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‘Do the right thing’ and protect civilian infrastructure during conflict: UN relief chief

Humanitarian Affairs chief Mark Lowcock briefed ambassadors who met virtually to examine how attacks on sites such as hospitals and water systems affect people during wartime, including in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency.  

Respect the rules 

“The world does have a robust legal framework governing parties’ behaviour in war. We have a growing body of good practice to put it into motion.  What we need now is the political will from Member States and all parties to armed conflict to respect the rules and do the right thing,” he said. 

Mr Lowcock feared developments such as the emergence of transnational terrorist groups, could unravel decades of hard-won progress in compliance on civilian protection.    

These groups “don’t even pretend to subscribe to the basic humanitarian norms”, he said, as they regard civilians, including aid workers, as legitimate targets. 

“At the same time, big military powers are reorienting their military planning, training and spending to deter and defeat enemy States”, he added.   

“And when States and armed groups disrespect or undermine international humanitarian law, other States and non-State actors regard it as an invitation to do the same.” 

Healthcare under fire 

The UN relief chief provided examples of how these trends have played out in critical areas such as food, water and medical care.  He found the systematic attacks on medical facilities in Syria “particularly hard to stomach”. 

Between 2018 and 2020 alone, some 250 attacks occurred, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), while around 1,000 healthcare workers have been killed over the past decade. 

The “horrific” use of rape and sexual violence as a means to pursue political and military goals is another critical area for action.  Mr Lowcock recalled hearing the harrowing stories of Rohingya women refugees forced out of Myanmar who had been raped by men in uniform. 

“That is also what we have seen in the last six months in northern Ethiopia. The rapes there have not stopped. They are deliberately and systematically organized, targeted, ethnically based, and they are intended to terrorize, humiliate and brutalize”, he said. 

The challenge of accountability  

Enhancing compliance with international humanitarian law is just one way to strengthen the protection of civilians, and the infrastructure essential for their survival. Improving identification of sites, and including them in updated “no-strike” lists, is but one example of this. 

“At the same time, we need to continue to leverage political dialogue, sanctions and arms transfer decisions to ensure respect for the law and the protection of civilians and the objects they depend on to survive”, Mr Lowcock added. 

UNMISS/Eric Kanalstein
Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, meets with South Sudanese displaced by the conflict in Central Equatoria, sheltering in Gezira in the outskirts of Yei Town (file photo).

Avoiding use of explosive weapons in populated area is a second step, and one which the UN Secretary-General frequently emphasizes, he continued. The humanitarian affairs chief pointed to examples of “good practices” from Afghanistan and Somalia, where multinational forces’ use of certain air-delivered weapons has been restricted. 

His third point underscored the importance of accountability as without it, things will only get worse. 

“Ensuring accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law is one of the greatest challenges we face in strengthening the protection of civilians”, he revealed. “It’s especially important to ensure accountability for serious violations when those violations are themselves a tactic and a deliberate choice made by perpetrators.” 

Environmental concerns 

The President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, underscored why the international community must address these issues. 

“In the face of this urgent situation, my call is for us to work together, and critically for the Council to show leadership, so that the suffering of the women, men and children who have already lived through the horrors of wars is not compounded,” he said. 

Like Mr. Lowcock, he highlighted the need for greater respect of international humanitarian law and adoption of an “avoidance policy” on the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. 

Mr. Maurer stressed that healthcare and “interconnected services”, such as water, sanitation and electricity, must also be protected to ward against public health risks. 

“Frequently we see infectious diseases, such as cholera epidemics, rip through communities where water and sanitation infrastructure have been destroyed during fighting. Preventable diseases are costing too many lives, including as epidemics spread beyond the borders of war zones”, he said. 

The ICRC President also called for better understanding of how conflict threatens the natural environment.  “Damage to critical infrastructure poses a wide range of threats to the environment, which in turn can have devastating environmental health impacts”, he said. “Climate risks now magnify this harm for dependent communities.”

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