The following article was written by guest author Simon Bagshaw, who is a Senior Policy Advisor on the protection of civilians in armed conflict with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The article was first published in Just Security.


In his annual protection report to the United Nations Security Council, released this month, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has issued a clear call to parties to conflict and States: move beyond the rhetoric and make the protection of civilians a reality for the millions of people affected by armed conflict. And with good cause. As reported by the New York Times and others, Guterres warns that the current COVID-19 pandemic may create “incentives for some parties to conflict to press for an advantage, leading to an increase in violence, while others may see opportunities because the attention of governments and the international community is absorbed by the health crisis.”

State of the protection of civilians in 2019: Another year of suffering

Guterres bluntly describes the state of the protection of civilians last year as “a year of suffering.” Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, injured, and traumatized in attacks. More than 17,000 were killed and injured by bombing and shelling in urban areas, underlining the urgency of Guterres’ repeated call on parties to conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Attacks destroyed countless homes, schools, hospitals, markets, places of worship, and vital infrastructure, such as electricity and water supply lines, which civilians rely on for their survival.

Millions of people were forced from their homes, adding to the more than 70 million already displaced by conflict and violence at the beginning of the year. Women and girls, in particular, were subject to sexual violence. Tens of thousands of children were forced to take part in fighting. Older persons and persons with disabilities remained at considerable risk, while alarming numbers of people went missing in armed conflicts.

Throughout the year, the efforts of humanitarian organizations to assist and protect people in need were hampered by violence and bureaucracy, and attacks against hospitals and clinics continued. Meanwhile, armed conflict remained the principal driver of global hunger.

Protection of civilians in the era of COVID-19

Guterres notes that COVID-19 could devastate conflict-affected States whose ability to contain the virus, care for infected people, and sustain essential health services for the general population, is severely constrained.

Referring to his appeal in March for a global ceasefire to facilitate humanitarian assistance and bring hope to places most vulnerable to COVID-19, Guterres states that the multiple expressions of support have been encouraging. However, challenges remain, particularly in protracted conflicts, involving multiple armed actors and complex interests. Moreover, the pandemic may create incentives for some parties to conflict to press their advantage or strike as international attention is absorbed by the pandemic. Both scenarios could increase violence, with civilians bearing the brunt.

In these and other conflict situations, international humanitarian law (IHL), human rights and refugee law continue to apply. For Guterres, they must be respected both to protect conflict-affected populations and to support the pandemic response. Only by protecting civilians, including health and humanitarian workers and infrastructure, can we relieve pressure on overstretched health systems.

The principal challenges remain: ensuring respect for the law and accountability for its violation

Judged by the reality of last year, the prospects for effective compliance with the law are bleak. As Guterres states, civilian suffering would be significantly reduced if parties to conflict respected IHL. “However, one simple truth remains: respect for law and accountability for serious violations are the two most pressing challenges to strengthening the protection of civilians.”

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the protection of civilians agenda in the Security Council and the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, the cornerstone of IHL. Throughout the year, governments reaffirmed their commitment to protecting civilians and implementing IHL. In September 2019, France and Germany presented the call for action to strengthen respect for IHL and principled humanitarian action, endorsed to date by more than 40 States. The year ended with the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, at which States adopted a roadmap for better national implementation of international humanitarian law.

These initiatives are welcome, but as Guterres observes, we must move beyond the rhetoric of demanding respect for the law. States must take concrete steps to strengthen respect for IHL. Possible steps proposed by Guterres include developing national policy frameworks on the protection of civilians and sustained engagement with non-State armed groups – both of which were recommended in his 2018 and 2019 protection reports.

Guterres welcomes the ongoing efforts of States to develop a political declaration to address the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and stresses “the fundamental need for such a declaration to, inter alia, commit States endorsing it to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and to develop operational policies against such use.“

Guterres places particular emphasis in this latest report on the need to ensure accountability for violations as instrumental to enhancing respect for the law. Yet, “efforts to that end remain insufficient.” Guterres notes that the Security Council has itself taken significant steps in the past to enhance accountability for serious violations, including the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as the referral of the situations in Darfur and Libya to the International Criminal Court. Important initiatives have also been taken by the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council in relation to Myanmar, Syria, and Yemen, as well as by individual States, including through the application of the principle of domestic jurisdiction.

But the current approach is neither comprehensive nor systematic. For Guterres, war crimes “require credible investigation and prosecution wherever and whenever they occur.” The report outlines a broad set of recommendations for enhancing accountability, aimed at parties to conflict, Member States, and the Security Council, while emphasizing the need for greater political and financial investment in national processes in conflict-affected countries and other States.

Protection of civilians in the new decade

Guterres also calls for action on issues that will assume increasing importance in the years to come.

First, States must rethink their approach to urban warfare. They must develop new doctrine, strategy, and tactics that recognize the vulnerability of civilians and prioritize their protection in the planning and conduct of military operations.

Second, the proliferation and use of armed drones to conduct attacks reinforce longstanding concerns over compliance with the law, accountability, and transparency, which must be addressed. So too must the legal, ethical, and moral concerns posed by lethal autonomous weapon systems.

Third, Guterres calls for action to prevent and respond to the malicious use of digital technologies to spread hate speech and incite violence; and to conduct cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, such as health and water systems, which could cause significant harm to civilians.

Fourth, efforts are needed to mitigate civilian suffering resulting from the impact of conflict on the environment; and to better understand the relationship between conflict and climate change.


As the world confronts the monumental challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Guterres notes that “the need to silence the guns could not be more acute.” Where conflict cannot be prevented or resolved, it is imperative that parties to conflict, governments, the U.N., and civil society work collectively to strengthen the protection of civilians. In very basic terms, that means ensuring respect for the law in all circumstances and accountability for violations. As Guterres notes, the tools to achieve that already exist and are available. “What is needed more than ever is the political will and commitment to prioritise the protection of civilians in order to ensure that it becomes a tangible reality for those affected by armed conflict, today and in the future.”

The annual report on the protection of civilians in conflict will be discussed by the Security Council on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m.