Remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at a Security Council Debate on Protection of Civilians

Susan E. Rice
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
U.S. Mission to the United Nations 
New York, NY
February 12, 2013


Thank you, Foreign Minister Kim, for chairing this important debate. And thank you, Secretary-General Ban, High Commissioner Pillay and ICRC Director Spoerri for your statements.

Protecting civilians in armed conflict is a fundamental responsibility of the international community and a core function the UN Security Council in carrying out its charge to safeguard international peace and security. The United States knows that its security is diminished when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flee across borders to escape brutal attacks, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. Regrettably, history has taught us that our pursuit of a world where states do not systematically slaughter civilians will not arrive without concerted and coordinated action.

And so, nearly a year ago, President Obama announced at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum new actions the United States is taking to implement his landmark policy directive on atrocity prevention. Under the President’s leadership, my government has implemented unprecedented steps to enhance our capabilities and structures for preventing heinous crimes against civilians, from strengthening our early warning and preventive diplomacy to sanctioning perpetrators and pressing for accountability. Our new Atrocities Prevention Board, a committee of senior officials from across the U.S. government, is overseeing this critical work and ensuring that we are focused on emerging situations of concern. But while national action is necessary, it is not sufficient. International, collective action is required, and we look forward to strengthening our cooperation with the United Nations and member states to that end.

Few are more likely to be the victims of mass atrocities than civilians caught in armed conflict. Time and again – and all too often– the world bears witness to the horror of mass killings, sexual violence and gross human rights abuses of innocents in conflict. Therefore, protecting civilians in armed conflict must remain a top priority of this Council and the United Nations as a whole. Though we must never relent in this effort, we are encouraged that the United Nations has made strides in enhancing UN tools to protect civilians. We commend the Secretariat’s efforts to help UN field missions develop operational guidance and mission-wide strategies to implement their civilian protection mandates. The recently-released UN study entitled Protection of Civilians: Coordination Mechanisms in UN Peacekeeping Missions highlights several mechanisms for executing protection of civilians mandates successfully. Simple but practical tools – many focused on internal procedures and mission structure – enable mission focal points to integrate mission activities in support of protection mandates. The UN Mission in South Sudan, for example, produced an integrated strategy that led to an innovative early warning system and County Support Bases that enable better protection of rural populations.

Mission-wide strategies depend on missions really understanding the threats and violence civilians face in their area of operation. When peacekeepers know their local environments well, they are better able to protect civilians. Such detailed knowledge requires active and sustained engagement with local populations. We encourage UN missions with protection mandates to assess in their reports and briefings to this Council the threats and vulnerabilities facing civilians in their area of operation. We also urge mission-wide strategies to anticipate and outline steps to counter any escalation in violence against civilians that could culminate in mass atrocities. UN missions should proactively explain their role in protecting civilians to local communities.

Beyond a sophisticated understanding of their areas of operation, peacekeepers need strong training in civilian protection. The United States invests significantly in peacekeeper training, and we urge all peacekeeping training centers to adopt the UN’s innovative training guidance on protection of civilians. Such training should be standardized and required for every peacekeeper.

For all that UN peacekeepers and field missions can do, let us not forget that national governments always bear primary responsibility for protecting their own populations. In some countries, governments are manifestly failing in this responsibility, often because of insufficient capacity or will to address the problem. In some countries, moreover, governments condone and even perpetrate atrocities against their own people. Through our statements, resolutions and diplomacy, this Council must continue pressing governments to fulfill their obligations.

In this regard, I want to highlight the horrific attacks by the Syrian regime on the Syrian people, including the widely reported targeting of hospitals and health centers and the use of ballistic missiles against civilian populations. The carnage unleashed by Asad merits universal indignation and strong action from this Council. When the people of Libya were on the verge of being slaughtered by a brutal dictator, this Council acted, prevented a massacre, and saved countless lives. This should remind us that for civilians in conflict, Security Council action can mean the difference between life and death.

In the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document and in UN Security Council resolution 1674, all UN Member States accepted a shared responsibility to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. While we continue to elaborate application of this principle, when governments manifestly fail to protect their civilians, the international community must not dither but rather act decisively to assume its responsibility collectively to protect.

Another fundamental but often overlooked principle of protecting civilians is ensuring humanitarian access. No UN Member State, nor any non-state actor, should ever prevent timely, full, and unimpeded humanitarian access to populations in need of assistance. Yet the Government of Sudan has refused for now a year and a half to permit the safe and unhindered provision of international humanitarian assistance to address the acute humanitarian emergency in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, particularly the SPLM-North controlled areas, which is largely of Khartoum’s making. Since 2011, more than 214,000 refugees have crossed into Ethiopia and South Sudan and 695,000 have been displaced within the Two Areas. This is appalling and unacceptable. In this and other such situations, we commend the service and dedication of the humanitarian workers who help the world’s most vulnerable at great risk to themselves. Attacks against humanitarian workers are deplorable and should be condemned wherever committed.

Mr. President, we fully support the Secretary-General’s call for this Council to be more active in addressing violations of international law and to strengthen accountability. The United States strongly rejects impunity and supports efforts to hold accountable violators of international humanitarian and human rights law. Our longstanding support of international tribunals and efforts to document ongoing atrocities in such places as Syria reflect this commitment. Recent events, including the conviction of Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Court’s judgment against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, show us that accountability for those who commit atrocities and justice for their victims is possible. Yet, too many perpetrators remain free. This Council needs the facts and strong reporting to help bring to justice the perpetrators of crimes against civilians.

President Obama has declared that preventing mass atrocities is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States. The protection of civilians is a fundamental element of the Security Council’s obligation to ensure international peace and security. It is clear that we must keep our attention focused squarely on the practical steps we can take to enhance the protection of civilians in armed conflict and redouble our efforts to ensure that this Council is not sitting on the sidelines when civilian populations are in grave danger.

Thank you, Mr. President.


PRN: 2013/011