This is the third year that civil society, Member States, and the UN Secretariat, have joined together to highlight the importance of protection of civilians (POC). The week features a number of side-events focused on thematic and geographic priorities within POC. Last year, CIVIC had the honor of addressing the Security Council during POC week and organized and participated in several events. This year, CIVIC will be participating in a side event on POC in peacekeeping operations and the Kigali Principles.
Next week is “Protection of Civilians week” at the United Nations, coinciding with the release of the UN Secretary General’s annual report on protection of civilians in armed conflict and the Security Council’s Open Debate on POC. The week is an important moment for UN Member States, the UN Secretary-General, and civil society to demonstrate leadership and take action to protect people caught in armed conflict.
We are currently living in what has been aptly described as “the age of impunity,” where rogue armed groups and governments – at times backed by permanent members of the UN Security Council – deliberately target civilians with no repercussions. Moreover, prominent members of the UN Security Council have too often failed to allow the body to put protection at the center of its agenda and take actions that could ameliorate the impact of violent conflict on civilians. Most recently, negotiations on a resolution to endorse the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire failed, largely attributable to the United States.
As the Security Council has stumbled, communities under threat continue to lead in developing solutions for their own protection. At CIVIC, we are convinced that in order to protect civilians, we need to engage local communities, civil society, governments, and armed actors in conflict-affected countries. Increasingly, these actors are “leading the way” when it comes to the protection of civilians. In several countries we work in, CIVIC has helped build and strengthen Community Protection Groups (CPGs) to provide better platforms for conflict-affected communities to demand and achieve better protection from governments and armed actors.
The leadership of communities in conflict zones has produced results. In January 2019, members of a CPG in Afghanistan successfully negotiated with a local Taliban commander to halt the planting of improvised explosive devices along public roads, and this agreement remains in effect to this day. In Yemen, CPG members worked with the police to increase safety for civilians at checkpoints. Signs were placed before checkpoints to guide approaching civilians to slow down and follow instructions, preventing misunderstandings that could lead to the use of force by security officers.
The need for urgent, bold, and practical action on POC is highlighted by CIVIC and 21 organizations in a Civil Society Call for Action on POC. In the statement, we call on world leaders to commit to a robust and sustained dialogue with civil society on the protection of civilians beyond the yearly debate.
POC week is also an opportunity for governments to share how they are taking concrete actions to protect civilians and to make new commitments to carry those forward. For example, countries like Ukraine and Nigeria continue to pursue national POC policies. Additionally, in 2019 in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, the Sahel, and Yemen, CIVIC trained over 3,000 armed actors and members of the military on POC concepts, increasingly adopting a “Training of Trainers” approach. This demonstrates that governments are taking ownership of institutionalizing POC concepts and practices in local institutions.
POC week should not just serve as an opportunity to look backwards at progress that has been made, but to demonstrate leadership by making commitments and taking action to translate laws and norms into policies and initiatives that safeguard civilians in conflict. The Secretary-General, Member States, and civil society should commit to institutionalizing POC in their policies and practices at home and through UN bodies and should recognize, publicly support, and amplify locally-led efforts to better protect civilians. These actors can make these commitments in their statements during the Open Debate on POC, in side-events, and in other public forums. This year, POC week should be used as an opportunity to lead to protect, sending a strong and unequivocal signal that protecting civilians in conflict remains at the top of the international peace and security agenda.