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Twenty years of protection of civilians at the UN Security Council

Briefing/policy papers

Written by Sarah Adamczyk

Hero image description: A boy among ruins caused by fighting in Sana’a, Yemen. Image credit:© S.N./ICRC Image license:© S.N./ICRC
A boy among ruins caused by fighting in Sana’a, Yemen.

A century ago, civilians represented approximately 10%–15% of total casualties in armed conflict. By the Second World War, this had risen to nearly 50%, and by the 1990s civilians accounted for between 80% and 85% of casualties in armed conflict, a trend that has continued, if not intensified, into the twenty-first century. Civilians are not simply being caught up in fighting, but are increasingly directly targeted.

This HPG Policy Brief explores the current state of the protection of civilians in armed conflict (PoC) agenda and proposes constructive steps to help close the gap between law and action and prepare for the next 20 years of PoC policy and practice. It draws on interviews with more than 35 stakeholders engaged in PoC discussions and policy, including UN Security Council (UNSC) members, other UN member states, UN staff, local and international non-governmental organisations, human rights and peacebuilding organisations and key experts and academics.

Key messages

  • Twenty years on from the first UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (PoC), civilians continue to account for the vast majority of conflict casualties. The problem lies not with the current normative framework, but with the translation and implementation of these policies into practice.
  • The UNSC has a range of mechanisms and procedures for engaging with the PoC agenda along with enforcement tools to ensure compliance with international law, yet often lacks the political will to do so.
  • Protection of civilians faces substantial challenges, related both to changes in the geopolitical context in which conflicts take place, and to more specific difficulties around definitional clarity, fragmentation of the PoC agenda and the lack of inclusive and sustained engagement.
  • To translate the normative progress made over the past 20 years into demonstrable improvements in civilian protection outcomes, the UNSC and the wider international community must advocate for stronger reporting on civilian harm, more robust accountability and enforcement, consistent and transparent use of vetoes within the UNSC and implementation of national level policy frameworks.
  • Regarding UN peacekeeping operations, the UNSC should provide greater support through increased clarity in mandates and expectations, matched by commensurate resources and funding.
Sarah Adamczyk