Noting Civilians Have Suffered Deadly Effects of Armed Conflict for Too Long, Secretary-General Tells Security Council We Must ‘Promise to Protect Them’

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council’s open debate on “Protection of civilians in armed conflict”, in New York today:

I thank the Government of Switzerland for convening this important debate.  And [International Committee of the Red Cross] President [Mirjana] Spoljaric [Egger] for joining us.

Less than six weeks have passed since war erupted in Sudan.  In that time: Hundreds of civilians have been killed — including members of the United Nations family; 250,000 people have fled the country; hospitals have been occupied and attacked; the price of goods is reported to have quadrupled in parts of the country; and aid warehouses have been looted on a massive scale.

Terrible as this picture is, it is far from unique.

My report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict in 2022 shows that war is devastating lives around the world.

Explosive weapons continue to wreak havoc, especially in the cities:

Last year, 94 per cent of their victims in populated areas were civilians.

Those able to flee the fighting did so in record numbers:

The total number forced from their homes due to conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution reached 100 million refugees.

Health facilities and schools were devastated, and their workers injured, kidnapped and killed.

At least 2000 schools were destroyed in three regions of Ethiopia alone.

Humanitarians also faced regular threats.

Their work was hampered by violence, bureaucracy and politics, and obstructed by overly broad sanctions and counter-terrorism measures.

In Afghanistan, the ban by the de facto authorities on women working in the humanitarian aid sector is having life-threatening consequences for women and girls.

War means hunger.  Armed conflict is a key factor driving food insecurity around the world.

Last year, more than 117 million people faced acute hunger primarily because of war and insecurity.

This is an outrage.

Damage to critical infrastructure hampers food production, blocks distribution and deprives people of safe water:

Syria now has 40 per cent less drinking water than at the start of the conflict.

Fighters destroy crops and steal livestock; explosives contaminate fertile land; markets cannot function; and prices rocket.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has contributed to the rise in the price of food, energy and fertilizer globally, with terrible effects for the world’s poorest.

And when conflict combines with the climate crisis, harvests shrink and people go hungry.

I saw this for myself during my recent visit to Somalia.  After years of war, Somalis have been going through their worst drought in decades.

An estimated 43,000 people died as a result in 2022 alone, half of them children, and millions have been forced from their homes.

There has been action over the past year to alleviate the impact of conflict on civilians:

Some parties to conflicts have taken steps to protect children, allow humanitarians to gain access to those in need, and more.

My newly appointed Famine Prevention and Response Coordinator is leading a system-wide response to rising food insecurity.

And our Action Agenda on Internal Displacement outlines a plan to respond to the record number of displaced people and prevent further crises.

The Black Sea [Grain] Initiative and the memorandum of understanding to promote Russian food and fertilizer to global markets helped to stabilize markets, bring down prices and ease the food crisis.

Ukraine has been able to export over 30 million metric tons of food.  That includes lifesaving grain transported by the World Food Programme to support humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Yemen.

I welcome the Russian Federation’s confirmation that it will continue to participate in the Black Sea Initiative for another 60 days.

Outstanding issues remain.  But representatives of Russia, Ukraine, Türkiye and the United Nations will keep discussing them.

And looking ahead, we hope that exports of food and fertilizers, including ammonia, from the Russian Federation and Ukraine will be able to reach global supply chains safely and predictably.

This is foreseen in both the Black Sea Initiative and the memorandum of understanding — the implementation of which the United Nations is fully committed to support.

Last November, States adopted a political declaration to protect civilians by restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.  I urge all states to join and turn the declaration into meaningful action.  And in December, the Security Council adopted resolution 2664 (2022), which aims to prevent United Nations sanctions from harming civilians and obstructing humanitarian action.

I urge all States to implement it and to exclude humanitarian and medical activities from their own counter-terrorism and sanctions measures.

These modest steps are welcome.  But the terrible truth is that the world is failing to live up to its commitments to protect civilians; commitments enshrined in international humanitarian law.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols are the cornerstone of that legal framework.

And I pay tribute to the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the guardian of those treaties:  You meet danger and brutality with bravery, compassion and humanity, and you will always have my full support.

ICRC’s role is unique.  It has a mandate to respond, and that mandate must be respected:  by every Government, every armed group and every fighter.

We must never lose sight of the meaning and purpose of international humanitarian law:  It is the difference between life and death; between restraint and anarchy; between losing ourselves in horror and retaining our humanity.

But law overlooked is law undermined.  We need action and accountability to ensure it is respected. That depends on political will.  Peace is the best form of protection.

We must intensify our efforts to prevent conflict, protect civilians, preserve peace and find political solutions to war.

In the coming weeks, I will issue a policy brief on A New Agenda for Peace in preparation for next year’s Summit of the Future.  This will offer a holistic approach for Member States to consider, tuned to the times, to address peace and security in a changing world.

Where war continues, all countries must comply with international humanitarian law and members of this Council have a particular responsibility.

Governments should incorporate international humanitarian law into national laws and military rules and training.

Humanitarians must be assured safe access.  Attacks against them must cease.  And their work must be facilitated, including by removing deadly bureaucratic barriers.  It is unconscionable that vital aid languishes in ports and warehouses while people die.

The Security Council has a special role to play in urging States to respect the rules of war.  Governments with influence over warring parties should engage in political dialogue and train forces on protecting civilians.  And countries that export weapons should refuse to do business with any party that fails to comply with international humanitarian law.

Those who commit war crimes must be held to account.  States must investigate alleged war crimes, prosecute perpetrators and enhance other States’ capacity to do so.

And we must do everything in our power to break the deadly cycle of armed conflict and hunger:  Addressing the underlying causes of hunger by strengthening vulnerable countries’ economies; honouring commitments to support countries on the frontlines of the climate crisis; and increasing contributions to humanitarian operations, which are — shamefully — just 15 per cent funded.

Civilians have suffered the deadly effects of armed conflict for too long.  It is time we live up to our promise to protect them.

For information media. Not an official record.