Statement by H.E. Mr. Margus Kolga, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Estonia to the United Nations at the Open Debate in the Security Council on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict
I would like to join the others in thanking Argentina for organizing this Open Debate and see it as a sign of the Security Council’s continued commitment to address the impact and consequences of armed conflict on civilians. I would also like to thank the Secretary General and the representatives of OCHA, OHCHR and ICRC for their insightful briefings. Estonia fully aligns itself with the statement delivered by the European Union and I would like to make some additional remarks.
Unfortunately, despite the Security Council’s focus and recurring debates on this issue, the reality remains bleak: Civilians continue to account for the vast majority of causalities in armed conflict, parties to conflict frequently fail to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians, and accountability for these crimes is to a large degree missing. Estonia reiterates its concern that women and children are the ones, often most severely affected by conflict and rape is continuously used as a method of war.
Humanitarian access is a prerequisite for humanitarian actors to reach people in need. Unfortunately access is frequently delayed, impeded or denied. Estonia joins the Secretary General in his call for consistent engagement also with non-State armed groups to seek improved compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law and to gain safe humanitarian access. For example in Syria, access to people in conflict-affected areas remains severely hindered by the government as well as by the armed opposition. Estonia urges all parties to the conflict in Syria to support humanitarian workers to enable them reach all people in need wherever they are in Syria.
Not only do States bear the primary responsibility of ensuring the protection of civilians, it is States which are principally responsible for investigating and prosecuting those suspected of having committed serious crimes of international concern. Unfortunately, national investigations and prosecutions of atrocity crimes remain rare. It is therefore of utmost importance that States encourage parties to comply with international humanitarian law and support and assist states to investigate and prosecute these crimes. Such support can be provided through helping States adopt the necessary national legislation for the prosecution of perpetrators of atrocity crimes. Where States fail to take the necessary steps, the international community collectively is responsible for ensuring accountability through international criminal justice mechanisms. Therefore, in addition to strengthening domestic legislation, States that have not done so yet should ratify the Rome Statute and cooperate with the ICC.
Estonia recognizes the important role the Security Council has played in ensuring accountability at the international level though its establishment of the ad hoc tribunals. With these tribunals closing in the near future, the principal mechanism whereby victims may seek justice from crimes of the most serious nature is the International Criminal Court (ICC). The establishment of a permanent international court not only consolidated the international justice system but has led to some important reforms of judicial systems and the incorporation of Rome Statute crimes in national legislation.
Estonia encourages the Security Council to play a more proactive role in ensuring an appropriate international response when States are unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute international crimes, including continued use of its ability to refer situations to the ICC. The Council has already twice referred situations to ensure accountability for serious crimes, extending the reach of the Court. However, a referral alone is not enough to ensure accountability. The Court lacks its own enforcement mechanisms and in this regard is fully dependent upon State cooperation. Continued engagement and support and follow-up by the Security Council that is both efficient and vigorous is therefore indispensable. Estonia welcomes the Council’s commitment in the PRST 2013/2 on the Protection of Civilians to follow up on its decisions regarding international courts and tribunals as a promising development.
A prime example of where the Security Council can put its words into action is Syria, where war crimes, crimes against humanity and gross violations of human rights have for too long been a daily reality. No convincing domestic efforts have been made to investigate these crimes or to bring those responsible to justice. Therefore a referral to justice at the international level is necessary. Estonia has co-signed the petition initiated by Switzerland that was sent to the Council in January this year, requesting it to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC and we encourage the Council to actively take this into consideration.
International Commissions of Inquiry and fact-finding missions are further valuable mechanisms to verify and investigate allegations of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. It is important to link the fact-finding bodies with judicial processes to ensure accountability. Estonia joins the Secretary General in his call urging Syria to facilitate the work of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria by allowing access to the country.
Before concluding, Madam President, allow me to stress that a greater focus is needed on supporting the victims of serious crimes. Protection of civilians is a measure to ensure that innocent people are not subjected to harm but where such protections fail we must at the very least ensure that ample support is provided. The Rome Statute’s expansive victim participation and reparations framework constitutes a milestone in international criminal justice and the reparations envisioned in the Statute, including through the Trust Fund for Victims, aim to provide reparations to as wide a group of affected people and communities as possible. Successful investigations and prosecutions assist in restoring dignity to victims by acknowledging their suffering and help to create a historical record that protects against those who will seek to deny that atrocities occurred.