New York, NY, May 24, 2022 — Thank you, Madame President.
I speak today as a fact witness for the 30,000 staff and volunteers of the International Rescue Committee who last year served more than 35 million civilians in 200 field sites in conflict zones around the world. Their shared demand, staff and clients alike is not for new rights or new laws: it is for this body to fulfill the commitments it has made and allow them to enjoy the civilian protections they have been repeatedly promised.
The Security Council has said, many times, that protection of civilians is its business. Countless resolutions have promised to fulfill commitments under international humanitarian law.
Yet today there are 56 active conflicts in the world; civilians account for up to 87% of the casualties during war; and we learned this week that a record 100 million people have now been forced to flee their homes by conflict and disaster.
So the system for protecting civilians – diplomatic, political, legal, humanitarian - is failing
No failure is greater than the denial of access for innocent civilians to the legal right to receive life-saving aid. So this debate is more than necessary.
Every year the delivery of aid becomes harder. Not because the natural geography is more difficult, but because the man-made obstacles are more significant. IRC and other humanitarian staff are kidnapped at checkpoints, shot at by armed groups, threatened with arrest if we provide lifesaving aid to “the enemy.” And that is before the bureaucracy, the endless waiting for permissions, for visas, for documentation, for cash delivery, delays designed to frustrate not deliver, kicks in.
According to ACAPs, nearly 200m people in humanitarian need, 70% of all people in need, are living in countries with very high or extreme humanitarian access constraints.
This isn’t the collateral damage of conflict. It is not a stray bullet or a military mistake. It is often part of the war strategy - one that directly violates the laws of war. And those who complain, or expose, or campaign, whether they be UN officials or NGOs or political opposition, are often targeted for retribution.
Ukraine is the capstone of this age of impunity, but not the exception. Just last week two IRC vehicles were attacked in the DRC, leaving one staff member in hospital with gunshot wounds and other staff members kidnapped.
The Council is not responsible for the tactics of those laying siege to communities or targeting civilians or aid workers. But it is responsible for the failure to hold them to account, and to curb their illegal excesses. This is what needs to change.
We know what is needed to turn back the age of impunity.
The countervailing power of transparency, of monitoring, of contact groups, of accountability, of justice. That is what we call for today. The world needs new muscle in the drive to prevent the strangulation and weaponization of aid.
We do not call for new rights. We call for new determination to uphold existing rights.
Humanitarian access, and its denial, should be a permanent agenda item for the Council. When reports are issued and benchmarks set they should be followed up. When progress stalls or commitments abandoned, they should be called out.
UN officials have a critical role to play, from the UNSG down. Their bravery and their voice should be lauded not muffled. This Council should set a standard for defending UN officials who call out violations of international law.
These officials should be backed by independent assessments of access violations, which leave no room for political pressure to squeeze out plain speaking. The EU’s proposal to drive independent data collection and reporting through its funding efforts is welcome. Member States should commit to use this data to drive accountability efforts.
Early warning mechanisms should not gather dust. UNSC Resolution 2417 on conflict induced hunger could be an effective indicator of and tool against food insecurity and famine but is undermined by weak and inconsistent implementation, data and reporting while the world faces the worst food crisis in a decade.
Where Council has direct power over access to aid such as in the upcoming vote to renew cross-border access to Syria - it must act based on facts and law alone and reauthorizes cross-border assistance to ensure humanitarian aid reaches those in need by the most direct and effective routes.
We live in the real world. We see the constraints around this Council as well as in the conflict zones where we work. But we also look to the wider international community to break the deadlock.
The GA can continue to play a critical role in establishing independent mechanisms to gather evidence on IHL violations. Where humanitarian work needs guarding from the politics of member states, including those perpetrating access constraints, the GA should establish independent panels to take on fact-finding missions and deliver transparent reporting on barriers imposed on humanitarian action in conflict settings. Public and unequivocal documentation of the current state of humanitarian access is the first step toward accountability and diplomacy for improved access.
The UN reflects the barnacles of international relations as well as the inspiration of humanitarian values. We hope this debate shines a light on the gap between the two, and leads to renewed effort to live up to the better angels of our nature.