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Swiss want more civilian conflict protection

A Syrian family entering Turkey - many Syrians have fled their country Keystone

At a high-level meeting in New York on Wednesday, Switzerland expressed its desire to do more to protect civilians in armed conflict – including those in Syria.

Swiss President Ueli Maurer and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that the global community is currently failing many citizens and humanitarian aid workers.

At the Swiss-organised event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly – which has been discussing the Syrian situation – he said that respect for international humanitarian law was one of the “greatest challenges” facing the international community today.

The situations in Syria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the president explained, were three of a large number of examples where civilians remained trapped in conflict zones – “often in appalling conditions of violence and misery with their basic rights violated and their basic needs unsatisfied”.

Maurer said that governments, along with other armed parties, were responsible for protecting the civilian population. However, often they did not.

“Respect for international humanitarian law, accountability for the most serious violations, such as war crimes, and unrestricted and safe access for aid workers to the victims are just three of the many challenges that need to be addressed,” he said.

This requires action by individual states, the UN system and other humanitarian agencies, in particular the ICRC, Maurer continued. The UN remained the central pillar for protecting civilians and promoting human rights in conflict-ridden areas.

“Enormous gap”

ICRC president (and former Swiss Ambassador to the UN) Peter Maurer said that over the last 15 years the UN had made a lot of progress in the area of protection of civilians.

However, there “remains an enormous gap between” those enhanced policies and the “bleak realities in the field”.

With regards to Syria, he said that the momentum of the chemical weapons discussion should be used to strengthen engagement for all victims of the conflict and to boost access for independent and neutral actors such as the ICRC.

“I think we may have come to a turning point where states with diverging points of view may have become more conscious of the risk an ongoing, or even accelerating, crisis in Syria poses,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry recently adopted a revised strategy for improving protection for civilians in armed conflicts, which should enable it to both improve the effectiveness of its multilateral and bilateral activities and to strengthen its position in particular within the framework of the United Nations.

The strategy focuses on fostering respect for the legal framework, consolidating action to assist persons in need of protection, and supporting peacekeeping efforts.

A central element is the promotion of swift and unrestricted access for humanitarian workers to victims of armed conflict.

200 humanitarian workers have been victims of violence and 87 have been killed so far this year.

The Swiss government believes that impartiality of humanitarian personnel is a prerequisite for negotiating humanitarian access.

The year 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the ICRC, an organisation that plays a pivotal role in ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence.

Source: Swiss Foreign and Defence Ministries

Early warning signs

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, underlined the importance of better heeding early warning signs of deterioration, such as growing human rights violations.

She said she had already informed the UN Security Council two years ago of the grave situation of the population in Syria and asked the Council to act. “And today we are faced with more than 100,000 deaths.”

She stressed that the work of human rights and humanitarian actors were complimentary, and like ICRC president Maurer, said that apart from better preventive efforts, effective protection needed sound and credible facts from a presence on the ground. These facts then needed to be shared in the international community.

With regards to the demand that the permanent Security Council members abandon their right of veto in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide or ethnic cleansing – a demand promoted amongst others by Switzerland – Pillay said mass violations of human rights should also be looked at when discussing this issue.

28 million internally displaced

Kang Kyung-wha, the deputy head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCA), said globally there were currently 28 million internally displaced people due to armed conflicts, 2.4 million more than in 2012.

In all, 4.3 million of the 28 million have been displaced within Syria, and another 2.1 million Syrians have fled the country. According to OCHA more than one third of the population of Syria urgently need humanitarian aid.

In terms of improving access for humanitarian actors, she said the Security Council should take a more systematic approach to mandating UN missions to secure access.

The ICRC president and Kang Kyung-wha both stressed that humanitarian organisations needed to have access and contacts to all sides and parties involved in a conflict to be able to do their job.

Boosting efforts

For his part, in his speech, Swiss president Maurer welcomed UN efforts to respond more effectively to violations of international humanitarian law and human rights and recalled how Switzerland and the ICRC had jointly launched an initiative to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law.

“The Geneva Conventions have been universally ratified and the central question of how to improve respect for their rules concerns all states,” he said. “We encourage all governments to join this initiative.”

The need to ensure accountability for perpetrators of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law was paramount, he added.

If states did not prosecute the perpetrators, the international community should become involved, for example, by referring cases to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Switzerland, with the support of 58 states, he recalled, has already sent a letter to the Security Council requesting that the situation in Syria be referred to the ICC.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR