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Being a force for good in the face of global challenges to the protection of civilians

In October 2019, before COVID-19 spread across the world, I landed at Sana’a airport in Yemen, en route to Save the Children’s offices in the city.

Out of the window of the UN plane, a graveyard of bombed out planes and warehouses greeted us. Burned out husks from previous battles to gain control over the airport.

Trails of devastation from the war continued on the road into the city. While the marketplaces were bustling, we saw massive potholes, destroyed bridges and buildings with large segments missing or simply piles of concrete rubble.

It was a stark reminder that conflict isn’t something that happens ‘on battle fields far away’ – for many it is a daily reality on their doorstep, and one important not to forget in the midst of a pandemic.

Evidence from the world’s worst warzones

Far removed from the streets of Sana’a, this week, the UN Secretary-General published his annual report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.

While for many it will go unnoticed, every year in May, the annual report provides a crucial snapshot on the current impacts of conflict on civilians – outlining key challenges to their protection and opportunities for warring parties to reduce harm and save lives.

It brings evidence from the ground – collected from places like Yemen – to help navigate the trends of war. It helps countries like the United Kingdom understand what’s really happening in key conflicts, identifying new emerging threats and outlining what will make the biggest difference in securing better protection for civilians.

What stands out this year?

The report tells us 2019 was a year of striking contrasts. There was ringing diplomatic support by states for the protection of civilians’ agenda, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the UN Security Council starting to consider of the issue. Many countries also continued to champion importance of adherence to international humanitarian law.

But the reality on the ground told a vastly different story.

Conflict continued to have a devastating impact on children. Explosive weapons used in populated areas saw civilians make up 90% of those killed and injured for the ninth consecutive year. And as the world grapples to respond to COVID-19, attacks on healthcare increased by 42% from the previous year – including the destruction of hospitals and attacks on medical workers and transport.

More broadly, conflict and its impacts continued to reverberate outward, remaining the main driver of global hunger. Ongoing violence against humanitarian workers and assets exacerbated challenges delivering lifesaving aid.

There will always be conflict, so what can the UK and international community do?

The report forecast both challenges and opportunities in the next decade – principal of which being the fundamental need to move beyond rhetoric.

The good news is, we know what the solutions are – and at its core – these represent a ‘back to basics’ approach to protection the UK and others can take:

  • Adopt and reinforce national protection frameworks (aka national laws and strategies). The UK had a civilian protection strategy in 2010, but it has expired and has not been updated since. The Foreign Office is planning to publish an updated version this year.
  • Training partner forces on respect for international law and investigative processes to encourage compliance. The UK has some of the best-trained forces in the world, and as an influential member of NATO and the Security Council, it can share its expertise and help shape the norms in this area.
  • Strengthen support for accountability mechanisms, including UN investigative mechanisms, the ICC and the principle of universal jurisdiction. Whilst the UK Government supports strong accountability mechanisms in Syria, we have seen an inconsistent approach in other crises such as Yemen and Myanmar. As penholders on the Council for both, Britain should use its political clout to push for justice.
  • Establish specific capabilities to track, analyse, respond to and learn from allegations of civilian harm. The Pentagon has asked for US lawmakers to improve its ability to track civilian casualties, other allies such as the UK must keep up.

These are also central to the recommendations outlined in RUSI and Save the Children’s report with a foreword from former Foreign Secretary Rt Hon William Hague and outlining insights for the review of the UK’s 2010 Protection of Civilian strategy.

Why aren’t we seeing improvements if we know what to do?

The crucial ingredient in all of this is political will. What we need now to turn these solutions into reality and actual gains for the everyday people in conflict is the political leadership, energy and commitment to prioritise the protection of civilians in UK Foreign Policy, Defence and Aid.

The delay of the Integrated Strategic and Foreign Policy Review – the largest review of the UK’s foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War – provides a key opportunity to ensure these commitments are embedded into the bedrock of the UK’s national frameworks and strategies.

How will it help?

While these conflicts aren’t happening within our borders, the UK remains one of the world’s leading nations in the promotion of international norms and standards.  It holds a powerful seat at the UN Security Council, NATO and other multilateral fora, where it can wield its influence.

Adopting and reinforcing national protection frameworks establishes a clear, cross government blueprint for tangible action setting a roadmap for prioritisation of key issues – that can make clear differences for protecting civilians.

We have already had stark reminders that in the face of a global pandemic; no one is safe until everyone is. A strategic approach that puts the protection of civilians at the heart of its engagement with the world will ensure that impact of UK’s power is one where children don’t have to use tanks as blackboards and hospitals remain safe from bombardment.

Ultimately, it will help the UK become what it aspires to: a global force for good.

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