The UN Security Council must mark the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions this year by ending its catastrophic failure to protect millions of civilians around the world whose lives and livelihoods are routinely ravaged by violations of the laws of war, Amnesty International said today.
Tomorrow (23 May), the Security Council will hold an open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict – 20 years after this goal was first added to its agenda.
“Twenty years after the UN Security Council pledged to do its utmost to protect civilians in armed conflict, and 70 years since the Geneva Conventions sought to shield civilians and others from the types of atrocities committed during the Second World War, the picture is incredibly grim,” said Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International.
“The great military powers cynically boast about ‘precision’ warfare and ‘surgical’ strikes that distinguish between fighters and civilians. But the reality on the ground is that civilians are routinely targeted where they live, work, study, worship and seek medical care. Parties to armed conflict unlawfully kill, maim and forcibly displace millions of civilians while world leaders shirk their responsibility and turn their backs on war crimes and immense suffering.
“Russia, China and the United States continue to abuse their veto power by blocking draft resolutions that aim to prevent or stop atrocities from taking place. Every time this happens, they are putting innocent people living in these danger zones at grave risk.”
In recent years alone, Amnesty International has documented a blatant disregard for civilian protection and international humanitarian law in armed conflicts where four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are parties – Russia, the USA, the UK and France. The fifth, China, has actively shielded neighbouring Myanmar as it carried out war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.
The disastrous failure to protect civilians has been evident in the US-led Coalition’s blitzing of Raqqa, Syria, that left more than 1,600 civilians dead; in Russian and Syrian forces’ wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure and lives in Aleppo, Idlib and elsewhere – forcing mass displacement of millions and amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity; and in the war in Yemen where the Saudi Arabia/UAE-led coalition, backed by Western arms, has killed and injured thousands of civilians in unlawful attacks and fuelled one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Somalia remains another of the world’s worst human rights and humanitarian crises. All parties to the conflict, including the USA, have violated both international human rights and humanitarian law. Despite ramping up air strikes in its secretive war in Somalia over the past two years, the USA failed to admit a single civilian casualty until an Amnesty International investigation prompted it to.
Israel has repeatedly targeted civilians and civilian objects during military operations in Gaza since 2008, causing great destruction and loss of human life. Between March 2018 and March 2019, Israel used lethal force against Palestinian protesters, killing at least 195 people, including medics, journalists, and children. Palestinian armed groups have fired indiscriminate rockets into civilian neighbourhoods in Israel, causing several fatalities.
In South Sudan and elsewhere, conflict-related sexual violence and gender-based violence are occurring at shocking levels. Witnesses and victims of a brutal government-led offensive in April-July 2018 in the north of the country described how civilians, including women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities were deliberately killed by gunfire, burnt alive in their homes, hung from trees and rafters and run over with armoured vehicles. Civilians were hunted down while fleeing into nearby wetlands, or rivers, as soldiers shot indiscriminately into areas where people were hiding and carried out attacks on islands where they had sought refuge.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported a record high number of civilian casualties in 2018, with 10,993 people killed or injured
Just last week, in Libya, Amnesty International documented how a fresh offensive on Tripoli has been marked by indiscriminate attacks and assaults putting the lives of civilians, including vulnerable detained refugees and migrants, at risk.
Nor is the record of the United Nations itself unblemished. In South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere, UN peacekeepers have failed, on multiple occasions, to protect civilians facing deadly violence. A particularly reprehensible problem is that of sexual exploitation and abuse, with civilian women and girls being raped and assaulted by the very peacekeepers who are supposed to protect them.
Especially vulnerable people like children, older persons and persons with disabilities have also been targeted in particular ways in conflict – such as militaries and armed groups recruiting child soldiers or brutally assaulting those less able to flee during attacks on civilian populations.
Despite international treaties prohibiting their use, some states and armed groups continue to use inherently indiscriminate weapons like cluster munitions and landmines, which have been banned under international law for their impact on civilians. Others, such as Syria and Sudan have also used chemical weapons, which have no place in warfare.
Last year, the UN Refugee Agency decried the record-breaking figure of 68.5 million people displaced worldwide by armed conflict and other forms of violence.
“Seventy years on from the Geneva Conventions, to have almost 70 million human beings displaced by wars and other violence reflects the catastrophic failure of world leaders to protect them,” said Tirana Hassan.
“World leaders have all but abandoned civilians to the ravages of war. This week’s open debate in the Security Council must yield more than just posturing and empty promises. Concrete action is needed to reverse course, effectively protect civilians, stop war crimes and end impunity.”
To read a joint statement by 22 NGOS, including Amnesty International, calling for action to strengthen the protection of civilians in armed conflict, please see: