European Regional Workshop on “Reclaiming the Protection of Civilians under International Humanitarian Law”
Opening Remarks by H.E. Michael Spindelegger, Vice-Chancellor and Federal Minister for European and International Affairs, Austria
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Dear Foreign Minister,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honour and pleasure for me to welcome you to this Workshop here in Vienna, organized jointly by the Austrian and Norwegian foreign ministries. A particularly warm welcome goes to my colleague Espen Barth Eide.
[Why do we need to get engaged – current crises]
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Just last week I was visiting Afghanistan, a country with a long and sad history of armed conflict, extremism and grave lack of protection of civilians. Equally, the on-going crises in Syria, Mali and the Sahel region are leading to thousands of deaths, massive displacement and grave violations of human rights.
In Syria, around 70 000 people have lost their lives so far and more than 700,000 Syrians are now refugees in neighbouring countries.
In Mali, an estimated 230,000 people are displaced inside the country and over 150,000 are refugees in other countries.
The tremendous human suffering of civilians in armed conflicts across the globe is unacceptable. Much more must be done to protect the civilian population.
[Austria’s activities so far – Security Council Resolution 1894]
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The protection of civilians in armed conflict has been among Austria’s top priorities for many years. This is why, when my colleague Espen asked me to hold the European part of this workshop series on the protection of civilians here in Vienna, I immediately agreed.
With its long engagement for the topic Austria has gained significant experience which I believe can be useful in this joint initiative:
1. The protection of civilians was the key theme of Austria’s Presidency of the UN Security Council in November 2009 when we managed to get landmark Resolution 1894 adopted. This resolution aims to improve compliance of parties to armed conflict with international standards for the protection of civilians. In it, the Security Council clearly states its willingness to take appropriate measures to respond to situations where civilians are being targeted. It strongly opposes impunity and provides for accountability mechanisms, including prosecution under criminal law and reparation programmes for victims.
The resolution also includes measures to ensure that peacekeeping mandates fully take into account the need to protect civilians. Austria has since been working on different levels – be it the UN, the EU or NATO Partnership for Peace – to increase awareness for this need and to help find solutions to effectively implement it during concrete peacekeeping operations.
Austria has recently developed a unique training programme on the protection of civilians in armed conflict for senior decision-makers in military, police and civilian administrations. A pilot course was successfully completed at the Austrian Peace Centre in Stadtschlaining last December, and we have decided to run this course on a regular basis for national and international participants.
2. Women and children are often the most vulnerable, both in numbers of the population affected and as specific targets of violence. Children have been victims of brutal attacks on schools and hospitals in Syria and they also constitute the majority of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. The last few months saw terrible human rights violations by extremist groups in northern Mali including rape, torture and the recruitment of child soldiers.
The special needs of women and children are thus another longstanding Austrian priority. An important milestone was Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, emphasising the essential role of women in all phases of conflict settlement and peace-building. Austria was among the first countries worldwide to adopt a National Action Plan for the implementation of resolution 1325 in 2007.
As regards protection of children in armed conflict, Austria successfully promoted greater awareness for children’s rights in EU missions and, together with partners, successfully pushed for the adoption of Security Council resolution 1882 which enables to black-list states not only for recruitment of child soldiers but also for killing and sexual violence against children, leading to a targeted UN monitoring and reporting mechanism. Austria has also long been supporting projects on the reintegration of child soldiers and children affected by war, providing psychosocial support, schooling and vocational training.
3. Journalists play a special role also in armed conflicts as providers of information including on violations of human rights and targeting of civilians – which in turn is crucial for accountability and the fight against impunity.
As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Austria has successfully initiated a first-time resolution on the safety of journalists last September. The new resolution represents a significant step forward in the promotion of the protection of journalists’ safety. It condemns all forms of attacks against journalists and calls on States to end impunity , by investigating attacks, bringing the perpetrators to justice and providing remedies for victims.
[What next steps are necessary – Follow-up to the Conference]
Ladies and Gentlemen,
International Humanitarian Law provides a comprehensive legal framework on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts. These rules would give civilians significant protection from the effects of military operations if only all actors would follow them. However, civilians continue to be killed and injured in conflicts around the world every day.
But how can we ensure that International humanitarian law is properly respected? One way is that we take our pledge seriously to combat impunity. Austria thus works on all levels to promote the rule of law and increase accountability – for example by supporting the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry in Syria. We are increasingly concerned that there have been no consequences for perpetrators so far. The situation in Syria needs to be referred to the International Criminal Court. A referral to the ICC would make clear to every fighter on all sides of the conflict that the gravest crimes will eventually be punished.
The outcome of this workshop as well as the summaries of the three preceding regional seminars in Buenos Aires, Jakarta and Kampala will serve as input to the global conference to be held in Oslo in May later this year. It will hopefully be possible to work out and agree on a number of practical measures and recommendations that will help to effectively improve the protection of civilians in armed conflicts. This task will benefit from the valuable contributions of all of you: people with first-hand experience from military and civilian administration, the UN, humanitarian organisations and members of the civil society. I thank you all for your participation.