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Statement by H.E. Mr. Urmas Paet at the Security Council Open Debate on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict


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Madam President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

At the outset, let me congratulate Lithuania, the first Baltic State to serve in the Security Council, for assuming the presidency of this Council. Estonia welcomes the initiative to convene this timely open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts. I give credit to the open debates as a measure of greater transparency and inclusion of wider UN membership to the issues discussed by the Council, and recommend every Presidency to follow the suit. I would also like to extend my appreciation to the briefers for their comprehensive overviews. Estonia fully aligns itself with the statement of the European Union.

The Secretary General says in his latest report, that the current state of the protection of civilians leaves little room for optimism. Estonia strongly condemns all kind of violence against civilian populations and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. With great concern we hear about children being killed and maimed in Syria and women being raped in Central African Republic. The outburst of any armed conflict should be avoided as much as possible by using all measures available. The biggest responsibility to maintain stability and to find sustainable solutions that would guarantee the safety of civilians is in the hands of the given state. However, if the conflict is escalating despite all the preventive efforts and there is risk that the lives of civilians might be in danger, the international community – with the Security Council at its helm – must act. The Council has a number of tools at its disposal to promote compliance with the obligations the parties to the conflict have to protect the civilians. In addition to systematically condemning the violations, the Council can also use targeted measures against those who commit the violations, mandate a commission of inquiry or even refer the situations to the International Criminal Court.

There are numerous examples that prove the crucial significance of UN Peacekeeping Missions as the first stabilizing force to reach a conflict area. UN peacekeepers have many times had the central role in restoring peace and, first and foremost, preventing the tragic losses of human lives. Estonia continues to support UN Peacekeeping efforts. That is clearly proved by the fact that last year we raised our contribution to UN Peacekeeping Operations considerably, sending our military observers to the most complicated areas in the world. Under the auspices of the UN Estonians are currently serving without any caveat in UNTSO and MINUSMA. But the main bulk of our peace support troops are still deployed as a part of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Maintaining peace and protecting civilians is the utmost goal that requires quick and determined reaction. It is exactly why Estonia has also decided to take part with an infantry platoon in a European Union-led peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic. We remember the Rwandan genocide in 1994 when the international community reacted too late. Situations like that should never happen again.

UN Peacekeeping Operations receive mandates from the Security Council. Therefore it is also the Security Council that bears responsibility for setting realistic margins for operations. Clear and precise assessment of the situation on the ground must be coherent with the sufficient allocation of resources and operational capabilities. The clear content of the mandate is in direct connection with the possible success of the operation. Therefore in order to strengthen the means to protect civilians, the Council should remain involved also in the implementation process.

Estonia is particularly concerned about the implications of armed conflicts for the most vulnerable groups. There is a growing understanding that women and children are impacted uniquely and disproportionately by the effects of conflict and its aftermath. Today, at Red Hand Day - the annual commemoration drawing attention to the plight of children forced to serve as soldiers in wars and armed conflicts, I would like to encourage the Council to include in the peacekeeping missions` mandates the provisions for human rights monitoring, with a special focus turned on the rights of children and women. We also urge further and timely deployment of Gender Advisors, Women Protection Advisors and Child Protection Advisors to the Peacekeeping Missions. In addition, I would like to stress that the pre-mission training must cover the subjects of sexual and gender-based violence and protection of children. Bearing this in mind, I welcome the Secretary General’s “Rights up Front” initiative to make the UN more accountable for its responsibilities. This is an awaited move forward in acknowledging the crucial need to respond as early as possible to human rights violations.

Madam President,

Protection of civilians is based on the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality. Estonia has focused its development cooperation, humanitarian assistance and human rights activities on supporting the countries in most need – Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Mali, South-Sudan and Somalia to name a few.

Over the past couple of years, Estonia has supported the effort to alleviate the humanitarian situation of refugees from Syria with almost a million Euros. Recently Estonia has also provided 100 000 Euros for the effort to relieve the situation of internally displaced people suffering violence in the Central African Republic. However, we are in a situation where humanitarian agencies and NGOs experience increasing difficulties to reach the most vulnerable parts of society affected by the conflicts. With great disappointment, I have to admit that the humanitarian space is shrinking. Latest examples are Syria and Central African Republic. Humanitarian organizations and NGOs often have to make compromises in order to get access to conflict areas. These limitations function as alarming hindrances for humanitarian principles.

The Security Council needs to send a clear message to all parties in armed conflicts and remind them of their obligations. Violations of international humanitarian, human rights law, and international criminal law must be condemned. All parties in an armed conflict have to refrain from targeting civilians. They have to facilitate humanitarian operations and allow rapid and unimpeded passage of relief consignments, equipment and personnel to all affected populations. Consent to such relief operations should not be arbitrarily withheld. The protection of organizations and institutions providing humanitarian assistance, as well as humanitarian workers, assets and goods must be ensured at all times. It is important to set up simplified, expedited mechanisms, such as registration of humanitarian organizations and project agreements; exemption of humanitarian goods and workers from fees, duties or taxes; in-country movement of personnel, goods and visas. Parties to conflict have to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance through the most effective ways, including where appropriate across lines or across borders. I agree that it is important for national and international humanitarian actors to ensure a more coordinated approach to negotiating, securing and maintaining access. Estonia welcomes the initiative of Switzerland to produce legal and operational guidance and training materials on this matter.

Our goal must be to prevent conflicts, grave crimes and human rights violations. We have to strive for a deterrence-centered approach, but whenever it is clear that unacceptable war crimes and violations of human rights have taken place, we must act timely and bring the persons responsible for atrocities to justice. By ensuring that there are effective mechanisms for investigating and prosecuting crimes, we strengthen accountability and decrease the possibility that similar inhumane injustices will happen again. National governments have the primary responsibility to adopt and adjust their domestic legislation to ensure prosecution of persons suspected of grave crimes. Building up strong and effective legislation is a prerequisite for protecting witnesses and victims – whose cooperative engagement in court procedures is crucial. States must also ensure that their investigative and judicial infrastructure has the knowledge and capacity to prosecute atrocity crimes. Witness protection programs must be in place to ensure safety of those brave enough to testify.

But in addition to national mechanisms, the international criminal system must also be constantly strengthened. Especially significant is the role of International Criminal Court, which has the power to deter further atrocities or prevent their escalation. But the ICC’s jurisdiction is limited to the territory of States parties unless the Security Council is willing to refer the matter to the ICC. In other words, the ICC can meet its full potential only when national governments are determined to cooperate with the Court, but also only if the Security Council is willing to enforce that cooperation and to refer all appropriate situations consistently. Otherwise civilians would be unequally protected in armed conflicts throughout the world.

Madam President,

To sum up, allow me to repeat the five crucial points for Estonia in today’s debate. First – the protection of civilians must remain the central idea behind the Peacekeeping Operations. Estonia remains determined to support Peacekeeping efforts. Second – the mandates of Peacekeeping Operations must set achievable goals and should be adequately resourced. Third – protecting civilians means protecting human rights and vice versa. The Secretary General`s “Rights up Front” initiative is a step in the right direction. Fourth – violations of international humanitarian and human rights law must be condemned and the protection of humanitarian workers must be ensured at all times. Humanitarian assistance remains a crucial part of protecting civilians. Fifth – Former Estonian President Mr. Lennart Meri said once – “Crimes against humanity are crimes against humanity regardless who commits them.” Therefore those who are responsible for genocide, crimes against the humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international criminal law must be brought to justice. It is only possible when national governments adopt corresponding legislation, empower their domestic judicial systems, ensure protection of witnesses, and support and cooperate with the ICC.  It is the responsibility of all states to put an end to atrocities and to impunity.

Thank you for your attention!


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