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Opening Remarks by ASG Brands Kehris
"Contribution of Special Political Missions in the Protection of Civilians"

Protection of Civilians side events – POC week

Tuesday 25 May 2021, 9:30 am to 10:30am


Distinguished panelists and guests,

Dear colleagues,

Our common objective is indisputable: to protect those who do not participate in hostilities from the risks and threats arising from armed conflict and to protect civilians from all forms of violence – such as intercommunal violence, widespread gang violence or civil unrest.

Human rights lie at the heart of this objective. As USG Di Carlo already underlined, special political missions have an important role to play in protecting civilians, including through the work of human rights components. The effectiveness of unarmed approaches to protection of civilians is undisputable and has significantly contributed to peace missions' protection of civilians' efforts. It is therefore a privilege to be here with you today, alongside Under Secretary-General DiCarlo and other colleagues from special political missions and OCHA.

OHCHR has had a longstanding engagement with the Security Council and UN peace missions on the protection of civilians, which – at its core – is about protecting the human rights to life and to physical integrity. Some of the most severe threats to life and physical integrity include acts or attempts to kill, torture, maim, forcibly displace or pillage, rape or otherwise sexually assault individuals. In addition, broader efforts to strengthen human rights – encompassing the wide range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights – is critical to establishing a protective environment. Hence, the link between the protection of civilians and human rights efforts is clear, as they mutually and unambiguously reinforce each other.

Overall, OHCHR field presences represent an valuable source of norms, information, analysis, technical assistance and recommendations that can serve to reinforce broader UN and other efforts to prevent conflict, protect civilians in armed conflicts and everyone at risk of violence and bolster peacebuilding measures.

The core activities of human rights components in supporting Special Political Missions in advancing the protection of civilians in the short, medium and long-term include:

  • Human rights monitoring and analysis, which is key to mission-wide situational awareness, early warning and coordination, and informs critical leadership decisions;
  • Investigation into alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. This promotes accountability and enables longer-term reform;
  • Reporting and advocacy to raise awareness of key concerns and trends, and encourage parties to the conflict to take steps to strengthen the protection of civilians;
  • And finally, capacity-building activities to strengthen respect for human rights and the rule of law, including support in the area of transitional justice.

Allow me to briefly illustrate how these activities directly contribute to the protection of civilians. Human rights monitoring and investigation is an essential tool to produce independent information and analysis that is evidence-based and credible. Human rights analysis identifies where civilians are most at risk, who are most vulnerable and why. It provides a factual basis for mission leadership to make difficult decisions in complex contexts where information is often limited and access to victims remains challenging. This information often points to the very root causes of violence that are necessary to address in order to prevent the recurrence of conflicts, including through careful analysis of local dynamics.

Efforts to protect civilians are most effective when missions are able to continuously, collectively, and strategically gather and leverage this information and analysis. This supports missions to establish facts in a reliable and timely manner and to design effective protection, prevention and early action strategies. Human rights components contribute to early warning analysis through human rights developments; discerning trends and patterns; identifying groups and individuals in vulnerable situations; and profiling perpetrators to understand their modus operandi.

In this regard, human rights activities also support mission objectives through their deterrent impact. Human rights officers are often the largest UN civilian presence across a territory, including in volatile and at-risk areas, through the deployment of mobile teams and frequent field visits. The regular presence and visibility of human rights officers in remote locations can itself have a strong deterrent, preventative effect, while also ensuring that violations are quickly and credibly documented, including for future accountability purposes.

Additionally, human rights officers necessarily maintain contacts with local NGOs and other civil society actors, such as women's and youth groups, human rights defenders and journalists, community leaders. Their networks with diverse and oftentimes marginalized groups help ensure continued support among local communities for the mission's work and also its reputation.

Human rights public reporting and advocacy remains another effective means to bring human rights violations to light and to press for accountability by engaging in dialogue with parties to conflict for compliance with international law. The dual reporting line of human rights components – to the SRSG and to OHCHR – is an asset in this respect. When deemed appropriate, OHCHR can release public reports in its own name, contributing to protection efforts while enabling the mission to continue its PoC work without drawing the ire of host governments. Through engagement and advocacy with State authorities, non-state armed groups and other actors, including potential perpetrators, human rights components and the mission as a whole may secure a platform that allows for quicker and more effective interventions and corrective action.

Another tool that has proven to be effective is civilian casualty recording. Combined with human rights monitoring and reporting, it facilitates identification of possible solutions to enhance protection. It provides technical support to state authorities in establishing civilian harm mitigation measures and tracking systems that can effectively contribute to a decrease in civilian casualties. This has been demonstrated by the civilian casualty recording and reporting conducted jointly by UNAMA and OHCHR in Afghanistan as well by the more recent joint OHCHR and UNSOM public reporting on civilian casualties in Somalia. Such reports combine factual reporting with recommendations to all parties for measures to decrease the impact of the conflict on civilians.

Finally, as members of UN Country Teams and Humanitarian Country Teams, human rights components play an important bridging role between missions and their partners, both UN and non-UN, including in the coordination of activities linked to the protection of civilians. As such, human rights components play a key role in linking protection of civilian and peacebuilding efforts and, where OHCHR has a presence, in sustaining UN prevention and protection efforts over time during mission transitions.

International humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law are an essential reflection of our common humanity and shared vulnerability. These pillars of international law, together with international criminal law, remind us of the worst acts we are capable of as well as our highest ideals. As civilians continue to disproportionately suffer from conflicts across the world, entire communities see their lives uprooted, which inflicts scars for generations ahead. It is critical, now more than ever, that international law is upheld to protect civilians, ensure accountability for those who breach it, and provide justice and remedies for victims.

I started out by underlining that our common objective was undisputable: protecting civilians from armed conflict and other situations of violence. Our common objective of protecting civilians during armed conflicts and other situations of violence require UN actors and other stakeholders to work together. We need to overcome silos, including in information and advocacy, – instead putting in place coordination mechanisms and procedures, that complement and support effective leadership. Such holistic and integrated response and leadership, with human rights at the center, is also the very spirit and objective of the Secretary-General's Call to Action for Human Rights.

In closing, protecting civilians both physically and, in a broad sense, protecting human rights of those civilians, is what both the local population and the international community expect of UN peace missions today. It is also the ultimate objective of human rights work. Together with DPPA, OCHA and the rest of the UN family, national authorities, civil society, regional and international partners, we remain committed to working together to meet those expectations.

Thank you.