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Remarks to the Arria-formula meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Unarmed Approaches for the Protection of Civilians

Speeches and statements

Remarks to the Arria-formula meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Unarmed Approaches for the Protection of Civilians

1 December 2017

There has been a welcome focus of late on protection both within and outside the UN. This has helped to highlight the various approaches to protection used by humanitarian, security, human rights, development, and political actors.

Today I would like to share with you reflections based on UNHCR’s experience in our work with refugees, returnees, and stateless persons, as well as in our role as global protection cluster lead. This work is always undertaken with sister UN agencies, national and international NGOs, and State partners around the world, including in 25 complex humanitarian operations.

It is clear that protection of people needs to be at the heart of humanitarian action – when they are caught up in the turmoil of conflict and violence, entrapped in besieged areas, or fleeing such circumstances, or when famine strikes, pandemics break out, or natural hazards wreak havoc. Among the essential lessons we have learned are the following:

First, a culture of protection is, and must be, fundamentally oriented towards people and communities. It entails advocating for their rights, involving them in decisions that affect them, understanding the deeper reasons behind their plight, and seeking to redress them through concrete and hands-on operational engagement. It must also provide the overall strategic direction to humanitarian operations and inspire the design, coordination, and delivery of services, as well as the interaction with the peacekeeping and development spheres.

Second, it means delivering concrete, quality protection services, such as prompt access to professional care for survivors of sexual violence, legal aid to ensure access to justice, registration, and individual documentation. Iraq provides an important example. Most of the civilians who fled Mosul lost their personal documentation, which prevented their access public services and ability to pass checkpoints. This was remedied by UNHCR and partners deploying mobile civil registration teams, including a public notary, for the issuance of replacement documents.

Third, effective and life-saving protection requires the identification of persons with specific needs, such as children and women at risk, and referring them to appropriate services. This can include reuniting them with their families or care-givers, or life-saving relocation or evacuation, as pursued in the Central African Republic and Libya for example. It means advocacy for, and intervening on behalf of, people at risk of refoulement, trafficking, arbitrary detention, or other harmful restrictions.

Fourth, it requires support to community-based conflict resolution through local mediation mechanisms and engagement with communities on a daily basis. In Honduras, for example, UNHCR is working to strengthen the capacity of parish committees to register housing, land, and property abandoned by those forced to flee, and working with the Government to secure restitution.

Fifth, protection means negotiating humanitarian access and ensuring that protection considerations inform every service or assistance we deliver. Building shelters too close to the border can, for example, multiply the risk of infiltration of soldiers or forced recruitment. Failing to think through properly the layout of camps and settlements can put women and girls at risk of rape, abduction, and other serious rights violations. Failure to adequately plan for WASH can lead to community tensions and violence.

Finally, we must recognize the limits to humanitarian action. All too often, humanitarian action is the only visible demonstration of international solidarity in war-ravaged countries, yet it can neither replace State structures nor the political action necessary to end conflict and build peace. Humanitarian protection actors can reinforce community self-protection mechanisms, advocate for solutions, and galvanize global support, but we cannot provide physical safety, even if our presence contributes to it. 

Similarly, we cannot deliver humanitarian assistance and at the same time carry out investigations of violations of human rights or humanitarian law, notably in active conflict situations. This invariably would compromise our access to communities in need and put our humanitarian workers at risk.

By asking too much of humanitarian actors in such contexts, we may blur responsibilities, compromise the humanitarian response, and raise undue expectations. All of this confirms the need for complementarity of roles and mandates, as well as effective partnerships. 

It takes all of the activities I have highlighted today, and more, to bring meaningful protection to civilians affected by conflict. Humanitarians have shown the will and commitment to do so in every ongoing conflict on the planet; human rights monitors have documented the violations of international law; and scores of peacekeepers pay with their lives each year. The world looks to you for leadership to prevent and end conflict. 

Thank you.