SC: War in Cities

Statement by Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre in the Open Debate of the Security Council on Protection of Civilians in armed conflict: War in Cities, 25 January 2022.

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to UN Secretary-General Guterres, ICRC President Maurer, and chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights, Radhya al-Mutawakel, for making the effort to attend this meeting and for sharing their comprehensive and compelling statements.

What do we hear. What do we see: Cities reduced to rubble. People displaced from their homes. Mass violations of human rights. Lives destroyed. 

Generations grew up with the harrowing images of World War II. Indeed, this was the backdrop for the establishment of this very Council. Tragically, such images are still all too common. From Aleppo to Mosul, from Mogadishu to Donetsk, from Sanaa to Gaza.

It was the reality in the past, and even more so in the present: Armed conflicts in urban areas have devastating consequences for civilians, who account for the vast majority of casualties. Many civilians, especially children and vulnerable people, have nowhere to go - but they can’t stay where they are either. 

Essential civilian infrastructure is destroyed. Development gains are reversed. Poverty, social division, and gender inequality fueled.

Basic services like healthcare, education, food systems, water and electricity are disrupted, and often not restored for years. Any significant investment in reconstruction remains elusive as conflicts rage on. Humanitarian actors trying to fill the gap, are denied access - all too often it amounts to an impossible task.

The places where children live, learn and play are destroyed. They live in fear, often separated from their families, many without hope for the future. This affects generations. It damages prospects for conflict resolution, peace and reconciliation, and sustainable development.

So dear members of the Security Council, this supreme custodian of world peace and security and the meaning and reading of the UN Charter: 

Warfare in urban areas, particularly in protracted conflicts, causes civilian deaths and human suffering. Civilians must be protected whether or not the individual military attack is considered legal. This is not just a question of complying with IHL, International Humanitarian Law

I would like to propose seven actions we should take:

First: Effective protection of civilians and civilian objects must be made a strategic priority in the planning and conduct of military operations in urban areas. We must prevent severe, cumulative, and protracted harm to civilians wherever possible. Military personnel must be made aware of the rights and obligations under IHL. Member states must develop, implement and maintain policy and operational procedures that take this into account. In my country, Norway, we have developed an extended reality tool that will allow military officers to experience armed conflict from a civilian’s point of view.

Second: All parties to armed conflict must comply fully with IHL. There must be accountability for violations. Breach’s must be reported and sanctioned. The principles of precaution, distinction, and proportionality should be properly applied to the risks to civilians in urban contexts. 

Third: The choice of weapons and methods of warfare must be adapted to the urban context. The use of weapons designed for the open battlefield, including heavy explosive weapons should be minimised in urban areas.

Fourth: Parties to conflict, and the international community at large, must ensure that civilians continue to have access to essential services like healthcare, food-systems, education, water and electricity during and after conflicts. 

Fifth: Every effort must be made to prevent displacement, account for the missing and reunite families.  

Sixth: We need to support humanitarian and development actors in adapting to the needs and vulnerabilities of the population in urban areas. We need inclusive engagement with affected communities. The full, equal and meaningful participation of women is key.

Seventh: We must ensure the safety and security of humanitarian and health workers, be they from UN agencies, the ICRC or other regional or local organisations. We urge parties to conflict to fulfil their obligation to ensure safe, rapid and unimpeded access to civilians in need.

So this is the purpose of calling this critical theme to the agenda of the Council: 

We must do more at every stage of the conflict cycle. The Secretary-General´s ‘Our Common Agenda’ sets out a good path forward.  The best way to protect civilians is to bring conflicts to an end. As conflicts continue, they inflict cumulative harm on the civilian population. This undermines the prospects for peace and security. Ensuring protection of civilians will also lead to a more sustainable peace after conflict.

I thank you.