Statement by Minister Coveney at UNSC High-Level Open Debate on Indispensable Civilian Objects
Statement27 April 2021
I thank Viet Nam for organising today’s debate on this important topic.
I also want to thank Mark Lowcock, Peter Maurer and Kevin Rudd for sharing their expert testimony with us also.
It is twenty-two years since this Council adopted the Protection of Civilians agenda.
Since then, the Council has developed a ‘Culture of Protection’ that recognises the interconnected nature of the protection risks to civilians in armed conflict.
I welcome the presentation of a further resolution on this critical issue, which, tragically, we are now addressing with increasing regularity.
Destruction or damage caused to indispensable civilian objects including food, water, sanitary systems, health or education systems – and the critical information infrastructure that can underpin them - have devastating effects.
More civilians die from such indirect causes of conflict than from the violence itself.
We know, too, that the impacts can last for generations, making paths to peace and the rebuilding of societies even more challenging.
It shouldn’t be this way.
International law has long prohibited attacks against objects indispensable to the survival of civilian populations.
So, it is a damning indictment of our world that this Council has to remind parties to conflicts of this, and plead with them not to deprive civilian populations of food and water, and the basic infrastructure they need for daily existence.
We must ask ourselves, therefore, what we can do can to better protect civilians and the essential services they need in situations of armed conflict.
I would like to focus today on three specific points:
My first point relates to the need to support food systems and provide food security.
Resolution 2417, unanimously adopted by this Council, is clear on the linkages between conflict, the destruction of civilian objects and food insecurity.
The destruction in conflict of the assets on which agricultural production and livelihoods are built not only produces hunger. It can also be a driver of long-term displacement and other destabilising consequences.
When mills, farms, homesteads and granaries are demolished; when crops, pastures, and livestock are seized and burned; when water sources are destroyed or defiled, we are on a stepping-stone to starvation and the threat of famine and forced migration.
Starvation of civilians is a method of combat and it needs to be prohibited.
We have a clear responsibility, therefore, to protect civilian objects that act as a bulwark against famine.
An added dimension, as the ICRC points out, is that the climate crisis now defines how conflict-affected communities experience their natural environment.
This convergence of climate crisis, environmental degradation and armed conflict is likely to have deep and long-term humanitarian consequences.
My second point is that, the detrimental health effects of conflict are exacerbated by the obscene practice of attacking medical facilities and personnel.
The indispensable nature of medical facilities, medical assets, and health care workers in times of conflict cannot be overstated.
Their protected status in armed conflict is unequivocally enshrined in International Humanitarian Law
Yet, we have witnessed the grotesque scenario of doctors in Aleppo forced to work in underground tunnels. MSF and the ICRC report frequent attacks on medical facilities and medical workers, including lately in Afghanistan, the DRC, Ethiopia and Sudan.
Attacks on medical facilities have become too common and the last UN Secretary-General rightly said “when so-called surgical strikes are hitting surgical wards, something is deeply wrong”
Attacks on medical infrastructure deprive the sick and the wounded, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, the old and the young, of their most fundamental dignity, and of vital care and assistance when perhaps they need it the most.
We are also increasingly concerned that cyber operations are becoming part of conflicts that can disrupt the operation of critical infrastructure and vital services to civilians, including in health and medical facilities that are vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
The destruction and occupation of schools by armed forces represents an attack on children and our collective future.
This is especially true in protracted conflicts such as those in Syria and Yemen, where a generation of children are being deprived of an education.
These children are growing up denied the skills they need to contribute to their countries and economies, exacerbating already desperate situations.
We must redouble our efforts to prevent the destruction of schools and hospitals in conflicts.
My third point relates to the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.
Ireland remains gravely concerned at the impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and the civilian harm caused during active hostilities in populated areas.
Year after year, the Secretary General reports that over ninety per cent of those killed and injured by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians.
It is well-documented that the manner in which explosive weapons are used in populated areas has devastating short and long-term effects. The widespread loss of life and the physical and psychological injuries inflicted on civilians are simply unacceptable.
Of particular relevance to today’s discussion is the effect of explosive weapons in populated areas on critical infrastructure, such as roads, hospitals and sanitation facilities. This infrastructure is vital to meet immediate humanitarian need and for post-conflict development.
It is for these reasons that Ireland is leading negotiations in Geneva on a Political Declaration to address the humanitarian consequences arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
Good progress has been made and we are determined to finalise a Declaration that will result in positive change and I hope I can count on colleagues to support us in doing that.
Finally, Mr. President,
I would like to make brief reference to the need to protect cultural property in armed conflict also.
The legal basis for protection is strong. But the need for protection is unquestionable.
War is the enemy of art, culture, monuments and our cultural heritage.
Cultural property reflects the identity of a people, its culture and its heritage. And preserving it - in the rebuilding of destroyed communities – can be an important element of the pathway to peace.
The terrible suffering inflicted on civilians would be significantly reduced if parties to conflict complied with their obligations under international law.
A pressing challenge remains ensuring accountability for serious violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law.
And this Council has a role in calling out those States and actors who are failing to live up to their obligations and legal responsibilities as well as moral responsibilities. When we do not, we too must be ready to accept that their failure is partly our responsibility also.