Why does the UN seem to fail to protect civilians in conflict?

This is a painful admission of failure for the international community. It has failed to protect civilians, the innocent victims of armed conflicts around the world. The number of victims of combat and its humanitarian consequences has risen sharply in 2022. “The truth is terrible: the world is failing to fulfill its commitments to protect civilians, commitments enshrined in international humanitarian law”, thus regretted on Tuesday the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres.

Ukraine, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Sahel, Somalia, Burma, Afghanistan, Syria… How to explain the impotence of organizations as influential as the UN in these countries? Why can’t the international community, and the West in the front line, pose as a shield against the violence suffered by the populations? International humanitarian law is now showing its limits as it is violated by certain powers, but is it therefore useless?

Blockages in the Security Council

In the case of armed conflicts, the UN Security Council has the means to act. He can, for example, decide on a mandate for a peacekeeping operation, this is the mission of blue helmets. It can also form an international coalition, as was the case in Syria to fight against the Islamic State in 2014. Except that the Security Council needs the agreement of the five permanent members (France, United States, Kingdom United, Russia and China) who also have the right of veto. This mandate to protect civilians is already “very complicated to put in place, when it is obtained because China and Russia are very reluctant and are in an offensive position to block everything”, explains Camille Bayet, doctoral student in political science at the center Thucydide of the Panthéon Assas University, in 20 minutes.

A blockage which was amplified with Russia’s entry into the war. The latter is not going to shoot itself in the foot by authorizing a mission in Ukraine. It’s a fact, “when a country invades its neighbour, it doesn’t care much about civilians”, emphasizes to 20 minutes Isabelle Dufour, director of strategic studies at Eurocrise. Since 2011, Beijing and Moscow have been reluctant to agree. The two friendly countries had agreed to the formation of a US-led humanitarian coalition in Libya. As a result, they felt betrayed when this coalition used intervention to ultimately assassinate Muammar Gaddafi. “It’s also because of that that we never intervened in Syria,” adds Camille Bayet.

The difficult mission of peacekeeping

And even when we manage to intervene, as has been the case in the past in Rwanda, in the former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, in Mali, the mission has often ended in failure. “These are conflicts that the armies cannot manage because the solutions are not military; a coherent strategy is needed for a long-term state, and we cannot manage to do so, sums up Isabelle Dufour. There is an acknowledgment of the failure of peacekeeping. »

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A difficult mission which is added to a lack of will on the part of the States. “We could imagine blue helmets in Burma, but are we ready to send our soldiers there? After so many failures and very complicated work over the years, one wonders what the rhyme is. In Sudan, for example, no militarily credible country wants to risk the skin of its soldiers, ”insists Isabelle Dufour.

International law, a “soft” law

It’s not so much the current weaponry that causes civilian casualties, but the use that is made of it. “Today, we are in a very precise industrial and technological dynamic, there is nothing more precise than the drone”, explains Camille Bayet. So targeting hospitals, schools or using the double strike technique, which consists of bombing an area that has just been attacked to cause even more victims, is a deliberate act.

However, international humanitarian law (IHL) tends to limit the damage to civilians. And targeting civilians is strictly prohibited, it’s a war crime. But “our application of this international humanitarian law is never perfect, it is a soft right, a right of regulation, there is no authority above the States which can enforce it”, notes Isabelle Dufour . It is certainly imperfect, but for Camille Bayet, it remains essential. “If he didn’t exist, wouldn’t it be worse?” she wonders.

Citizen mobilization, a means of pressure

The difficulty of protecting civilians also comes from the “civilianization of war”, according to Julia Grignon, scientific director of the Institute for Strategic Research at the Military School (Inserm) and professor at the University of Laval. “Today, they are closest to the conflicts, as in Bakhmout or Mariupol, and sometimes they are the very stakes of the conflict”, she develops. To prevent them from being targeted, there are still economic, diplomatic or military sanctions even if “these are not completely effective means”, concedes Julia Grignon.

Unfortunately, the year 2023 does not look so much better than 2022. Tigray, Sudan, Burma, Armenia, not to mention the war in Ukraine which will continue to claim victims for years even if the fighting takes end… “The outlook is not good,” warns Isabelle Dufour. Julia Grignon then calls for “exerting pressure on our governments so that they act” and even if the situation is “a little hopeless, we must remain mobilized. »

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