As we mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949, the first international legal instrument to codify the principles regarding the protection of civilians in armed conflict, we cannot help but reflect on what we have achieved so far, and more importantly, on what more we can do to improve the protection of civilians in situations of conflict.
From Indonesia’s standpoint, the protection of civilians in armed conflict has always been an issue of utmost importance. Both in the regional and multilateral context, Indonesia has been steadfast in advocating the protection of human rights and humanitarian access for civilians in conflict-affected areas.
Furthermore, 20 years have passed since the adoption of the first United Nations Security Council resolution on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Tragically, one of the findings of a recent report by the UN secretary-general concludes that the state of the protection of civilians today remains similar to how it was 20 years ago.
Since 2008, the number of major crises and conflicts has tripled. Clashes have increasingly taken place in densely populated areas, oftentimes involving the use of high-yield explosives, targeting civilian objects such as schools and hospitals.
In 2018, more than 40 million people were internally displaced, and more than 28.5 million people have become refugees and asylum seekers as a result of armed conflict.
In addition to violence and persecution, natural disasters and the destructive impacts of man-made climate change continue to add to the burden on global humanitarian efforts.
Finding the solutions to these problems has become more difficult, as they are further compounded by the rise of extremism and the misplaced notion that global issues can be better addressed unilaterally.
Indonesia, in its capacity as presidency holder of the UN Security Council, held on May 23 an open debate on the “Protection of civilians in armed conflict”, which I chaired. The underlying message that I conveyed is clear-cut: the protection of civilians must continue to be the main focus of the UN Security Council. A people-centered approach must continue to underpin all UN efforts.
The UN therefore, has the duty to fulfill this people-centered approach in all aspects of its work. The litmus test for the UN is how meaningfully it can impact the lives of people, especially those who are affected by conflict and disaster, the marginalized and the vulnerable.
I believe that we can fundamentally change and evolve the way we protect civilians despite such dire circumstances. There are three main points that I would like to share in this regard.
First, strengthening the national capacities of concerned states is crucial. Without question, the task to protect civilians lies primarily in the hands of the state concerned.
A state’s willingness and capacity to uphold the law, especially humanitarian law, is thus a main crux in ensuring that civilians and their basic rights are protected in times of conflict.
More often than not, states in conflict or post-conflict situations lack the institutional and financial capacity to maintain the rule of law. The forging of effective international partnerships to fill such capacity gaps would therefore be a key move.
Further, focus should also be placed on strengthening community engagement and empowerment. Civilian protection programs in conflict and post-conflict areas should be tailor-made to meet the needs of affected communities. Most importantly, local community members, especially women, must have the opportunity to take part in shaping the design and implementation of such programs.
As women and children face the highest risks in situations of conflict, the participation of women in these programs will help increase the program’s effectiveness.
For its part, Indonesia has been proactive in efforts to empower Palestinian communities to allow them to gain better access to basic needs. Just three years ago, we built a hospital in Gaza that has been providing much-needed healthcare, easing the suffering of civilians living under Israeli occupation.
Earlier this year, we also significantly increased our financial contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA), helping UNWRA in providing education, health care, relief and social services, as well as emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict.
Second, ensuring the effective implementation and compliance of civilian protection frameworks. For decades, the Geneva Conventions and the many UN resolutions on the protection of civilians have been at our disposal.
Effective implementation ultimately requires the respect of international humanitarian and human rights laws by state and non-state actors alike. In this connection,
I believe that engagement with all parties to a conflict is crucial to encourage them to implement the existing legal frameworks.
As the UN secretary-general rightly highlighted in his report, implementation and compliance are most likely achieved through the pursuit of national-level initiatives. To that end, international support toward efforts to promote national policies on preventing civilian casualties in times of conflict must be redoubled.
National policy frameworks to protect civilians in conflict should, among other things, set out proactive measures that mitigate and respond to harm suffered by civilians in times of conflict, provide stricter regulations for the trade of arms and improve national capacities to protect civilians in times of war.
Third, innovative and practical ways to protect civilians on the ground must continue to be pursued.
On the frontlines, UN peacekeepers and humanitarian actors remain our primary agents. The skill-sets and capacities of peacekeepers and humanitarian actors, therefore, must continuously be updated and strengthened so they can be better equipped in tackling new and emerging challenges on the ground.
Based on the experience of Indonesia’s peacekeepers, the mastery of soft skills or people-to-people skills has been proven to positively contribute to building the trust of local communities. Furthermore, intelligence-gathering skills are necessary to ensure the success of early warning systems to detect and prevent potential humanitarian crises.
In many instances, the formulation of such policies would require engagement with non-state armed groups. In this regard, the UN Security Council might need to consider how humanitarian actors can effectively serve as “honest brokers” in bridging consensus between state and non-state actors.
The 20th anniversary of the first Security Council resolution on the protection of civilians should serve as a reminder. Not only of our political commitments, but also of our duties to implement those commitments to ensure the primacy of human safety and security.
After all, the UN was established upon the mandate of “We the Peoples of the United Nations”. We must not let our people down.
The writer is Indonesia’s foreign minister. Indonesia is president of the United Nations Security Council for May 2019.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.