By Evan Cinq-Mars
“There should be no mistake. Promoting the protection of civilians in armed conflict is no sideshow to the [Security] Council’s mandate for ensuring international peace and security; it is central to it. The ultimate aim of the Council’s work is to safeguard the security of the world’s people, not just the States in which they live. Clearly, faced with the disproportionate toll that modern conflict takes on civilians, the protection of individuals should be a primary consideration in the Council’s activities.”
These were the words of Canada’s then-Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, exactly twenty years ago, during the first-ever UN Security Council meeting on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The meeting, held under the initiative of the Canadian Presidency of the Council, also marked the adoption of the first-ever Presidential Statement on the protection of civilians, which called for a “comprehensive and coordinated approach” to address the plight of civilians caught in armed conflict.
The Council’s focus on the protection of civilians in 1999 set the stage for the adoption of two landmark resolutions that year: Security Council resolution 1265 on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, adopted that September, and Security Council resolution 1270 adopted that October, which authorized the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone with a groundbreaking mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to protect civilians.
In the two decades since that pivotal year, there have been several hard-won victories in the fight to strengthen the protection of civilians. Several countries have adopted national policies on the protection of civilians. The majority of UN peacekeeping operations deployed around the world have a protection of civilians mandate, and in many instances provide immediate protection to hundreds of thousands of people every day. The Security Council has also given considerable attention to the issue of protection over the past 20 years. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but shows how political attention and focus have driven the protection of civilians agenda forward.
Despite this progress, the gains of the past 20 years are under threat — and civilians are paying the heaviest toll. The number of violent conflicts currently underway is greater than at any other point over the past 30 years. Civilians continue to account for the vast majority of casualties in armed conflict. Conflict also continues to be the main driver of increasing humanitarian needs around the world; the UN estimates that over 130 million people will require humanitarian assistance in 2019.
The 20th anniversary of the Security Council seizing the protection of civilians on its agenda must be a moment of both critical reflection and principled action. An infusion of leadership and political will is needed at the highest levels of the UN and its Member States to address the most pressing protection concerns facing civilians caught in conflict.
The Secretary-General and world leaders must also commit to an ambitious agenda that builds on the progress of the past 20 and addresses the persistent issues that have undermined the protection of civilians. In 1999, Lloyd Axworthy called for “vigorous, comprehensive, and sustained action,” to halt attacks against civilians in armed conflict. Twenty years on, his words remain as relevant as ever.
This article first appeared in the website of the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC).
The author is CIVIC’s United Nations Advisor and leads the organization’s advocacy and policy engagement to enhance the protection of civilians in armed conflict with the UN Secretariat, Permanent Missions to the UN, and other partners and stakeholders.