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Protection of Civilians: Healthcare in Armed Conflict

Permanent Mission of New Zealand to the United Nations

Statement – Protection of Civilians: Healthcare in Armed Conflict

As delivered by Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen, Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the United Nations

September 28, 2016

I want to begin by thanking the Secretary General, Ms Liu and Mr Maurer for their briefings and I want to underline the gravity of the messages they have conveyed to the Council.

We adopted Resolution 2286 in May with a degree of optimism and a strong sense of unity. 85 countries co-sponsored the resolution, making it one of the most widely co-sponsored Security Council resolutions ever.

As one of the co-drafters, New Zealand hoped the strong message it sent about the need to protect healthcare workers and facilities in times of armed conflict would be heeded where it most matters – in the conflicts that are currently on the agenda of this Council.

The past few months have been more than dispiriting.

As we have heard attacks against medical workers and facilities, and against the humanitarian convoys delivering medical supplies, have increased since the adoption of this resolution.

As others have reminded us, these attacks are taking place in various places around the world. But in frequency and ferocity, Yemen and Syria are in classes of their own.

In Yemen, indiscriminate attacks, including the deadly attack on its hospital in August, resulted in MSF having to withdraw support from six hospitals in Northern Yemen. The result has been increased suffering and deaths of innocent Yemenis.

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Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for healthcare workers, largely as a result of the actions of the Syrian Government. We have seen a clear pattern of systematic targeting of hospitals, clinics and ambulances, obstructing health workers, and confiscating life-saving medicines and equipment. It has been reported that all hospitals in Eastern Aleppo have been subject to military attacks, and are only partially functioning as a result. As we have reported today there are attacks on two more hospitals in eastern Aleppo overnight.

The apparently deliberate attack last week on a humanitarian convoy near Aleppo represented a new low for a conflict that has been characterized by flagrant violations of International Humanitarian Law. Like so many other recent attacks on healthcare workers and humanitarian workers, it probably constitutes a war crime.

Such attacks show that some Members of this Organisation are willing to deliberately breach or show deliberate disregard and reckless disregard for international law in order to achieve their military and political ends. That charge applies both to those that carry out such attacks and to those who ally themselves with such states. Such behaviour is utterly unacceptable.

The Secretary-General’s report provides recommendations which we fully support. If followed, will help operationalize the measures contained in Resolution 2286, which reflect well-established and longstanding rules of International Humanitarian Law.

I want to highlight several which deserve particular attention.

First, States can and should do more to ensure that international legal frameworks relating to the protection of medical care in armed conflict are reflected in domestic law, as well as relevant rules of engagement, military manuals and other operational guidelines.

Compliance with International Humanitarian law is not discretionary. It is as binding on States as much as any other rule of international law.

Second, States must promote understanding of International Humanitarian Law by their armed forces through regular training and the enforcement of military discipline.

Third, we must get serious about holding to account those most responsible for attacks on health care workers.

Resolution 2286 strongly condemned the widespread impunity for attacks against healthcare, and urged States to conduct full, prompt, impartial and effective investigations. It is critical that these investigations are rigorous and serve the interests of justice, including the rights of victims.

The Security Council has an important role to play in ensuring that violations of International Humanitarian Law are properly investigated and, where appropriate, that those responsible are held accountable. While the Council cannot be the global enforcer of International Humanitarian Law, we must be willing to use the tools available to us when the circumstances demand.

Finally, continuing assaults on medical workers and facilities demonstrates the critical need for ongoing oversight by this Council.

We ask the Secretary-General to continue drawing attention to this issue in his regular reports to the Council. This reporting must be supported by consistent collection of relevant data, including through information sharing between the UN and relevant entities, such as the World Health Organization.

This Council should use the annual briefing provided for in Resolution 2286 to highlight key challenges and to press States to take further steps, including using their influence over warring parties, to improve compliance with International Humanitarian Law.

We owe it to all those civilians caught up in conflict, as well as those who risk their lives to save others, to ensure that healthcare workers are protected and that their neutrality is respected.

Most of all, Council members have to show by their behaviour here and in the conflicts in which they are involved that the respect of international law is real. If they do not, they call into question the very purpose of this body and their right to sit on it.

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