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Statement at the Security Council on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Alejandro D. Wolff, Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative
United States Mission to the United Nations
New York City
May 27, 2008

Thank you, Mr. President. We appreciate the opportunity provided by this meeting for the Council to reaffirm its steadfast commitment to the protection of civilians in armed conflict. And I take this opportunity to thank Under-Secretary John Holmes for his briefing and continued hard work in this area.

Although today's presentation makes clear that there have been some positive developments since we last discussed this issue, much remains to be done if the international community is to achieve an adequate level of protection for civilians in armed conflict. As my delegation has stated before, the primary responsibility for protecting civilians lies with the parties to the armed conflict and the national governments concerned. However, the efforts of the United Nations should support and reinforce that role. In situations where either the national government or the parties to an armed conflict are unable or unwilling to protect civilians, the international community can play an important role.

I would like to address the four challenges highlighted by Under-Secretary-General Holmes and the Secretary-General's report.

1. Ensuring Access

The United States shares the view that we must stand ready to help ensure the safety and security of the courageous and dedicated humanitarian workers who attempt to provide relief throughout the world. As we all know, there is a lack of humanitarian access in many areas of conflict that must be urgently addressed.

In particular, we support the goal of returning the UN Political Mission in Somalia (UNPOS) and critical elements of the UN Country Team from Kenya to Somalia as soon as it is feasible, which will help the UN coordinate humanitarian relief, and we urge all parties to facilitate the critical work of the UN and humanitarian NGOs. In this regard we welcome Somalia Prime Minister Nur "Adde" Hassan Hussein's recent appointment of a humanitarian "focal point," and look forward to this appointment facilitating humanitarian work in Somalia.

This challenge is regrettably present elsewhere in Africa. As has been necessary to state all too often in this chamber, millions of people in the Darfur region of Sudan are at the mercy of the humanitarian assistance lifeline provided by the international community, but that aid continues to be hindered by government and rebel actions and inaction despite agreements and promises to the contrary.

The hardships facing the Israeli population in southern Israel and the Palestinian people in Gaza also rightly merit the continued concern of the international community. Recent terrorist attacks by Hamas only exacerbate the plight of the Palestinian people by making it more difficult for the international community to deliver much needed humanitarian assistance and goods to the people of Gaza. While Israel has an unquestionable right to defend itself against terrorist attacks, we urge the Government of Israel when responding to attacks to take all appropriate steps to avoid civilian casualties and to minimize the impact on innocent civilians.

2. A More Robust Response to Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict.

Mr. President, my government remains gravely concerned about the ongoing and widespread use of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict situations throughout the world. It is one of the most significant protection challenges, and one that is too often ignored. Sexual and gender-based violence must be more effectively addressed, and UN peacekeeping missions have a clear role to play in preventing this violence and addressing its impact.

The United States condemns sexual violence as an instrument of policy and calls on all Member States to end this gross injustice. We were encouraged last fall by the adoption without a vote of a General Assembly resolution calling on states to end impunity by prosecuting and punishing those who use rape and other sexual violence to advance military or political objectives, to protect and support victims, and to develop and implement comprehensive strategies on prevention and prosecution of rape. The United States urges all Member States to take concrete steps to end both the use of rape as an instrument of war and impunity for perpetrators.

During my government's Presidency of the Security Council in June, in a further effort to continue progress in this area, we and others will pursue a resolution addressing the role of women in conflict, in particular sexual violence in situations of armed conflict as part of a Ministerial-level meeting on women in conflict.

3. A More Effective Response to Housing, Land and Property Issues

The United States continues to seek comprehensive approaches to resolve protracted refugee situations in all parts of the world through support for durable solutions. We also seek innovative approaches to develop livelihood strategies and to maximize opportunities for refugees, self-reliance and empowerment.

Where conflict is causing civilians to flee and seek asylum, we are actively working with other governments to provide protection to those in need. We call on all Member States to renew their commitment to uphold the right to asylum, to protect civilians from forcible return to face persecution, and to provide durable solutions for refugees.

4. Addressing the Humanitarian Impact of Cluster Munitions

The United States shares many of the humanitarian concerns associated with the use of cluster munitions expressed in the Secretary-General's report. My delegation wishes to make clear that the United States is committed to reducing the harm that these weapons can cause to the civilian population. However, we do not share the Secretary-General's conclusions and related recommendations regarding the desirability of a treaty emerging from the Oslo Process. We do not believe abandoning cluster munitions is tenable from a military standpoint or that banning them, without the participation of those states most likely to use cluster munitions, is the option that will have the greatest positive humanitarian impact.

Rather, my government believes a useful agreement that will include all the primary users and producers of cluster munitions is possible in the framework of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). Thus far negotiations in the CCW have been positive. The first two sessions have produced some real progress toward a document. The July 2008 session will be pivotal to our work, and the United States is preparing to make intensive efforts in this session. We remain hopeful that an agreement can be achieved this year.


Mr. President, the United States remains committed to the protection of civilians in armed conflict, both in connection with the work of the Council and our activities throughout the world. In this regard, we commend the Secretary-General and Under-Secretary-General Holmes efforts and for their personal commitment to help the people of Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, in particular by pushing for unhindered access by international humanitarian experts to conduct a thorough assessment of the situation and to accelerate the flow of humanitarian assistance.

Overall, the United States would like to encourage strong Security Council and multilateral action generally to deal with one key source of humanitarian crises in armed conflict: governments or actors that deliberately target or fail to protect civilians, and generally fail to respect the protected status of civilians and civilian objects.

In that regard, my government fully shares the Secretary-General's concerns about any erosion of the principle of distinction that requires parties to armed conflict to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians, and to direct attacks only against combatants and military objectives, as well as the all too frequent disregard of the principle of proportionality in balancing harm to civilians and civilian objects against military gain in a particular attack. As the Secretary-General's most recent report correctly declares, "Deliberate targeting of civilians has become more widespread."

In closing, the United States would once again commend the Secretary-General, OCHA, and OCHA's humanitarian partners for their dedicated work in life and death situations to provide assistance, and to be an advocate for the protection of civilians, particularly children, women, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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