Thursday, August 5, 2021
Home > Foreign Affairs > What Goes Unpunished Will Be Repeated, Deputy Secretary-General Warns, as Security Council Considers Civilian Protection, Preservation of Humanitarian Space

What Goes Unpunished Will Be Repeated, Deputy Secretary-General Warns, as Security Council Considers Civilian Protection, Preservation of Humanitarian Space

Following are Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks to the Security Council on behalf of the Secretary-General, on the protection of civilians and the preservation of humanitarian space, today:

I would like to bring greetings from the Secretary-General, on whose behalf I am delivering these remarks today.

We are facing a bloody surge in humanitarian crises around the world. Civilians in conflict zones are paying the highest price. From the Tigray region of Ethiopia, we have heard credible reports in the past few months of executions of civilians, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children, and forced displacement on a massive scale.

In Afghanistan, brutal attacks killed at least 24 civilians, including five health workers, during just one week in June. Civilian casualties in the first quarter of this year increased by 29 per cent compared to last year; the increase for women was 37 per cent. In Yemen, on average at least five civilians are killed or injured each day. Twenty million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, and 5 million are face-to-face with famine.

Schools and hospitals, which should be safe havens, are not spared. Scores of Afghan schoolgirls were killed and injured in one of this year’s most heartbreaking attacks. Last month’s attack on Al-Shifa’a hospital, one of the largest in northern Syria, killed 19 civilians, including three children. One missile reportedly hit the emergency room while another landed in the delivery ward.

We are in uncharted waters. The sheer scale of humanitarian needs has never been greater. The United Nations and our partners are seeking to reach 160 million people with assistance this year — the highest figure ever.

This hurricane of humanitarian crises is compounded by a relentless wave of attacks on humanitarian and medical workers, and the imposition of ever narrower constraints on humanitarian space. The Secretary-General urges this Council to take strong and immediate action to support its numerous resolutions on the protection of civilians, humanitarian and health-care workers, and humanitarian space.

Three weeks ago, humanitarian aid workers Yohannes Halefom, María Hernández, and Tedros Gebremariam were brutally killed in Tigray while working for Médecins Sans Frontières. This was just the latest in a string of attacks that have killed 12 aid workers in Tigray since the start of the conflict in November 2020. Many more have been intimidated, harassed and detained.

Around the world, security incidents affecting humanitarian organizations have increased 10-fold since 2001. These incidents include shootings, bodily and sexual assault, kidnappings and raids. In the five years since this Council’s landmark resolution calling for an end to impunity for attacks on health-care systems, workers and patients have suffered thousands of attacks.

The World Health Organization has recorded 568 incidents affecting the delivery of medical care in 14 conflict zones so far in 2021; this has caused 114 deaths of health-care workers and patients. These attacks include shootings, shellings, threats, the removal of equipment and the militarization of medical facilities.

Meanwhile, it is becoming ever more difficult to provide desperately needed humanitarian aid to people in need. Since late June, just one convoy of aid has been able to enter Tigray, where an estimated 2 million people are displaced and 5.2 million need humanitarian assistance. A second is now on its way.

In Afghanistan, aid workers, particularly women, face increased attacks, harassment and interference in their work. And in Yemen, there were over 350 incidents involving restrictions on humanitarian organizations, personnel and goods in just two months earlier this year.

Our humanitarian agencies often negotiate with Governments or parties to conflict that undermine or completely reject their work. We are all too familiar with many of the strategies they use, from restrictions on the movements of humanitarian staff and supplies; to long visa and customs procedures; delays at checkpoints; and high taxes and fees on humanitarian supplies.

While Governments may create systems around the delivery of humanitarian aid, it is essential that these systems support aid rather than blocking it. Likewise, every country needs to take action against terrorism. But every country also has a responsibility to make sure its counter-terrorism efforts do not undermine humanitarian operations.

Humanitarian organizations report ever more frequent attempts to interfere in their selection of beneficiaries or partners. There are growing pressures on organizations that negotiate with non-State armed groups — an essential element of impartial humanitarian operations. Some counter-terrorist legislation may even criminalize humanitarian and medical activities. Conversely, political and military actors may portray humanitarian assistance as part of the counter-terrorism agenda.

All these practices politicize humanitarian action, eroding the trust of communities and parties to conflict, and ultimately curtailing the ability of humanitarian organizations to deliver aid.

The best way to protect humanitarian space is by ending violence and conflict. This was the thinking behind the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire to focus on our common enemy: the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United Nations is engaged around the world in difficult negotiations to produce lasting ceasefires and build sustainable peace. In the meantime, life-saving humanitarian aid needs to continue, and humanitarian organizations are making remarkable efforts to protect humanitarian space.

They strengthen security systems and improve due diligence, to reduce the risk that aid is stolen or diverted. They invest in conflict analysis to improve humanitarian access, and in negotiating with parties to conflict to ensure equitable access to those in need. They improve training for their personnel. And they have a strong focus on local outreach and community engagement.

All these efforts work. Humanitarian assistance has never reached so many people so quickly. Humanitarian agencies and their donors deserve enormous credit for this. But even so, humanitarian needs are outpacing our capacity to meet them, turbo-charged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members [States] and the Security Council have a responsibility to do everything in their power to end attacks on humanitarian personnel and assets; to ensure and promote respect for international humanitarian law; and to seek accountability for serious violations, in line with numerous resolutions on the protection of civilians, medical care, and humanitarian and United Nations personnel.

The Secretary-General sees four main areas for action.

First, there are practical tools available within and outside this Council to foster greater respect for international humanitarian law. When these tools are used systematically, we see results. Examples include training national militaries; developing national policy frameworks; and applying diplomatic pressure. The Security Council has the power to impose sanctions when there are no other remedies.

Preserving humanitarian space also requires that we do not blur the lines between military operations, political objectives and humanitarian efforts. Upholding the principles of humanitarian action — humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence — is essential to building trust with political, military, security, and non-State armed groups and others.

Second, investigation and accountability are essential to preventing attacks on aid workers. National authorities are in the lead, but when they are unable or unwilling to act, the international community, including this Council, can and must use all available mechanisms. Attacks on humanitarian workers are completely unacceptable and may constitute war crimes. They should be investigated and prosecuted accordingly. What goes unpunished will be repeated.

Third, all Governments must protect humanitarian organizations’ ability to engage with all parties to conflict, including non-State armed groups. Humanitarian agencies that engage with such groups are better able to negotiate access and establish humanitarian pauses or even ceasefires. Their personnel are safer, and they can deliver aid more effectively. When humanitarian agencies are perceived as part of a political agenda, this creates enormous risks for their personnel and reduces their effectiveness.

Fourth, counter-terrorism measures should include clear provisions to preserve humanitarian space, minimize the impact on humanitarian operations, and ensure that humanitarian and health-care personnel are not punished for doing their jobs. Several Member States have passed legislation to that effect, in line with Security Council resolutions 2462 (2019) and 2482 (2019). The Council has included humanitarian exemptions in its Somalia sanctions regime. The Secretary-General urges others to emulate those good practices.

Fifth, the Security Council must use its influence to ensure that attacks against schools and hospitals cease immediately, and that these facilities and their personnel are protected. The unprecedented health-care emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic makes the protection of medical facilities and workers more critical than ever. Member States should review and revise military policy and practice to ensure the protection of medical care and schools. They should refrain from — and condemn — the use of schools for military purposes.

The Secretary-General further urges Member States to endorse and implement (the) Safe Schools Declaration, which aims to protect all educational institutions from the worst effects of armed conflict. And he calls on Member States to support the Health Care in Danger initiative of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, aimed at preventing and ending violence against patients, health-care workers, facilities and vehicles, and ensuring safe access to health care in armed conflict and other emergencies.

In recognition of the enormous challenges faced by humanitarian agencies, the Secretary-General has asked his incoming Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs to appoint a special adviser on the preservation of humanitarian space and access, and to strengthen humanitarian negotiations in this context.

Ultimately, most of our work on protecting humanitarian space is done by humanitarian aid workers on the ground — and in dialogue with parties to conflict, Governments, and affected communities. The international community owes humanitarian aid agencies and health-care and humanitarian workers its full and unwavering support in their difficult and dangerous work.

Source: United Nations