PRIORITIZING THE PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS IN THE MIDDLE EAST, Vol III, No. 3 , March 16, 2016
by Rj Marco Lorenzo C. Parcon
There are overriding moral, political and humanitarian imperatives to prevent the escalation of conflicts. The refugee crisis in Syria, the Yemeni conflict, and the use of rape as a weapon of violence are just some of the challenges that the international community is currently facing. These challenges raise questions on the seeming lack of effective policies and steps in minimizing and putting a stop to these atrocious crimes.
Since the dawn of the Arab Spring, armed conflicts in the Middle East have seriously intensified, affecting the lives of countless civilians. In Syria alone, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that there are more than seven million people displaced and in need of immediate humanitarian assistance and aid. The UNHCR also pointed out that there are currently 4.59 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. If a comprehensive political solution cannot be reached, the number of affected Syrians will continue to increase.
The 2015 Report of the UN Secretary General (UNSG) on the Protection of Civilians (POC) in Armed Conflict to the UN Security Council (UNSC) underlined the importance of enhancing efforts to prevent further escalation of conflict and properly responding to the violations of the parties involved through international humanitarian and human rights instruments. The UNSC also emphasized that while conflict prevention is primarily the responsibility of the national governments, the international community, as part of the United Nations, is obligated to initiate action to defuse tension and prevent armed conflicts from escalating. The Report also emphasized the importance of upholding international law and seeking accountability, stating that it should be at the top of the agenda of the international community.
Aside from government efforts and inter-state cooperation on POC, close partnership among relevant non-governmental organiza-tions, fast-tracking the deployment of humanitarian aid and the prompt issuance of a ceasefire agreement are also imperative to defuse tension. Yet, not much has been done especially when it comes to responding to humanitarian issues, particularly in Syria. International pronouncements and declarations may have been made, but prompt and effective action is what is needed to prevent further deterioration of living conditions and ultimately, protect affected populations.
Armed conflict has a human face
The focus of conflict is usually the protagonists, not the casualties. Last 13 April 2015, Mr. Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, reminded the international community that the crisis in Syria, particularly the humanitarian aspect of the conflict, cannot be disregarded. States must be compelled to act decisively and act at the soonest possible time to minimize and halt the humanitarian and social damages of the crises, among others. It must be noted that according to the latest 2015 UNRWA report, all 12 Palestinian refugee sites and most of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria need urgent humanitarian assistance. Moreover, 280,000 Palestinian refugees have been displaced inside Syria and have spilled over to neighboring countries, forcing some of these countries to close their borders. Although a ceasefire agreement was recently reached, reports show that deaths continue to rise both in areas covered by the agreement and those outside – 240 were killed in the first 10 days of ceasefire.
In Yemen, the conflict between the Government and terror groups continue to escalate, resulting in the deterioration of living conditions. The United Nations also reported that the fighting has spread all throughout the state, including residential communities, resulting in 2,795 deaths and 5,324 wounded. As per UNHCR data, 2.7 million people comprise the population of concern in Yem-en, including 2.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Sexual violence has also been commonly used as a tool of war, and making women and children the most vulnerable. On 14 April 2015, the Special Representative of the UNSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict warned the international community that sexual vio-lence is being used as a weapon of war especially by non-state actors, notably the Islamic State (IS). The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) pointed out that in Iraq alone, Yezidi and Christian women and girls have been sold by the Islamic State based on their age. IS did not attempt to conceal the act of valuation and trading of women and girls as it perceived them as “spoils of war.”
Furthermore, the UNSG’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict emphasized that approximately 1,500 Yezidi, Chris-tian, Turkomen and Shabak women and children may have been forced by IS to sexual slavery. States have been remiss in addressing this type of violence.
As stated by the report of the UNSG on conflict-related sexual violence, although political momentum has been increasing, the threats and realities on the ground are still alarming – many governments still have not been able to provide a safer and more peaceful environment for survivors to report the threat and use of sexual violence. Reliable data on conflict-related sexual violence has proven to be difficult to obtain due to the lack of services catering to sexually abused survivors or its accessibility, coupled with the prevailing insecurity of reporting such abuse.
The international community must take all necessary actions
The drive to instigate concrete and robust preventive mechanisms rests on the political will of states. The UN, also through its relevant institutions, must take all necessary actions to make sure that ceasefire agreements are reached, properly enforced, and are fully respected by all parties for the benefit of the civilian population.
The international community must then continue to pressure all parties involved to solve conflicts peacefully and constantly re-mind them that nothing will come out of war except chaos. These points were emphasized in the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2171, which further stated that it is of prime importance to establish a “comprehensive conflict prevention strategy.” This requires a multi-level approach, as outlined in UNSC Resolution 2167 which points to the important role these organizations play in defusing tension, preventing armed conflict, assessing damages and providing humanitarian assistance. The UNSG, for its part, must also make use of its good offices to verify on-the-ground information and to initiate missions to properly address the issue, thereby contribute to a peaceful settlement.
Act at the soonest possible time
The situation in Syria is of crisis proportions and the international community must act now to reduce, if not eradicate, the humanitarian costs of armed conflict. The Philippines considers the protection of civilians in armed conflict of paramount importance, both at the national and international levels, given that the country has more than 10 million Filipinos overseas. During the 2010 POC Open Debate in the UNSC, Ambassador Libran Cabactulan, then Philippine Permanent Representative to the UN, emphasized this, stating that the issue of protection of civilians has always been of special importance to the Philippines.
“International pronouncements and declarations may have been made, but prompt and effective action is what is needed to prevent further deterioration of living conditions and ultimately, protect affected populations.”
To further promote national security and international peace and stability, the Philippines can look at the possibility of enhancing its contributions to peacekeeping operations should the UN warrant such an initiative. Furthermore, the country can engage in peacebuilding initiatives especially in rebuilding a state’s political, economic, judicial and civil institutions to promote peace and inclusiveness. The Philippines can not only gain new perspectives in handling domestic peace issues, but also contribute to the professional development of its troops and enhancement of civilian-military relations.
The international community cannot waste any more time. Words and policies must be translated to concrete and appropriate action. States must take into account the humanitarian side of the issue, and that alone should be enough to trigger greater inter-national attention to the problem. The UN must continue to utilize all possible means, most especially those underlined in Chapters VI and VII of the UN Charter, both of which are focused on the pacific settlement of disputes.
RJ Marco Lorenzo C. Parcon is a Foreign Affairs
Research Specialist with the Center for International
Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute.
Mr. Parcon can be reached at [email protected]
CIRSS Commentaries is a regular short publication of the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS) of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) focusing on the latest regional and global developments and issues.
The views expressed in this publication are of the authors alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.