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Opening Statement at Conference on Protection of Civilians under International Humanitarian Law

Opening Statement at Conference on Protection of Civilians under International Humanitarian Law by Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide.

Dear Vice-President Beerli, dear Assistant Secretary-General Kang, dear regional co-chairs, dear all

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you to Oslo. The purpose of this gathering is to conclude the regional consultations and define better and more precisely how we can all work together to reclaim the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law (IHL). Not to change the law, but to make people understand, and help those who want to comply with IHL during the conduct of operations. It is an extremely important topic; for the sad truth is that despite clear obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians in armed conflict, our work together to reclaim this protection is more sorely needed than ever.

As we meet here today, the dramatic conflict in Syria is continuing unabated. Every day seems to bring news that is even more shocking and tragic than the day before. Civilians are being attacked by various parties to the conflict on a daily basis. Entire urban communities are being razed to the ground. Illegal weapons are being used. Thousands and thousands of civilians are being killed, maimed or forced to flee into neighboring countries. This conduct has appalling consequences that will continue to haunt the Syrians and the region as a whole for a very long time to come. At the same time, the challenges relating to the protection of civilians in armed conflict are in no way limited to Syria. Indeed it is only one example of the current conflict sphere and the lack of respect for civilians.

For these reasons, I am very glad to see so many different States, organisations and other actors working in the field gathered here today. Because we all have to face these challenges together, if we are to find effective solutions. Please allow me to thank the regional co-chairs for four highly useful consultations and valuable contributions.

Since we started this initiative in 2009, we have had the privilege of discussing our most pressing challenges, and how to address them, with partners in very different parts of the world. I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the co-chairs of the four regional seminars for all your hard work and warm hospitality. In Jakarta, we engaged in thorough discussions on many issues, including on the importance of ensuring satisfactory IHL training for the military. In Buenos Aires, one of the main issues was how to ensure that those responsible for atrocities are held accountable. In Kampala, we discussed how to deal with challenges relating to armed non-state actors. And finally, in Vienna, we discussed how civilians can be better protected in today’s military operations. Together, we have highlighted a number of practical measures that may be taken, many of which are included in the draft list of recommendations which you have all received.

We have met in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Europe. However, this is the first time we have been able to gather representatives of States and organisations from all parts of the world for global consultations in this context. I hope we can all take part in open and honest discussions on practical measures to improve the protection of civilians under IHL. I am happy that over 90 countries as well as a great number of organisations are represented here today.

Despite what I said about Syria, let me start by emphasizing that the situation is not all bleak. There is also good news. One positive development has been that increased international focus over the last decades has led to reduced tolerance of civilian casualties overall, and an expectation that stronger measures should be taken to avoid incidental harm to civilians. It has also affected the choice of weapons. There has been an international development, and that is good: weapon systems have become more precise. This makes it easier to fulfill the principle of distinction if you want to. This means that these debates matter. It is noteworthy that international acceptance for the targeting of objects used for both military and civilian purposes has been drastically reduced. This can be illustrated by comparing the NATO military campaign in Kosovo in 1999 and the international military operation in Libya in 2011, in which we saw a much more conservative choice of targets. Speaking only about the conduct, and while not commenting on the legitimacy of their operations as such, I believe we should recognize that there is progress out there, and that we see many more measures taken to limit the risk of collateral damage today. Moreover, past experience has also made most military actors draw the conclusion that protecting civilians is not only a moral imperative; it is also the smart thing to do, in a strategic sense. Not complying with IHL undermines the overall effect of operations.

And the very good news is that the measures being taken to reduce incidental harm actually seem to work. By imposing strict restrictions on targeting and the choice of weapons, both ISAF in Afghanistan and AMISOM in Somalia have been able to drastically reduce the number of civilian casualties. In the conduct of ISAF, there is much more care to avoid collateral damage now than in the beginning. There is progress out there, but we must also recognize the severe challenges we face.

One obvious reason is that there are still a number of actors operating in violation of the rules. How can we influence them? Those not in compliance must understand that the obligations are absolute, not relative. We need to discuss the difficult dilemmas that the modern battle space creates: not only principles, but how we do it in practice.

In parallel, relevant progress has taken place in outlawing certain weapons – for example with the Convention on Cluster Munitions – and in restricting the trade in conventional weapons. We just recently concluded negotiations of an Arms Trade Treaty. I encourage all states to sign the Treaty on June 3rd and to ratify it.

It is important to keep in mind that we are facing a wide variety of situations here, involving States and non-State armed groups. Some of the latter may act out of ignorance of the rules. Others may violate the rules deliberately. Some may be susceptible to political pressure from the international community. Others are not. It is important to understand what is motivating the different actors, and what incentives might be used to increase their respect for the rules.

Another key factor in improving the protection of civilians is ensuring that military operations and their effects on civilians are documented properly. Eyes on the ground are extremely important, also to gather evidence for future legal processes. It is also essential that information relevant for post-strike humanitarian efforts is shared with the humanitarian community, as far as possible.

At the same time, documentation is not only collected by the military. Journalists and other civilian actors contribute significantly in this regard. However, this presence also leaves journalists and civilian actors extremely vulnerable. All too often, we see that they are attacked, persecuted, or expelled by those who do not want their eyes on the ground. Only last year, 67 journalists were killed while on duty. Needless to say, this is a violation to their right to protection as civilians. In addition, the harmful knock-on effect on the protection of other civilians cannot be underestimated.

Representatives from a great number of states, international organisations and civil society organisations are present here today. We all have our own roles to play and different entry points into the discussion and we may disagree on a number of specific issues. We all agree on one thing, however, that we have to increase our efforts to protect the civilians affected by armed conflicts. We must respect and uphold IHL and define what it means in practice. And we all agree that the most effective way to find out how to do this is to talk to each other, and to learn from each other.

I hope you will all seize this opportunity to take an active part in the discussions, and I hope you will all contribute to reclaiming the protection that civilians are entitled to in armed conflict. I am looking forward to learning more about the outcome of these crucial and important consultations.

Thank you.


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