We write to urge you to use the open debate on June 26 to discuss ways in which the United Nations Security Council can more effectively ensure the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
The Security Council first recognized its responsibility for the protection of civilians in armed conflict ten years ago. Since then it has made endless commitments to protect civilians, women and children in armed conflict. Experience, however, shows a disconnect between the council's commitments and their implementation. Often, the council has failed to follow through on its commitments and engage effectively - or sometimes at all - with the result that its efforts to end civilian suffering during armed conflict have been grossly inadequate.
In this letter, we highlight the human rights and humanitarian situations in four countries that are representative of the council's continuing failure to address and prevent persistent civilian suffering in a meaningful way - the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Chad and Sri Lanka. These countries demonstrate serious shortfalls in council engagement on sexual violence, impunity, internally displaced people and refugees, and violations of international humanitarian law, all key aspects of civilian protection. They also demonstrate that the council suffers from a lack of information necessary to develop coherent strategies for civilian protection. This problem could be assisted by ensuring that the reporting requirements contained in Security Council Resolution 1820 on sexual violence and armed conflict (2008), are honored by UN field missions, by requiring that human rights reporting by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN agencies is made public, and by regularly inviting the High Commissioner for Human Rights to brief the council with information from the ground.
The Security Council's work to protect civilians requires not only better execution and more information, but also a commitment to protect civilians irrespective of the political context in which the conflict arises. Too often, the council has been stymied by its members using arguments of state sovereignty to deflect discuss of serious protection issues. Council members have used their positions to back countries for political reasons with little regard for civilian protection. During this upcoming debate, council members should commit to making civilian protection a genuine priority.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Security Council has long been committed to giving priority to civilian protection in Congo (see Resolutions 1794 and 1856) and should now ensure that UN peacekeeping forces operationalize this commitment. As the council has recognized, a stronger political response to sexual violence during wartime is crucial for civilian protection. The timing of the adoption of Resolution 1820, which provides a framework to confront sexual violence, was at least in part motivated by the council's experience with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where government forces and non-state armed groups have committed widespread acts of sexual violence.
Human Rights Watch field research has found that sexual violence in Congo has not decreased, but has actually worsened in the year since the adoption of Resolution 1820 in June 2008. In particular, since September 2008, the number of women and girls raped has increased dramatically in North Kivu, where armed conflict has intensified. In some areas, the Congolese army (FARDC) has committed the majority of rapes; in North Kivu during the first four months of 2009, FARDC soldiers were responsible for over half of the 250 cases of sexual violence documented by Human Rights Watch.
Crimes of sexual violence are rarely properly investigated or prosecuted. In 2008, 25 soldiers were convicted of crimes of sexual violence in North and South Kivu. During the same year, the UN registered 7,703 new cases of sexual violence by army soldiers and other perpetrators in North and South Kivu. Despite the widespread nature of the offenses, no senior officer or commander has been prosecuted as a matter of command responsibility for sexual violence by their forces.
Although they have a mandate to protect civilians, UN peacekeepers deployed alongside the FARDC in Operation Kimia II against rebel forces have been unable to curtail Congolese army forces from committing many serious abuses against the civilian population. The UN mission in the Congo (MONUC) has not insisted as a pre-condition for their cooperation on the removal of known human rights abusers from Congolese army ranks, including Bosco Ntaganda and Jean-Pierre Biyoyo. Ntaganda has been given a leadership role in the Congolese army despite an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, and Biyoyo was appointed a colonel in the Congolese army despite being found guilty by a Congolese military court of recruiting children into a militia group in March 2006.
During its visit to Congo in May 2009, the Security Council delegation gave the Congolese government a private list of five FARDC commanders whose troops were involved in sexual violence and who the council would like seen brought to justice. We welcome this initiative, but believe the council missed an important opportunity to publicly press the Congolese government to remove known human rights abusers from its armed forces and end attacks against women and girls.
The Security Council should take immediate measures to implement Resolution 1820 in Congo. Security sector reform programs should similarly include a focus on sexual violence prevention. The council should urge the Congolese government to professionalize the army and end sexual violence by its soldiers and strengthen the military justice system's response to sexual violence.
There has been a surge in inter-communal violence in Southern Sudan in 2009. The most deadly spate of such violence since the end of the civil war occurred in March and April 2009 when more than 1000 men, women and children were killed in Jonglei state in fighting between Lou Nuer and Murle ethnic groups. Numerous women and children were abducted and tens of thousands of civilians displaced. Reflecting both national-level political tensions and internal southern pressures, these attacks are likely to multiply in the period leading up to Sudanese elections in February 2010 and the referendum in 2011. During this period, tensions between the two signatories to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the southern Sudanese People's Liberation Army/Movement and the northern National Congress Party, will increase, and divisions between ethnic groups are likely to become more politicized.
The latest attacks starkly demonstrated the failure of both the Government of Southern Sudan and the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) to protect civilians during armed conflict. Although mandated to both monitor the CPA's ceasefire provisions and protect civilians, UNMIS has only just begun to act on its civilian protection mandate some four years after its deployment. As of June 2009, the mission was still in the process of defining its civilian protection strategy and activities.
To protect civilians at this crucial time, UNMIS should take all necessary steps, such as revising military directives and redeploying forces where appropriate, to make operational the mission's mandated civilian protection role. It should ramp up its protection activities including patrolling and other preventive engagement in volatile areas. More human rights officers should be deployed across Southern Sudan to investigate reports of large-scale abuses and offer recommendations to the Government of Southern Sudan to improve its ability to protect civilians.
In Darfur, the Security Council should do more to address gaps in humanitarian aid and protection following the Government of Sudan's March 4, 2009 expulsions of 13 international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and dissolution of three national NGOs. As well as impacting assistance to persons desperately in need, the departure of the aid organizations has left a significant gap in monitoring and reporting on both humanitarian needs and the general situation. The UN and the Sudanese government concluded an initial assessment in some locations in a handful of key sectors, such as water supply and food distribution, but there has been no systematic follow up. There also has been no assessment of the impact of expulsions on other sectors, including protection and human rights work.
In a situation where few others are able to speak, the information gathered by UNAMID human rights officers is especially important. The UN should systematically monitor and report on the humanitarian and human rights situation as a matter of urgency. Although Resolution 1820 made clear that all UN field mission reports must include strategic information on sexual violence, UN field missions, including UNAMID, have largely failed to comply with this requirement. (In its last report, S/2008/781, paras. 35-36, UNAMID purported to be able to draw statistically significant conclusions based on only 19 incidents it documented over a six month period.) The council should request that UNAMID improve its reporting of sexual violence as required by Resolution 1820 to permit the council to develop a sound strategy.
The Security Council should also press Sudan to fulfill its obligations to facilitate the implementation of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) of its civilian protection mandate. The Secretary-General's June 9, 2009 report on UNAMID (S/2009/297) observes "considerable challenges with respect to its freedom of movement and ability to implement its mandate," government obstruction of the mission's quick-impact projects and detention of UNAMID national staff in violation of the status-of-forces agreement. The council should urgently attend to these issues, which are crucial to civilian protection in Darfur.
Fighting between Chadian rebels and government forces in eastern Chad in early May 2009 underlines how the intertwined wars in Chad and Sudan are creating conditions in which civilians continue to be at risk of long-term displacement. The vast majority of the 167,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) already in camps in eastern Chad are unable to return home in safety and dignity. Generally lacking accurate information about security conditions, returnees often encounter insecurity in the countryside where armed groups commit abuses with impunity and where in their home villages there is no rule of law. This month as the annual planting season begins, thousands of IDPs in eastern Chad will brave the dangers to return to their areas of origin to supplement aid agency-supplied rations and to reassert their rights over land.
It is therefore essential that the UN peacekeeping force in Chad, MINURCAT, give priority to civilian protection, in liaison with Chad's army, gendarmerie, and police force, as part of its mandate to help create a secure environment for the safe return of IDPs and refugees. Given that MINURCAT is operating at less than half of its mandated strength of 5,200 peacekeepers and the area of operations is vast and remote, MINURCAT should focus its efforts on bolstering the rule of law in areas of return, monitoring security conditions and human rights to provide IDPs with accurate information, and patrolling seasonal return corridors and temporary returnee sites during agricultural periods.
The Security Council should assist MINURCAT to promote the rule of law and accountability for human rights abuses in Chad. The council should specifically mandate MINURCAT to partner with Chadian police and other security forces to investigate and prosecute violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. The council should also place individuals responsible for attacks on civilians on the list of persons subject to sanctions by the UN Sanctions Committee.
The Security Council's indifference to the plight of the Sri Lankan civilians caught up in the fighting between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the final months of the armed conflict this year represents a failure of historic proportions. According to UN estimates, more than 7,000 civilians - and perhaps as many as 20,000 - died from January through May 2009 in the midst of serious violations of international humanitarian law by both the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE. And yet, the Security Council failed even to discuss the issue, except in the context of an "informal interactive dialog," which precluded in advance the possibility of any council action.
The Secretary-General's seventh report on the protection of civilians emphasizes the suffering of Sri Lankan civilians both during the recent conflict and continuing today. Both sides in the conflict showed wanton disregard for human life in violation of international humanitarian law. The LTTE used civilians as human shields and forcibly prevented civilians from escaping the conflict zone. The Sri Lankan government also committed grave violations, none of which are excused by its claims of fighting terrorism. Despite denying the use of heavy weapons to council members, government forces repeatedly shelled densely populated areas, including hospitals.
It is now too late for the Security Council to act to protect the civilians killed and wounded in the government's erroneously named "no-fire zone." There is still a need, however, for the council to urgently address the continuing humanitarian and human rights crisis and help undo some of the damage that its previous inaction helped foster.
Nearly 300,000 ethnic Tamil civilians are now detained in the government's closed "welfare camps," including entire families who are prevented from leaving either for work or to move in with relatives or other families. The council should act to protect them by pressing for the rights to liberty and freedom of movement of civilians placed in government camps and basic human rights protections for persons the government suspects of being LTTE members; ensuring access to humanitarian organizations, the media, and human rights organizations to internally displaced persons and former conflict zones; and creating an international commission of inquiry to investigate alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by both sides during the recent fighting.
As the Secretary-General says in his latest report on civilian protection in armed conflict, the debate on June 26 provides an opportunity for "determined action" and "reinvigorated commitment by the Security Council, Member States, and the United Nations to the protection of civilians." We urge the council to use the debate to urgently remedy existing shortfalls in civilian protection.
The Council should act more robustly and strategically to confront the appalling conditions suffered by civilians in armed conflict in these four countries and worldwide. Protection of civilians needs to be made a priority in reality, not just in words.
United Nations Advocacy Director