Diplomacy is Key to Protecting Civilians

The thrum of conversation around me faded to silence precisely at 10 a.m. José Luis Cancela, Uruguay’s vice-minister for external relations, gaveled the United Nations Security Council into session and began the meeting. Around me, other observers in the gallery inserted their earpieces to listen as live translations provided a word-for-word account of the speaker’s commentary in the six UN languages—Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

Reflecting the postwar international system that created it, the UN Security Council has five permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and 10 rotating states that are elected for two-year terms. On this cold Tuesday in January, I was at the Security Council for an open debate on protecting civilians in armed conflict.

Protecting civilians has become one of the most complicated tasks faced by the UN and the Security Council, which has a primary role in safeguarding international peace and security. Back during World War II, nations controlled armies, and most fighting took place between combatants on battlefields. But this so-called “conventional warfare” is no longer predominant. Now, non-state actors and terrorist groups often  carry out  attacks against civilian populations or in heavily populated areas. These types of attacks affect all civilians. But there are additional difficulties and dangers for people with disabilities, who are often unable to flee, and so remain there, neglected or abandoned. Just a few weeks ago, an airstrike hit the al-Noor School for the blind in Yemen, and hostilities continue to affect people with disabilities in the Central African Republic.

Just as the means of warfare have transformed, the trends of violence against civilians also have changed in the last half-century. UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, International Committee of the Red Cross Vice President Christine Beerli, and Oxfam Senior Humanitarian Policy Adviser Eveline Rooijmans all noted the troubling increase in the use of cluster bombs, which leave behind unexploded bomblets to endanger people in the area for years, the need for earlier planning to protect civilians, and flouting of international law concerning fighting in or near populated areas by combatants around the world.

Overall, the debate was a grand exercise in diplomacy. Member states went back and forth, arguing about which international norm should apply to a particular crisis and haggling over a fine balance between state sovereignty and a responsibility to protect civilian populations. In a way, the whole back-and-forth dance seemed futile. At the same time, I recognized this laborious, frustrating, and circuitous process was necessary to hopefully save lives. With so many divergent viewpoints in play, member states need to find some room for compromise amid hard choices.

Many of the mechanisms to counter this violence are already available. Guidelines for peacekeeping missions, provisions of international humanitarian law, and  multilateral agreements, clearly define the standards of lawful conduct. The problem lies in implementation. Until Security Council member states can agree to act in concert and demand real accountability from those responsible for unlawful attacks, the bloodshed against civilians — and their suffering — will continue.

Paras Shah is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. While at Cal he studied History and Political Science. He is currently a John Gardner Fellow, working at Human Rights Watch in New York City.


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