The number of civilians killed in armed conflicts and their humanitarian aftershocks has skyrocketed, with the United Nations calculating nearly 17,000 recorded deaths last year in war zones – including almost 8,000 people killed in Ukraine alone – marking a steep 53 percent increase in civilian killings compared with 2021.
Citing the number of people killed in the war in Ukraine and Sudan, schools destroyed in Ethiopia and damage to water infrastructure in Syria, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday that “the world is failing” to protect civilians.
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“Civilians have suffered the deadly effects of armed conflict for too long,” Guterres said. “It is time we live up to our promise to protect them.”
“Peace is the best form of protection,” he added.
A UN report on the protection of civilians in conflicts in 2022 sets new highs with a 53 percent increase in UN-recorded civilian deaths and a surge in the number of people forcibly displaced by conflict.
Worldwide, the number of refugees forced from their homes “due to conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution” has reached 100 million, the UN chief added.
The terrible truth is that the world is failing to live up to its commitments to protect civilians.
Peace is the best form of protection.
We must intensify our efforts to prevent conflict, protect civilians, preserve peace & find political solutions to war. pic.twitter.com/OZ0jBl8tdn
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) May 24, 2023
Guterres, sitting next to Russia’s Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya, said research by the world body into the treatment of civilians in war zones showed that more than 117 million people faced acute hunger primarily because of war and insecurity.
In Ukraine alone, which has been battling Russia’s full-scale invasion for more than a year, the UN recorded nearly 8,000 civilian deaths and more than 12,500 injuries, though the actual figures are likely far higher.
The meeting of the UN Security Council saw condemnation traded between Ukraine’s Western supporters and Russia, a dynamic that has played out regularly at council sessions since Moscow’s invasion of its neighbour last year.
French Ambassador to the UN Nicolas de Riviere singled out alleged rights violations committed by Russia in Ukraine as well as by the Russian mercenary Wagner force in the Central African Republic and Mali.
United States Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the increase in civilian deaths shows the human toll of the war in Ukraine.
The ambassador also accused Russia of pushing millions of people in Africa and the Middle East into food insecurity by using “food as a weapon of war in Ukraine”, including blocking Ukrainian grain shipments for months.
She said the agreement allowing the shipment of Ukrainian grain from Black Sea ports, which was extended for two months on May 17, was a “beacon of hope to the world”.
Russia’s Ambassador Nebenzia claimed very little of the more than 30 million tonnes of grain shipped under the Black Sea deal had gone to developing countries and that the shipment from Russia of ammonia – a key fertiliser ingredient – that was supposed to be part of the July 2022 deal “has effectively not even begun”.
Also speaking in front of the Security Council on Tuesday was Mirjana Spoljaric, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who told members that “as we meet, countless civilians in conflicts around the world are experiencing a living hell”.
“Any minute, the next missile can obliterate their home, their school, their clinic and everyone in it,” she said. “Any week, they might run out of food or medicine.”
Alain Berset, president of Switzerland – which took up the rotating presidency of the council in May – said all parties to a conflict must abide by international humanitarian law.
“Conflicts are the main drivers of hunger,” he said.
“More and more people are facing acute food insecurity,” with most concentrated in conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and the Sahel, “or in other contexts where violence is endemic, such as Haiti”.