World failing to protect civilians caught in conflict: UN chief

Nearly 17,000 civilian deaths were recorded across 12 conflicts around the world last year, a 53% rise.

A man walks by a house hit in recent fighting in Khartoum, Sudan
A man walks by a house hit in recent fighting in Khartoum, Sudan [File: Marwan Ali/AP Photo]

The world is failing to protect civilians as the death toll of people caught up in conflicts surged more than 50 percent from the previous year, the United Nations chief said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council “to live up to its commitments” to protect civilians as enshrined in international humanitarian law, citing examples of civilian deaths in Ukraine and Sudan, schools destroyed in Ethiopia, and damage to water infrastructure in Syria.

In 2022, the UN said there was a 53 percent increase in civilian deaths compared with 2021, with nearly 17,000 civilian deaths recorded across 12 conflicts.

Guterres said UN research into war zones showed 94 percent of victims from “explosive weapons” in populated areas were civilians last year, while more than 117 million people faced acute hunger primarily because of war and insecurity.

“Law overlooked is law undermined. We need action and accountability to ensure it is respected. And that depends on political will,” said Guterres, sitting next to Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya. “Peace is the best form of protection.”

In Ukraine, which Russia invaded more than a year ago, the UN recorded nearly 8,000 civilian deaths and 12,500 injuries. However, it added actual figures were likely higher.

Worldwide, the number of refugees forced from their homes because of “conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution” has reached 100 million, the UN boss added.

‘Break the pattern’

Swiss President Alain Berset, who chaired Tuesday’s meeting, said as the depository state for the Geneva Conventions and the home of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), respect for international humanitarian law was a longstanding priority for the country.

The number of people facing acute food insecurity rose to 258 million last year, which he noted was 30 times the population of New York City.

More than two-thirds live in conflict zones, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, the Sahel, Somalia, Myanmar and Afghanistan, or in countries where violence is widespread such as Haiti, Berset said.

He urged all countries to implement a 2018 UNSC resolution against the use of starvation as a method of warfare and unlawfully denying humanitarian access and life-saving supplies to civilians, as well as a 2021 resolution condemning unlawful attacks that deprive civilians of essential services.

Medical workers transfer a wounded civilian.
Medical workers transfer a wounded civilian from a train to an ambulance in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv [File: Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP]

Meanwhile, the president of the ICRC said during recent visits to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East she saw a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation with “entire regions trapped in cycles of conflict without an end in sight”.

Mirjana Spoljaric said many of the conflicts are compounded by climate shocks, food insecurity, and economic hardship.

She issued an urgent call for countries to protect civilians and critical infrastructure in urban areas, pointing to large-scale destruction in Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. She also urged that food be provided to all civilians in conflict areas, and for access to be given to humanitarian workers.

“We need to break the pattern of violations, and this can be done through strong political will and sustained action,” Spoljaric said.

Nicolas de Riviere, France’s ambassador to the UN, singled out alleged rights violations committed by Russia in Ukraine and by the Russian mercenary Wagner Group in the Central African Republic and Mali.

“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.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies