transfers has been in place since the Arms Trade Treaty entered into force in 2014. The problem is with compliance. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted in his remarks to the UNSC debate, when it comes to international humanitarian laws, “compliance has deteriorated.”

Indeed, on the day of the debate, new reports revealed that the United Kingdom and the United States were looking at loopholes or ways to bypass legislative processes to continue to sell weapons to the Saudi-led coalition to be used in Yemen. In this case, the existence of the regulatory framework alone does not guarantee that there is political will to actually comply with the agreements.

Setting aside the concerns about the arms trade, there were some more positive developments on other issues. Most notably, an upcoming diplomatic effort that aims to regulate the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas is taking shape. At the open session, Austria announced that it will be hosting a conference on explosive weapons on October 1-2 in Vienna and encouraged all countries to participate. A number of progressive states in partnership with civil society, notably the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), and other important international actors, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have been fostering a negotiation process for a political declaration prohibiting the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The question remains, however: will that declaration be adopted, and if so, will it be complied with?

The need for action against this use of these weapons is urgent. Currently, 90 per cent of the casualties of explosive weapons are civilian. In addition, reverberating effects harm an even greater part of the civilian population. Commitment by states to this diplomatic process and compliance with the result would have concrete benefits for the civilian population and alleviate suffering in the longer term.

A welcome approach to the dangerous world in which we live is humanitarian disarmament, which “seeks to prevent and remediate arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm through the establishment of norms. This approach to disarmament is people-centered in substance and process.”

Humanitarian disarmament is at the heart of much civil society activity. In partnerships with academics, researchers, scientists, and international organizations, civil society has been pushing for more international regulations that would limit harm to civilians. For example, advocacy by coalitions such as INEW has been crucial in bringing attention to the issue of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. Civil society coalitions working with progressive states have played an important role in ensuring that humanitarian considerations are front and center in the discussion on protection of civilians and written into the various agreements.

When civilian protection was first introduced in the UNSC meeting in February 1999, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy stated that it was no sideshow to the work of the UNSC, it was central. Similarly, humanitarian disarmament is no sideshow to the efforts to protect civilians. It is at the very core of the promises that countries make to ensure civilians are safeguarded, particularly the most vulnerable.

To promote humanitarian disarmament countries can and must take concrete steps to adopt new disarmament treaties, comply with existing ones, and ensure respect for international humanitarian law. Without these steps, gaps between rhetoric and practice will only grow, while ordinary people in conflict zones bear the consequences. One thing is clear: if protection of civilians is accepted as central to global concepts of security, then humanitarian approaches to disarmament must be key components of the discussion and proposed solutions. And civil society will be there, to promote these approaches, discuss ways to make positive change happen, applaud when appropriate measures are adopted, and monitor compliance.