I have the honor to speak on behalf of the European Union and its Member States.
The Candidate Countries the Republic of North Macedonia*, Montenegro*, and Albania*, the country of the Stabilisation and Association Process and potential candidate Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the Republic of Moldova and Georgia, align themselves with this statement.
The protection of civilians in armed conflict remains of utmost concern for the EU and its Member States, and we welcome the opportunity today to speak on this important topic. We also welcome the Secretary General's report.
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has created not only a global health crisis, but has also a severe impact on the protection of civilians. The direct and indirect effects of the pandemic are most felt by populations already affected by humanitarian crises and conflict, including refugees, internally displaced persons, as well as women, children, elderly, people with disabilities, and other persons in vulnerable situations. It is also a human rights crisis. A joint response, that puts people at its centre, under the leadership of the UN, and which addresses the needs and the protection of the most vulnerable, is the only way to address the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis. The EU is committed to combine all efforts to tackle the pandemic’s impact on those most vulnerable across the world, both through targeted and direct local support, as well as by ensuring the continued provision of life-saving health and essential services including sexual and reproductive health-care services and, responses to violence, inter alia sexual and gender-based violence.
The EU recalls that parties to armed conflicts bear the primary obligation to respect international humanitarian law and to meet the needs of populations under their control. They also bear the primary responsibility for human rights violations and abuses. It is vital that all parties to armed conflicts, state and non-state alike, respect their obligation under IHL to allow and facilitate the free passage of humanitarian relief. Unimpeded, fast and safe access to affected people is the critical enabler to ensure efficient and effective delivery of humanitarian aid and unhampered flow of life-saving medicines, equipment and supplies. It is important that these are free of any taxes and levies and not subject to bureaucratic restrictions. It is also essential that sanctions and counter-terrorism measures do not impede the delivery of principled humanitarian assistance in violation of international law, and are in accordance with international humanitarian law, including through the introduction of humanitarian exceptions, as appropriate.
While measures to contain the virus and mitigate its effects are taken, we must all ensure that adherence to international law prevails. The EU underlines the need for security forces to comply with international human rights law and the principle of non-discrimination, and to exercise restraint when enforcing government guidance as well as the importance of preventing harm to civilians.
Looking at the broader context presented in the report, the EU is gravely concerned by the ever-growing number of deliberate violations of international humanitarian law, the continued high prevalence of civilian deaths and injury, as well as the destruction or damage caused to civilian objects, including schools, health infrastructure, including maternities, and religious sites. We are also concerned by the growing number of attacks on humanitarian personnel, as well as those on medical personnel and facilities, including the recent attacks in Libya, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. Such attacks are to be resolutely condemned. These also have a devastating impact on the safety and health of civilians, and strongly undermine the fight against the global pandemic.
The EU is fully committed to support the collective efforts to strengthen the protection of civilians: by taking all appropriate measures to ensure respect for international law, including international humanitarian law and human rights, by taking all appropriate measures to address the protection needs of those most vulnerable, and by supporting the fight against impunity for serious violations.
The EU and its Member States urge universal respect for International Humanitarian Law. We call on all parties to conflicts to respond to the appeal by United Nations Secretary-General and to ensure that an immediate global ceasefire in light of the pandemic is observed.
Moving from the rhetoric of demanding respect for the law to its actual implementation and respect of the law requires constant engagement and concrete actions. At the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent the EU and its Member States specifically pledged to strengthen the implementation and dissemination of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and protection of civilians in armed conflicts. Among others, the EU will continue its efforts to strengthen the protection of humanitarian workers and healthcare from attacks and to promote the full implementation of UN Security Council resolution 2286.
Work is also conducted with the armed forces to better institutionalize the protection of civilians in conflict by advocating the introduction of a protection of civilians component in training courses and exercises, through the capacity building of the military, the mobilisation of local communities, and civil society-led tailored advocacy. The EU equally recognizes that the provision of trainings on IHL, including to non-State armed groups, is key to ensuring compliance with the law and should be pursued. In the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the two Optional Protocols to the International Convention on the rights of the Child, we reiterate the importance to protect children during armed conflicts, undertaking all the appropriate and necessary actions to reduce the impact of armed conflicts on their life. The mainstreaming of a gender-perspective is, in this context, of particular importance to sensitize all actors on the differentiated impacts, specific needs and situation of women and girls in conflict situations.
We strongly condemn the attacks against schools and universities, including the burning of facilities, the destruction of school equipement and the threats of attacks, exposing teachers and students. As such we urge Member States and Non State actors to respect IHL and to facilitate access to education in armed conflict. In this respect, we also promote the protection of schools and education accesible to all in situations of conflict supporting initiatives to roll out the Paris Principles and Commitments, and we positively note the efforts aimed at promoting and protecting the right to education, including the efforts of Member States that have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration.
The EU underlines that the protection of civilians must be at the core of peacekeeping mandates. Taking a three-tiered approach to protection is key in this regard, as outlined in the Policy on the Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping. We also recall the adoption of the Kigali Principles as important tool for strengthening the effective implementation of protection mandates in peacekeeping, now five years ago.
Peacekeeping, crisis management and political missions can also play a key role in the protection of civilians, in particular the most vulnerable segments of the population, through their engagement with national authorities, security and military forces and capacity building activities. We welcome that the reprioritisation of the Action for Peacekeeping commits to the launch and rollout to mission personnel of the revised protection of civilians and new Conflict-related Sexual Violence handbooks within the next six months to enhance mandate implementation. International humanitarian law and the protection of civilians are included in the planning and conduct of all the civilian and military EU crisis management missions and operations promoting peace and security in the context of the Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). In particular, the EU promotes a greater systematisation of IHL trainings within the armed forces, insisting on the concept of Training the Trainers and welcomes initiatives aimed at identifying concrete ways to strengthen IHL and the protection of civilians, in particular through reinforcing linkages and coordination between civilian and military components.
The EU is committed to addressing the root causes of climate change and environmental degradation through an ambitious policy on climate change mitigation and environmental protection globally, enshrined in the recent European Green Deal. By protecting the environment and safeguarding access to safe drinking water and sanitation, the protection of citizens is also ensured, especially in humanitarian and conflict settings where direct dependency on natural resources for food and livelihoods can be the greatest and which exacerbates the threat to particularly vulnerable communities.
The EU will continue to prioritise in its humanitarian assistance the protection of civilians. The EU is committed to better address the needs of those in the most vulnerable situations, including women and children, and those most at risk due to, for example, disability, gender identity and sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age or religion and belief.
The EU is concerned that sexual and gender-based violence continues to be employed as a tactic of war, terrorism, torture and repression across various crises. The victims – women and girls, men and boys – are often those already belonging to the most vulnerable groups. The EU continues to support projects aimed at preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence and remains committed to the 'Call to Action on Protection from Gender Based Violence in Emergencies'. In addition, we also reaffirm the importance of the provision of comprehensive and timely sexual and reproductive health-care services.
The EU is equally committed to better address the needs of persons with disabilities in armed conflicts and to promote their empowerment and meaningful participation in the decision-making process in all phases of humanitarian action. The EU welcomes the IASC Guidelines on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action adopted last year and expresses its full support for their implementation.
Armed conflict leads to forced displacement, internally and across borders, thus forcing people to ask for international protection and asylum. The EU is committed to support the assistance and protection of persons displaced by conflict, but also to assist local host communities and their already scarce resources so they can meet the challenges arising from protracted displacement. The EU closely follows and supports the work of the High Level Panel on Internal Displacement, and actively advocates for the protection of the rights of IDPs and refugees, as well as for durable solutions including the advancement of voluntary repatriation efforts of IDPs to their homelands, through a humanitarian-development nexus approach and the respect of international law, notably international refugee law.
We recall that international law, in particular international humanitarian law and international human rights law, fully applies to the use of all weapon systems and that those who employ these weapons remain responsible and accountable for their use. Ensuring compliance with IHL is crucial particularly when armed conflicts are increasingly fought in urban areas, exposing civilians and civilian infrastructure to substantial risks. We recognise the challenges associated with the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas and their impact on civilians. We call on all parties to armed conﬂict to fully comply with IHL principles and rules. Promoting compliance with IHL and respect of the humanitarian principles has always been, and remains, a top priority for the EU and its member states.
We also reiterate our grave concern over the increasing humanitarian harm of attacks with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) worldwide and their indiscriminate use and disproportionate effects in particular in the perpetration of terrorist acts.
The EU remains also gravely concerned about the situation in Syria which is causing unacceptable suffering for civilian populations. The EU strongly condemns the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Air Force as concluded by the recent report of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team. The use of chemical weapons by anyone – be it a State or a non-state actor – anywhere, at any time and under any circumstances is a violation of international law.
We condemn the unlawful use of incendiary weapons which allegedly has continued to occur against civilians or military targets located within a concentration of civilians in Syria. We call on all States not yet party to join Protocol III to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons which prohibits the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons in concentrations of civilians and we urge all States to fully comply with its provisions.
In this context, we also urge the Security Council to renew the cross-border mandate in July, so that lifesaving assistance can reach populations in need in all parts of Syria.
The fast pace technological developments provide many opportunities, but also entail risks. With regard to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), the EU emphasises that human beings must exert control over lethal weapons systems they use and remain accountable for decisions over life and death in order to ensure compliance with international law, in particular IHL and international human rights law. We encourage the Group of Governmental Experts within the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons to make progress in relation to the clarification, consideration and development of aspects of the normative and operational framework on LAWS.
The fight against impunity for the most serious crimes of international concern is one of the shared values of the EU. The EU strongly supports international justice and accountability mechanisms, including the work and independence of the International Criminal Court as an important actor in the global fight against impunity, and urges all UN Members to do the same, including by ratifying the Rome Statute.
The extensive recommendations on accountability contained in the Secretary-General’s reports on the protection of civilians remain very relevant today. Their implementation is our collective responsibility. Let’s not shy away from our commitments.
* The Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania continue to be part of the Stabilisation and Association Process.