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The President : I now give the floor to the Permanent Observer of Palestine.
Mr. Mansour (Palestine): I congratulate you, Sir, and your country, the United Kingdom, upon your assumption of the Security Council presidency. We are confident in your ability to wisely guide the Council’s work. I also reiterate our thanks to South Africa for its very able leadership of the Council in April.
Protecting civilians in armed conflict, including situations of foreign occupation, must be a priority mission of the United Nations, and the Security Council has clear responsibilities in this regard. Of course, the protection of civilians is an important component of the work of United Nations bodies, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, UNICEF and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, as well as of the work of many international humanitarian organizations.
The basis and guiding principles for such efforts are the rules of international law, particularly humanitarian law and human rights law. The need to protect civilians, promote their welfare and safeguard their human dignity is at the core of the spirit and the purpose of those laws. Protection provisions can be found in many instruments of law, including the Geneva Conventions, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention, which comprises provisions explicitly aimed at ensuring the safety of civilians in armed conflict, including specific provisions for civilians under foreign occupation; the Additional Protocols to those Conventions; the human rights covenants; the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; and United Nations resolutions. Additionally, in 2005, in the World Summit Outcome Document (General Assembly resolution 60/1), world leaders affirmed the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Yet, despite such legal safeguards, armed conflicts continue to claim the lives of innocent civilians, who continue to be the victims of appalling human rights violations and crimes, suffering physical and psychological harm, displacement, imprisonment, torture, exploitation, hunger, poverty, disease and the destruction of their communities.
We must ask ourselves, then, why civilians are still so vulnerable and why such violations against civilians are permitted to continue with impunity. The answer lies primarily in the lack of respect for international law and the international community’s failure, in many circumstances, to ensure respect for the law and hold violators accountable for their crimes, with a view to ending those crimes and ensuring the protection of civilians and the promotion of their human rights.
Regrettably, in the occupied Palestinian territory, the Palestinian people have been denied the protection to which they are entitled as a civilian population under occupation. There, civilians remain highly vulnerable and exposed to the occupying Power’s lethal military force and massive, systematic and grave human rights violations. Palestinian civilians, including children, continue to be killed, wounded and maimed in Israeli military assaults, which are indiscriminately launched in civilian areas, particularly in the Gaza Strip, and which, in addition to the widespread casualties and destruction they cause, have terrorized and traumatized the population.
At the same time, the civilian population suffers from the unlawful collective punishment measures being imposed by the occupying Power. The situation in Gaza is most dire, due to Israel’s ongoing inhumane siege, by which it is deliberately obstructing humanitarian access, the movement of persons, including sick persons needing treatment unavailable in Gaza, and the movement of goods, including food, medical and fuel supplies. There has been a severe impact on all aspects of life, with poverty, hunger, disease and instability rising, particularly among the refugee population and especially among children, and the humanitarian crisis deepening.
International law clearly forbids such brutality. Humanitarian and human rights law prohibit, inter alia, the killing and bodily injury of civilians, reprisals against civilians and civilian objects, the wanton destruction of homes and other civilian property and the collective punishment of civilians. Such actions, wilfully perpetrated, constitute war crimes.
The international community’s failure to hold Israel accountable for its violations and crimes has regrettably reinforced Israel’s lawlessness, permitting it to continue using military force and collective punishment against the defenceless Palestinian people under its occupation and, in essence, absolving it from its legal obligations as an occupying Power. Here, there is a clear role that must be played by the Security Council. As Israel continues to breach its legal obligations towards the Palestinian civilian population, the Security Council, if it cannot compel Israel to abide by the law, has a duty to determine and undertake appropriate measures to protect the civilian population. To continue doing nothing in the face of such crimes is unacceptable and, as we have witnessed over the years, the consequences are more than tragic.
The international community, including the Security Council, must uphold the responsibility and declared commitment to protect civilians in armed conflict. Respect must be demanded for the instruments of international law that are supposed to provide innocent civilians with protection from human rights violations and crimes in all situations of armed conflict, including foreign occupation.
Armed conflicts are disastrous, but they are not natural disasters; they are man-made. The rule of law must therefore be central to the debate on protecting civilians, for respect of international law is the key to the prevention of conflicts, the protection of civilians where conflicts arise and, ultimately, the peaceful settlement of conflicts and the promotion of human rights, human security and human dignity.
The President: I now give the floor to the representative of Israel.
Mr. Carmon (Israel): At the outset, Mr. President, allow me to congratulate you on your able stewardship of the Council this month and to thank you for convening this debate. I also wish to thank Under-Secretary-General John Holmes for his informative briefing and to congratulate him and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on their important and ongoing humanitarian work.
Israel assigns vital importance to the protection of civilians in armed conflict and is encouraged by the continued efforts of the Council and the Secretary-General and his staff in this area. We believe that all individuals should live without fear of physical, sexual, psychological and other forms of abuse that stem from or are aggravated by conflict.
The protection of civilians in armed conflict is one of the main objectives of international humanitarian law. It emanates from the universal understanding that acts of hostilities should be restricted, as far as possible, to armed forces in order to spare civilians from the horrors of war. This fundamental objective is reflected in the most basic principles and rules of international humanitarian law, in particular the principle of distinction between combatants and civilians.
Regrettably, this fundamental principle is often ignored in practice, as evidenced by the troubling fact that civilians account for the vast majority of casualties in contemporary armed conflicts. A quick snapshot of conflicts around the world reminds us of the almost daily deliberate violence carried out against civilians, as well as the cynical exploitation of civilians by their own Governments and insurgents, who intentionally choose to operate from densely populated areas, to use civilians as human shields and to recruit children for military tasks. It further reminds us of the failure of a number of States to protect their own civilians from immediate threats to life and security brought about by forces of extremism and instability.
The disturbing neglect of the duty to protect civilians in armed conflict does not originate from a lack of binding legal norms. It is the outcome of intentional and flagrant violation of existing norms. The efforts of the Security Council in this regard should be commended, above all resolution 1674 (2006), which marks a clear framework for action for all Member States.
One of the primary threats to the safety and security of civilians in contemporary armed conflicts stems from the activity of terrorist groups, as for them nothing is more alien than the protection of civilians. Terrorism, in its essence, is the international targeting of civilians, as we have been witnessing throughout the world and in our region for so many years. The abhorrent celebrations of Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip after the cold-blooded murder of eight Israeli students in Merkaz Ha-Rav seminary in Jerusalem, just recently, were a dreadful reminder of the true nature of terrorism.
Moreover, the blatant disregard of terrorists for the sanctity of human life is not restricted to the civilians of their adversary, but is extended also to their own populations. Abuse, manipulation and endangerment of civilians are at the heart of terrorist thinking and tactics. In Lebanon, Hizbullah maintains its military activity from within the fabric of civilian life. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian terrorists use similar tactics and launch rockets and mortars from densely populated areas, while turning the civilians living in those areas into human shields. Only last week we observed a dreadful demonstration of the cruelty and disregard of the safety and security of civilians by the terrorist groups in Gaza when the Israel Defence Forces found weapons and ammunition hidden in a schoolyard in one of Gaza’s neighbourhoods.
In Gaza, we have further seen the violence against Israel accompanied by manipulative activity orchestrated by Hamas to prevent the supply of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian civilians under its control and responsibility. Hamas is deliberately targeting those crossings that Israel uses in order to transfer the humanitarian supplies, and afterwards allocates the supplies for its own terrorist means, instead of allowing their distribution among the civilians who really need them. In this case, civilians are not merely used as shields to mask acts of violence, but they are deliberately deprived of humanitarian assistance. They are, in fact, held hostage by terrorism.
Hamas’s violent activity, aimed at blocking humanitarian aid to the citizens of Gaza, constitutes a manifest violation of international humanitarian law. It is regrettable that this malicious tactic was not specifically mentioned in today’s comprehensive briefing by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs among the other illegal constraints that violate international law that were mentioned.
The tactics of terrorist groups, a few of which I have just alluded to, present a great challenge to those States that struggle to protect their civilians from the threat of terrorism. Our foremost obligation as a nation is to protect our civilian population from violence. Yet, we must also take great pains to minimize any harm to other civilian populations, thereby preserving the fundamental values and principles that define us as a nation, which we proudly embrace. All States must act to strike a proper balance between their obligations to fight terrorism and protect their citizens and their responsibilities under international humanitarian law.
The protection of civilians in armed conflict is a common interest of the international community, and much more can and should be done to achieve this shared commitment. Israel recognizes that it is the duty of all States first and foremost to protect their civilians from all harm. Equally important is the obligation incumbent upon all States to ensure that intentional attacks against civilians are not launched from their own sovereign territory.
When sovereign States fail to govern responsibly according to their duties under international law, terrorists and other non-State actors seek to take advantage of the void. Similarly, when States support terrorist groups by providing safe haven, weapons, training and financing, they should bear responsibility for the actions of those groups and be held accountable for violations of international law.
The international community must respond firmly to illegal threats to the safety and security of civilians, as its choice to firmly address those situations now could save the lives of countless civilians in the future. The failure to hold accountable those armed groups that abuse the protected status of civilians and thereby endanger civilian lives will only encourage terrorist groups to increase their reliance on those reprehensible tactics.
The President : I now give the floor to the representative of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Mr. Ja’afari (Syrian Arab Republic) (spoke in Arabic ): ...
In his briefing to the Council last November, Mr. Holmes referred to the deteriorating situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, and especially in Gaza. He said then that
Moreover, it cannot be denied that the occupying Power is continuing its attacks against civilians in the occupied Arab territories undeterred. That is due to the hesitation on the part of the international community to condemn Israel’s siege against the Gaza Strip, as well as its failure to call for an immediate halt to those policies and illegal practices. Even worse is the fact that, despite the statements we have heard in the Council, some States have attempted to justify such illegal acts by Israel and have prevented the international community, and the Security Council in particular, from adopting measures to halt such violations.
We would like to point out that the Charter of the United Nations does not grant States the right to violate the rights of civilians, including those living under the yoke of occupation, under the pretext of self-defence. The Charter establishes specific and clear responsibilities for occupying Powers under both international and international humanitarian law as regards humanitarian issues and other issues relating to peoples under occupation. The international community, including the Security Council, should assume its clear obligations in that regard. We must take immediate tangible steps to implement international law free from double standards and in a way that maintains the Council’s credibility in the maintenance of international peace and security.
The situation of the Syrian population living in the occupied Golan is not much different from that of the Palestinian people. The Israeli occupying Power is continuing its policy of forced displacement and expulsion, as well as the seizure of the private property of Syrian citizens in the Golan. Israel is also continuing to confiscate land and to expand settlements in occupied Syrian Golan. Israel’s new settlements council in the Golan won the approval of the occupying Power to begin to construct a new tourist resort on 40 dunums of land near the Israeli settlement of “In Am”, which was established in Syria’s Wadi Nakhil Al-Tiba region. The settlements council, in cooperation with the extremist religious settlement of Unitan, has devised a plan to attract thousands of settlers in order to increase their numbers in the Syrian Golan to over 50,000.
Israel is continuing its policy of suppressing Syrian civilians in the occupied Syrian Golan, illegally imprisoning and detaining them in conditions that threaten their lives. I should like to refer to the cases of Syrian citizens held as prisoners of war, namely, Bishr Al-Maqt and Sitan Al-Wali, the latter having had a nephrectomy, which is a surgical procedure to remove a kidney that is due to a tumour. My Government has called upon the Secretary-General, the Red Cross and other concerned international parties to intervene to save their lives. I would like to remind the Council, in this context, that Syrian prisoner of war Hael Abu Zayd had suffered from similar symptoms, which led to his death from cancer in 2005.
Therefore, we once again call upon the United Nations and the Security Council to pressure Israel to release those prisoners of war without delay, including Syrian journalist Atta Farhat, who was detained by Israel because of his nationalist activities as a journalist.
In the same context, Israel persists in its policies that aim to cut all forms of contact and communications between members of Syrian families separated by the occupation. In addition, on 15 April 2008, Israeli authorities confiscated the Syrian identification cards that had been given to Damascus University students from the occupied Syrian Golan during their trips home to their towns and villages. Syria calls upon the Council, with a view to giving credibility to this discussion, to pressure Israel to permit the immediate resumption of visits by Syrian citizens living in the occupied Syrian Golan to Syria proper, through the Quneitra crossing point. Since Israel is an occupying Power and a party to the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, it is incumbent on it to implement the Convention’s articles 25, 26, 30 and 142, as well as article 74 of the first Additional Protocol to it, in order to allow and facilitate family visits of persons in the occupied territories.
My country has sent letters in this regard to the Secretary-General and the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and to international governmental and non-governmental organizations to intervene to help to solve the problem of permitting Syrian citizens from the occupied Syrian Golan to visit their families. We are full of hope that those parties will translate the positions that we have heard in this discussion into facts on the ground, particularly the positions with a firm basis in international law.
Speaking of international law, the Israeli occupation of the Golan is a two-fold occupation giving rise to two crimes because Israel not only occupied the Syrian Golan in 1967, but also issued a provocative and unjust decision to annex it. That decision was unanimously rejected by the Security Council in its resolution 497 (1981), which decided that Israel’s annexation decision was null and void and that called upon Israel to rescind it forthwith.
Finally, despite the great importance that the Syrian Arab Republic attaches to the Council’s consideration of the issue of civilians in armed conflicts, I call on the Council to address the issue of civilians suffering under the yoke of foreign occupation in Palestine and the Golan with equal seriousness and momentum, and in an objective and impartial manner, free from the use of double standards. We also call on the Council to undertake an in-depth study of the reason for the suffering of those civilians, namely the Israeli occupation.
The President: I now give the floor to the representative of Peru.
Mr. Voto-Bernales (Peru) (spoke in Spanish ): ...
The risk situations that are faced by civilian populations in conflict situations, for example, in Somalia, Palestine, Iraq, Darfur, Chad, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to mention but a few, show that despite the good intentions of the international community, the Security Council and even the Governments concerned, the civilian population is still largely defenceless. In this respect, Peru believes that the Security Council must continue to promote effective and feasible actions in order to guarantee the protection of civilians in armed conflicts as well as those of internally displaced persons and refugees.
Mr. Al-Jarman (United Arab Emirates) (spoke in Arabic ): ...
In our opinion, that non-compliance requires that the international community, particularly the Council, reconsider the standards for observing the measures for protection of civilians during armed conflicts according to resolution 1674 (2006). The resolution recognizes not only the primary responsibility of States for protecting their civilians, but also the joint responsibility of the international community to help States shoulder their responsibility in this respect. Therefore we affirm the importance of the following points.
First, we must strengthen the Council’s important and coordinated international role in cooperation with the Secretariat’s various specialized departments and agencies and United Nations bodies such as the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and the Human Rights Council, particularly in taking effective, prompt and decisive action to prevent civilian suffering in conflict zones and in creating a safe environment for civilians as a priority in cases of armed conflict and as one of the priorities for the Council’s work in maintaining international peace and security and building peace in accordance with the Charter. In that regard, we stress the importance of developing mechanisms for observing and monitoring practices against civilians during armed conflicts and procedures for urging all States and parties to conflicts to ensure their compliance with their commitments with regard to the non-targeting of civilian populations and the protection of their property and legitimate interests, without double standards. Procedures should include full respect for the sovereignty of States and non-interference in their internal affairs and should not prejudice the specificities of their cultures and beliefs.
Secondly, we affirm the need to set up a strengthened, humane and unconditional international strategy for relief and assistance, to be sustained by adequate resources and the necessary political support based on neutrality, objectivity and justice. Such a strategy should be implemented by the United Nations bodies, organs, committees and humanitarian agencies in cooperation with regional, subregional and non-governmental organizations, to secure humanitarian corridors and provide the necessary relief and humanitarian assistance to reduce the suffering of people affected by conflicts. According to the provisions of international law, the plans and programmes of this strategy should not be linked to the settlement of conflicts, as is the case in the occupied Palestinian territories.
In this connection, we call upon the international community to take the necessary measures to protect the Palestinian civilians from collective punishment and from the occupying Power’s daily excessive violent measures against them. We appeal to it to exert the necessary pressure on Israel to oblige it to comply fully with its commitments, as set out in the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. We urge Israel to lift the inhumane and illegal blockade imposed on the Palestinian territories since 2006, especially on the crossing points of the Gaza Strip, and to end its arbitrary and unjustified constraints on access by tens of thousands of Palestinians to humanitarian assistance, including fuel and water, food aid and other basic assistance.
The President : I now give the floor to Under-Secretary-General John Holmes to respond to the comments made.
Mr. Holmes : ...
Many speakers referred to the problems in the occupied Palestinian territory, and in particular to the problems in Gaza. Let me repeat that we certainly still believe that there is a tragic situation in Gaza. We continue to appeal to Israel to relax the restrictions that it has put in place. Those restrictions have been described by many, including myself, as a kind of collective punishment. We hope that that can be brought to an end so as to allow Palestinians to live and breathe rather more than they have the chance of doing at the moment.
At the same time, it is clear that the indiscriminate rocket attacks from Gaza should stop. It is also particularly clear, at least to me, that the particularly cynical and unacceptable attacks against the crossing points by Hamas, or from within Gaza, are something that we should really focus on and try to prevent, because they simply cannot possibly be seen as helping the local Gaza population.
The President : Thank you very much, Mr. Holmes, for your briefing. It has been extremely helpful that you have been here for as much of today as you could have been. Thank you as well for the time you have taken to respond to many of the comments that have been made during the course of the debate.
Following consultations among the members of the Security Council, I have been authorized to make the following statement on behalf of the Council.
“The Security Council remains committed to addressing the impact of armed conflict on civilians. The Council expresses its deepest concern that civilians continue to account for the majority of victims of acts of violence committed by parties to armed conflicts, including as a result of deliberate targeting, indiscriminate and excessive use of force and of sexual and gender based violence. The Security Council condemns all violations of international law, including international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law, committed against civilians in situations of armed conflict. The Council demands that all relevant parties immediately put an end to such practices. The Council reaffirms in this regard that parties to armed conflict bear the primary responsibility to take all feasible steps to ensure the protection of affected civilians, in particular giving attention to the specific needs of women and children.
“The Security Council re-emphasizes the responsibility of States to comply with their relevant obligations to end impunity and to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law.
“The Security Council underlines the importance of safe and unhindered access of humanitarian personnel to provide assistance to civilians in armed conflict in accordance with international law and stresses the importance, within the framework of humanitarian assistance, of upholding and respecting the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.
“The Security Council recognizes the increasingly valuable role that regional organizations and other intergovernmental institutions play in the protection of civilians, and encourages the Secretary-General and the heads of regional and other intergovernmental organizations to continue their efforts to strengthen their partnership in this regard.
“The Security Council takes note of the Secretary-General’s report of 28 October 2007 (S/2007/643) on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and requests the Secretary-General to submit his next report on this subject by May 2009. The Security Council invites the Secretary-General to provide an update in that report on the implementation of protection mandates in United Nations missions as mandated by the Security Council. The Council encourages the Secretary-General to continue to include such updates on the protection of civilians in his regular reporting on United Nations missions.”
There are no further speakers inscribed on my list. The Security Council has thus concluded the present stage of its consideration of the item on its agenda.
The meeting rose at 5.05 p.m.
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