Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Open Debate on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflicts
Security Council, New York, 19 August 2013
Distinguished Council Members,
On this the tenth anniversary of the attack on the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, I join the Secretary-General in paying tribute to our fallen colleagues, including the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
As we mark this day, civilians in many conflict zones suffer unacceptably high levels of threats to their lives, security and dignity. In July, Iraq saw the deadliest month in years as violence killed over 1,000 people. In Afghanistan, in the first half of 2013, 1,319 deaths as a result of conflict were reported. In Syria, more than 100,000 people have been killed since fighting began. The number of victims of the ongoing violence in the Central African Republic are still unknown, but reports are concerning.
I draw your attention to the important recommendations concerning protection of civilians made at the recent Oslo conference which gathered 94 States and various organisations, including my Office. They reiterated that all parties to a conflict must apply and respect both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Protection of civilians is necessarily norms-based.
In this respect, I welcome the adoption by the General Assembly of the international Arms Trade Treaty. I hope that the ATT will become a powerful tool for the protection of civilians in armed conflict and the prevention of human rights violations, and strongly encourage States to ratify it as soon as possible.
Throughout the past year, my Office and human rights components of peace operations and political missions have continued to work in key country situations on the Council’s agenda to improve respect for international human rights and humanitarian law.
In coordination with BINUCA, we are closely monitoring the situation in the Central African Republic. Recently, I dispatched a Fact-Finding Mission to collect information on human rights violations, and am working to increase the number of human rights officers on the ground. I appeal to the Council to urgently authorize the deployment to the Central African Republic of a large multi-national force with a strong protection mandate, as stressed by the Assistant Secretary-General Šimonović in his 14 August briefing to the Security Council.
In Mali, 25 human rights officers have been deployed within MINUSMA to monitor, investigate and report on compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law. Human rights mobile teams have been dispatched to critical areas to document and analyse patterns of violence and advise on action to prevent further violations. The Human Rights Component is also playing a central role in devising the mission’s protection of civilians strategy.
I am deeply concerned about the recent resumption of violence in Eastern DRC. The Joint UN Human Rights Office within MONUSCO reported that the latest fighting between the M23 and the FARDC resulted in at least 200 cases of sexual violence, as well as many other gross human rights violations. The joint UN Human Rights Office has increased field visits and advised on mission strategies to protect civilians. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri will visit the DRC next week.
As regularly demonstrated, undertaking monitoring, casuality tracking, analysis and reporting of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law is critical to inform appropriate responses.
In this regard, I welcome both the increasing use by UN bodies of international commissions of inquiry and fact finding missions to investigate violations in conflict situations and the Council’s developing practice of referring to their findings. Currently, my Office is supporting the international commissions on the Syrian Arab Republic and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
As part of our active monitoring and documenting of violations in conflict situations and making information available to the Security Council and beyond, my Office published earlier this year the shocking results of the study into the number of individuals killed in the conflict in Syria.
Providing humanitarian access and ensuring accountability for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law are obligations grounded in international law. They are not only moral imperatives but also legal requirements, as was clearly recalled in the report of the Internal Review Panel on the United Nations Action in Sri Lanka. The United Nations and Member States should make concerted efforts to ensure that protection of civilians integrates in a complementary and mutually reinforcing manner humanitarian access and full respect for norms of international human rights, humanitarian, and refugee laws. In a recent joint statement, USG Amos and I urged all parties to the conflict in Syria to allow humanitarian organizations safe access to all people in need. Today, I renew my call to the Syrian Government to grant representatives from my Office and the Commission of Inquiry on Syria full access to the country.
Following the recent upsurge in inter-communal violence between rival Nuer and Murle tribes in South Sudan’s Jonglei State, thousands of civilians fled to the bush, where their access to humanitarian assistance has been extremely limited. The authorities need to redouble efforts to create a secure environment that would allow civilians to return to their towns and villages.
I welcome the resumption of direct peace talks between Israel and Palestine. This process can only achieve a tangible result if the protection of human rights of all Palestinians and Israelis is placed at its centre. Ensuring accountability for all human rights and humanitarian law violations is essential in this regard. The illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip imposing restrictions on the enjoyment of fundamental rights must be lifted. Freedom of movement throughout the occupied Palestinian territory should be ensured.
I am also seriously concerned about the on-going prevalence of impunity, which undermines the fabric of societies and is detrimental to any lasting solution to instability. States must adopt necessary measures for combating impunity in compliance with international standards.
In this respect, I welcome the consideration given in Guinea–Bissau to the establishment of an international commission of inquiry to investigate crimes of political violence and other serious crimes, as well as gross violations of human rights committed since March 2009.
It is also of utmost importance that there be full accountability for violations committed in the Central African Republic. I welcome the recent statement by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court that her office will, if necessary, investigate and prosecute those most responsible for the commission of serious crimes. This has followed ASG Šimonović’s mission to the country during which he discussed with national authorities ways to tackle the on-going impunity.
With regard to the Syria, I reiterate my call for the Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC. A referral would serve to make clear to all actors that they will be held to account for their failure to abide by international human rights and humanitarian law. It is my hope that it will also contribute to prevent further violations.
I also remain seriously concerned about the human rights implications for the protection of civilians of armed drone strikes carried out in the context of counter-terrorism and military operations, including in Gaza, Pakistan and Yemen. The current lack of transparency surrounding their use creates an accountability vacuum and affects the ability of victims to seek redress. I urge relevant States to clarify the legal bases for such strikes as well as the safeguards in place to ensure compliance with applicable international law.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that the protection of civilians is critically linked to the protection of all human rights. As the tragic events that are unfolding in Egypt over the last few weeks so clearly show, the failure to ensure respect for all human rights, including those aimed at ensuring vital democratic space, can culminate in bloody violence and the loss of lives. The response should equally be based on international law including human rights. Otherwise, such failures are likely to have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences.