Wars have rules: 5 things the UN humanitarian chief wants countries to tackle so human suffering in conflict can be minimized

UNDP Yemen The port city of Aden in Yemen has been heavily bombed during the civil conflict, 2015.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


With the rights and lives of millions of women, children and men uprooted by conflict every year, the UN Security Council held a special meeting on Monday to examine ways to promote and strengthen the rule of law, especially in the humanitarian field.

Addressing the 15-member body, the UN humanitarian and emergency relief chief, Mark Lowcock, proposed five areas of action.

“Where conflict persists, it is civilians who bear the brunt”, said Mr. Lowcock. “Wars have forced nearly 70 million people to flee their homes. As combatants have resorted to siege and starvation as weapons of war, and as conflict has prevented farmers from planting and harvesting crops, destroyed vital infrastructure, and disrupted commercial trade, hunger levels have increased again, after decades of decline.”

The UN humanitarian chief cited some concerning facts:

  • 60 per cent of people affected by food crises are living in countries with conflict.
  • Humanitarian workers are being directly targeted, with 317 attacks in 2018 resulting in 113 aid worker deaths.
  • Medical personnel and facilities faced 388 attacks in 2018, resulting in over 300 deaths and 400 injuries.
  • As rape has increasingly become a weapon of war, one-in-five displaced women say they have experienced sexual violence.
  • More than 21,000 grave violations of children’s rights were verified by the United Nations in 2017.

“All of these things are having a big impact on humanitarian operations,” Mr. Lowcock told the Council. “International humanitarian law is designed to minimize human suffering in war, including by safeguarding humanitarian activities”, he added, noting the international community has a “strong legal framework to safeguard humanitarian activity in conflict”.

As the world marks 70 years since the Geneva Conventions were adopted – the internationally-agreed rules for conduct during wartime designed to protect non-combatants, including those removed from the battlefield – here are five things the UN humanitarian chief wants Member States to focus on:

  1. Promoting policies and practices to strengthen adherence to international humanitarian law

Mr. Lowcock proposed that the Security Council seek much wider endorsement of political commitments made by some countries, such as the Safe Schools Declaration, and the French Declaration on the Protection of Medical Care in Conflict.

He also called on Member States to develop policy frameworks that state which entities are responsible for the protection of civilians; establish civilian casualty mitigation measures; prevent the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas; and make arms exports conditional on respect for international humanitarian law (IHL).

  1. Deepening understanding and acceptance of existing rules of war

“Experience has shown that often, fighting parties have an incomplete understanding of IHL,” deplored Mr. Lowcock, who recommended that training be providing for armed forces and members of non-State armed groups on the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols, among others.

“Member States should help humanitarian organizations to spread such knowledge,” he added.

  1. Measures to enabling humanitarian and medical activities

To facilitate humanitarian access, Mr. Lowcock emphasized the need to establish civil-military coordination platforms or humanitarian notification systems so that humanitarian operations can be respected.

“You and other Member States could do more to advocate for rapid and unimpeded access to people in need, including by adopting clear, simple, expedited procedures, and by supporting humanitarian organizations to engage with armed groups for humanitarian purposes”, he told the Security Council.

In addition, he encouraged States to take practical measures to minimize the impact of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian action. To limit the targeting of medical personnel, he recommended that legal protection be ensured for them when they act in accordance with their profession’s ethics.

  1. Carrots and sticks to boost compliance

The UN humanitarian chief stressed the need for incentives and penalties to boost compliance with IHL.

“For example, sanctions imposed by the Security Council can be a powerful tool, and States can exert their diplomatic, political and economic influence over parties to conflict,” he said.

  1. Accountability

Mr. Lowcock told the Security Council that Governments “need to do much better in holding individuals to account when they commit serious violations of IHL.”

This includes for example: adopting legislation encompassing the full range of international crimes and jurisdiction over them; strengthening national capacity to carry out impartial, independent investigations into allegations of war crimes and to prosecute suspects; and where needed, provide more support for international or hybrid accountability mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court.

“Supporting – financially or otherwise – the systematic collection, analysis and documentation of evidence of violations of IHL is important in this process”, he stressed.

“Let us never forget that accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law is required by law,” he concluded.        

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