UN Security Council Open Debate: Protection of civilians

Ministry Statements & Speeches:

Statement delivered by Gerard van Bohemen, Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the United Nations, 19 January 2016.

Thank you Mr President and welcome back to New York. Let me congratulate Uruguay on organising this debate. I want to thank the Deputy Secretary and Ms Christine Beerli of the ICRC and Ms Eveline Rooijmans of OXFAM.

As others have said, the grim context for our discussions today is a world in which civilians in conflict are at greater risk now than at any time in this organisation’s history.

Today’s meeting is a chance to talk frankly about the challenge of protecting civilians as well as how this Council is meeting that challenge.

Protection of civilians has been included as a separate thematic item on the agenda since 1999. We recognise the normative value of this process and the significant effort invested in carrying the discussion forward.

But after more than fifteen years of reports, debates, thematic resolutions and Presidential Statements, we have to acknowledge that the on-the-ground conditions that bear on the real life circumstances of civilians in conflict zones are still dreadful.

In New Zealand’s view, the Council’s focus on the protection of civilians must shift from words to actions, towards making a meaningful improvement in the protection of real people in real life situations and I want to highlight three areas in which we  consider Council needs to translate its rhetoric into reality.

As we often say in this Chamber, preventing conflict is far preferable to dealing with its consequences.  Yet this reality is recognised fitfully at best by this Council which regularly resists taking action before real trouble starts, even when the warning signs are apparent.

For over six months, New Zealand has been calling on the Council to address the growing risk of conflict in Burundi. We are pleased that agreement has at last been reached and that a Council mission is departing for Bujumbura tomorrow. 

It is important that the Council listen as well as speak to the Burundian parties.  We need the Government and the opposition to commit to reversing the current slide into conflict and to undertake inclusive and meaningful reconciliation efforts.

We believe the Council can do very much better in developing nimble and pragmatic responses to emerging and re-emerging conflict risks, in cooperation with regional partners.  A clear case in point is the Democratic Republic of Congo where elections are scheduled later this year.  We know that violence has accompanied past elections. We know the uncertainties around the coming elections and the tensions to which these are giving rise.  The Council, in consultation with the African Union, needs to start thinking now about how to engage with the DRC to address these risks and how to respond if the situation goes awry.      

In the area of peace operations, countless lives are saved by the presence and actions of UN peacekeepers and we pay tribute to the skill and courage of UN personnel in carrying out this vital role. But as others have noted we can do more to ensure protection of civilians mandates are implemented more effectively.

Mandates need to be clear, realistic, and adequately resourced. They need to be crafted and adjusted to changing circumstances.  They need to take into account the views of troop and police contributing countries.

Over the past year, New Zealand has promoted more meaningful engagement between the Council, the Secretariat and troop and police contributing countries on mandate formation and renewal, prefiguring the triangular consultations called for in the report of the High Level Panel on Peace Operations. 

Such consultations should be a more consistent feature in the Council practice.  Their value was recognised in the December Presidential Statement adopted at Chad’s initiative.

Last March, the Council adopted New Zealand’s proposal for regular informal Secretariat briefings to keep the Council informed of key developments in the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).  This was a positive step which could usefully be applied to other high risk situations on the Council’s agenda, particularly those involving protection mandates.

Current decision-making lacks the situational awareness that comes from real-time, high-quality information on emerging risks and ongoing implementation challenges.  While the Council is not the body to make operational decisions about the disposition of peacekeeping forces, we do need a better appreciation of the risks and threats facing peacekeepers and the civilians they are seeking to protect.  This is an obvious area for improvement and one where we will continue to press for greater openness. 

Effective protection means ensuring civilians have access to essential humanitarian assistance as required by international humanitarian law. 

This has been the focus of efforts led first by Australia, Luxemburg and Jordan and then New Zealand, Jordan and Spain, to try to improve humanitarian access to civilians in Syria, particularly in besieged and hard to access areas. Resolution 2258, adopted unanimously last month, gave particular attention to this question.   Regular reports from Madaya, Foua and Kafrayar have shown graphically the failures of the Syrian Government and armed opposition groups to their people and to their responsibilities under international law.  We are encouraged that desperately needed access and aid have at last got through to these towns over the past week.  It is imperative that they be allowed to continue and that similar unimpeded access is allowed to the 14 other Madayas across Syria.

We are deeply disturbed by the reports of ISIL brutality in Deir Ezzor and would welcome further information on this episode from the Secretariat.

In addition to access difficulties, as the Secretary General has highlighted, attacks on healthcare personnel, healthcare facilities and medical vehicles are also occurring in many of the conflicts on the Council’s agenda. These are further contraventions of international humanitarian law that demand attention. New Zealand and Spain, with Egypt, Uruguay and others, intend to take forward an initiative aimed at increasing practical protection for healthcare in situations of armed conflict.     

Mr President,

It is axiomatic that UN personnel cannot be a threat to the civilians they are mandated to protect.  Yet we continue to hear reports of sexual abuse and exploitation against populations traumatised already by appalling conflict situations. 

We acknowledge the Secretary-General’s zero tolerance approach to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. We commend the Secretary General for making good on his undertaking to require the removal of contingents that continue to transgress and whose Governments fail to take effective enforcement and remedial action.  This Council must be kept informed of the steps taken, both to prosecute alleged offenders and to require contributing countries to account for the performance of their personnel.

Finally, Mr President, I thank the Secretary General for his annual report on the protection of civilians.  New Zealand looks forward to discussing with Council members the next annual report later this year and how we can ensure that it is considered in a structured and timely manner and that we respond appropriately.


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