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Protection of civilians in armed conflict

Statement of H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the
United Nations

United Nations Security Council Open Debate on
Protection of civilians in armed conflict

New York, 22 May 2018
Madam President,
The Holy See would like to thank the Polish Presidency for organizing today’s important and very welcome debate.
The Fourth Geneva Convention puts the protection of civilians at the heart of international humanitarian law. The 1977 Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions significantly improve the legal protection covering civilians and the wounded. Yet, despite those safeguards, one can safely affirm that it has never been as perilous to be a civilian in the middle of armed conflict as it is today. This Council sadly must listen regularly to testimonies of the most brutal, barbarous and premeditated instances of the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure as a tactic of war.
Taking into account the atrocities committed in Syria and in the remote villages of the Borno State in Nigeria, the famine and severe food insecurity ravaging South Sudan and Yemen, and the attacks deliberately targeting innocent civilians in many parts of the world, the Secretary-General rightly speaks of a global protection crisis. The current level of preventable suffering is, indeed, horrifying and, as Pope Francis has repeatedly stated, it is utterly “unacceptable that so many unarmed persons, including many children, have to pay the price of the conflict.”[1]
The plight of the vulnerable, including women and children, remains particularly acute. More than 20 million people in conflict situations, as the Secretary-General notes in his latest report, and more that 1.4 million children, are on the brink of famine. This tragedy is compounded by a less than adequate global response in addressing the suffering of civilians in armed conflict.
Madam President,
Essential health services, including hospitals and the work of medical personnel, play a critical role as providers of vital life support and sustainers of hope and trust during conflicts. Any attack on hospitals, schools and staff deprives “entire generations of their right to life, to health and to education”,[2] as Pope Francis has noted. The spate of recent attacks on medical facilities in conflict situations by both State and non-State actors must be condemned in the strongest terms possible. They are not only an egregious breach of international law, but also a betrayal of humankind itself. The culture of impunity for such crimes must end.
The Security Council’s landmark resolution 2286 (2016) speaks to that imperative by unequivocally condemning attacks or threats against medical and humanitarian personnel who are exclusively engaged in medical duties. The task we have now is to translate that political resolve into tangible action. As a first step, all parties to an armed conflict should unequivocally affirm that health-care must be protected, in compliance with their obligations under international law, in particular humanitarian law. Criminal prosecutions for the perpetrators of attacks on health-service providers are equally essential. Human misery cannot be mortgaged or sacrificed at the altar of political objectives.
The growing trend of attacks on humanitarian workers is also a cause of grave concern. The politicization and militarization of humanitarian aid, moreover, is unacceptable. Any party to a conflict must be held accountable for any act of denying civilians access to food, water and basic medical care in order to gain military advantage. Similarly, the use of humanitarian access as a bargaining chip in peace negotiations must be rejected.
Above all, the goal of protecting civilians is best served by preventing the outbreak of armed conflicts in the first place. That entails addressing the root causes of conflicts, finding inclusive political solutions to disputes, and seeking peaceful settlements. A culture of prevention is, after all, the best assurance we can have for sustainable and enduring peace and security.
Thank you, Madam President.  

1. Pope Francis, Address after the Regina Coeli, St. Peter’s Square Rome, 17 July 2016.
2. Pope Francis, Address to the Participants in the Conference on International Humanitarian Law, Vatican, 28 October 2017.