New Briefing Examines the Promotion of IHL at the UN Security Council

12 November 2020

Titled Room for Manoeuvre? Promoting International Humanitarian Law and Accountability While at the United Nations Security Council: A Reflection on the Role of Elected Members, our new Briefing assesses the United Nations (UN) Security Council’s (UNSC) recent engagement with international humanitarian law (IHL) and accountability.

Researched and written by our former researcher Emilie Max, the Briefing results from traditional legal research and informal interviews with about 30 experts – scholars, diplomats as well as representatives of the UN, NGOs and other relevant international organizations.

A Much-Needed Analysis

In recent years, the UNSC has been increasingly dealing with IHL through specific debates as well as thematic and/or country resolutions. This involvement culminated in 2019 with the successive celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of the agenda item on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (the so-called ‘PoC agenda’) and the seventieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

‘Humanitarian considerations and references to existing rules of international law are not immune to the inherently political dynamics prevailing within the UNSC. Compared to other thematic issues such as the rule of law, human rights in the era of counterterrorism or individual criminal accountability, little attention has been paid to the influence of such dynamics and the consistency – or lack thereof – of the UNSC’s practice in relation to IHL’ underlines Emilie Max.

‘Implementation of IHL remains a challenge for the international community. The fact that the UNSC has started to increasingly deal with IHL raises several questions as to whether States can put political dynamics aside to promote IHL and accountability’ explains Professor Gloria Gaggioli, Director of the Geneva Academy.

A wide view of the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.

‘By providing an in-depth and timely analysis as to how the UNSC has recently dealt with IHL, this research should become a reference not only for legal and humanitarian advisers to permanent missions to the UN in New York but also to any stakeholder interested in the implementation of IHL’ she adds.

The Role of Elected Members

Much of the prevailing discourse on the UNSC's dynamics tends to focus on the organ’s five permanent members – China, Russia, the United States, France and the United Kingdom – to the exclusion of the other elected members; the so-called ‘E10’. This Briefing notably spotlights the role of those members in the hope of encouraging their future meaningful and principled involvement in favour of humanitarian concerns and international law.

‘Although elected members are dependent on the UNSC’s procedural and political dynamics, including the preponderant role of the P5, they often champion international law and are interested to find some room for manoeuvre in those issues. This publication notably assesses whether - and if so, how – this can be done while ensuring the integrity of the rules of IHL’ says Emilie Max.

Focus on Concrete Situations

After some preliminary remarks, the Briefing lays out the institutional framework relevant to the functioning of the UNSC and the specificities associated with non-permanent membership.

Moving from the abstract to the concrete, it then assesses the UNSC’s recent practice on IHL and accountability in relation to the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic, the PoC agenda, other relevant thematic agenda items (Children and Armed Conflict and Women, Peace and Security, respectively), as well as counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes. The issue of accountability is examined transversally, and lessons learned are systematically drawn from each of the above-mentioned sections.

A set of Guiding Questions for a Principled IHL Engagement at UNSC

The publication highlights that recent positive developments in the field of IHL are often attributed to the initiative and engagement of elected members – who are bridging divides between permanent members, conducting negotiations as inclusively as possible and consulting with other interested stakeholders. It also points to the fact that securing a UNSC’s outcome can also imply significant compromises (on substance) to the detriment of elements on accountability, consistency in wording and/or the unity of certain agenda items,

‘Under the current political circumstances, bridging the gap between UNSC rhetoric and action thus remains, more than ever, a challenge. Future and prospective elected members interested should be encouraged in promoting humanitarian concerns and a rules-based international order where violations are met with consequences. Their commitment (and corresponding positioning) need to rest on a carefully elaborated policy cognizant of potential opportunities and associated risks – both for their own reputations and for the integrity of the legal frameworks at hand. This is necessary to ensure a principled, coherent and consistent approach when colliding with high-stakes realpolitik’ stresses Emilie Max.

A wide view of the Security Council Chamber as Zahir Tanin (shown on screen), Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), briefs the Council via video conference.

The publication offers a set of guiding questions, framed in very general terms, to ensure and develop a principled IHL engagement in the formulation of policies at the UNSC.

Launch

This publication will be launched both in Geneva and New York at the beginning of 2021.

MORE ON THIS THEMATIC AREA

Map of the RULAC online portal with the pop-up window on the past armed conflicts in Mexico News

Mexico: Declassification of the Three Armed Conflicts Involving Drug Cartels on RULAC

12 December 2022

While the armed violence between the government and the drug cartels, as well as between cartels themselves, remains high, it has become increasingly challenging to attribute these instances of violence and clashes to specific armed groups.

Read more

Dr Erica Harper in front of Villa Moynier News

Erica Harper Joins the Geneva Academy as Head of Research and Policy Studies

29 August 2022

The Geneva Academy is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr Erica Harper as its new Head of Research and Policy Studies. Dr Harper succeeds Felix Kirchmeier who remains the Executive Director of the Geneva Human Rights Platform.

Read more

Aleppo, Syria: great Umayyad mosque. Destructions. Event

Book Launch: Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities

1 March 2023, 18:15-20:00

At this book launch, one of the book’s editors will discuss cultural heritage and mass atrocities with contributors to the book and specialists.

Read more

Syria, Harasta, destroyed buildings Training

Advanced IHL Seminar for Academics and Policymakers

28 August - 1 September 2023

Organized by the Geneva Academy and the ICRC, the Advanced IHL seminar for academics and humanitarian policymakers aims to enhance the capacity of academics to teach and research IHL and contemporary issues arising during armed conflict, while also equipping policymakers with an in-depth understanding of ongoing legal debates and their relevance to decision-making.

Read more

Short Course

The Law of Non-International Armed Conflicts

16 March - 4 April 2023

This online short course discusses the protection offered by international humanitarian law (IHL) in non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) and addresses some problems and controversies specific to IHL of NIACs, including the difficulty to ensure the respect of IHL by armed non-state actors.

Read more

Computer screen with warning: civilian infrastucture: do not attack Project

Digitalization of Conflict Joint Initiative: Humanitarian Impact and Legal Protection

Started in September 2020

This project will explore humanitarian consequences and protection needs caused by the digitalization of armed conflicts and the extent to which these needs are addressed by international law, especially international humanitarian law.

Read more

Cover page of the study Publication

From Words to Deeds A Study of Armed Non-State Actors’ Practice and Interpretation of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Norms: Research and Policy Conclusions

published on September 2022

Annyssa Bellal, Pascal Bongard, Ezequiel Heffes

Read more