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Remarks by Ueli Maurer at the 68th UN General Assembly

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Mr Deputy Secretary-General
Mr President,
Mr Foreign Minister,
Ms Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you here today to this side-event on "Addressing the challenges to enhance the protection of civilians in armed conflicts and other situations of violence". Syria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are just a few of many compelling situations where civilians remain trapped in conflict zones; often in appalling conditions of violence and misery with their basic rights violated and their basic needs unsatisfied. Strengthening the protection of civilians during armed conflict is a main preoccupation of the Swiss government and a key part of our humanitarian engagement since its very beginning. I therefore highly appreciate the possibility to discuss today the manifold challenges to the protection of civilians from different angles. States bear the primary responsibility for applying and monitoring the legal framework ensuring protection, safety, dignity and integrity of civilians during armed conflict. Yet, too often they do not live up to their commitments and the international community, in particular the organizations with a protection mandate, have to assume their responsibility.

Protection of civilians, as well as of wounded and captured combatants, has been recognized as imperative by all States, when they ratified the four Geneva Conventions. The high cost of wars in terms of human losses, material damages and lasting harm to societies is visible to everyone. This alone is a compelling reason to limit the unnecessary evils of war, to protect those who do not or no longer take part in hostilities.

Many challenges remain to be addressed in an efficient way. I would like to focus on three of the most acute ones: compliance with international humanitarian law, accountability and access to victims.

The most pressing, and certainly the most decisive challenge is the lack of compliance with international law, in particular international humanitarian law, by parties to armed conflicts, both State and non-State actors. It is obvious that civilians cannot receive the protection they are entitled to where parties conduct indiscriminate attacks, or even worse, deliberately target civilians.

When we want to strengthen the protection of civilians in armed conflict, we must first and foremost find means to improve respect for humanitarian rules. Switzerland and the ICRC have jointly launched an initiative to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions have been ratified universally and the central question of how to improve respect for their rules concerns all States. We encourage all governments to participate in this initiative.

So far, we have identified a number of elements that an international humanitarian law (IHL) compliance system would need to comprise. This includes the establishment of a forum for regular dialogue on IHL and compliance. Such a forum could also serve as an institutional anchor for other elements like a reporting system and a fact-finding mechanism.

A second challenge is the need to ensure accountability for perpetrators of violations and abuse of human rights and international humanitarian law. Wherever possible, prosecution should be done by the concerned States themselves. A domestic, credible and reasonably swift process to ensure accountability may curb and prevent further violations, while ensuring that victims see their suffering recognized. When States are unable or unwilling to take the necessary measure to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators of international crimes, the international community must make sure that those crimes do not remain unpunished by notably referring the case to the ICC. This is the reason why Switzerland, with the support of 58 states, sent a letter to the Security Council asking to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. We want this to be a strong message to prevent future violations of the law against the civilian population and a key element in building durable peace. A third key challenge is the access of humanitarian workers to victims of armed conflicts. For millions of vulnerable people caught in conflict, humanitarian action is often the only means of survival. And the mere presence of humanitarian workers strengthens their protection. Yet, access, a prerequisite to humanitarian action, continues to be constrained, deliberately or otherwise, to millions of people in need. The conditions, in which humanitarian workers operate, have indeed become increasingly dangerous. It is unacceptable that more than 200 humanitarian workers have been victims of violence and 87 have been killed so far this year.

Meeting these challenges - compliance with international law, accountability and ensuring access - requires coordinated, comprehensive and consistent actions by different players, be States, the UN system and other humanitarian agencies, in particular the ICRC.

The United Nations remains a central pillar in protecting civilians and promoting human rights in conflict-ridden areas. We are glad to note that the United Nations is currently adapting and reviewing its institutional arrangements to better respond to violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. Mr. Deputy Secretary General, you can count on the support of Switzerland to strengthen UN action in this regard. We also encourage OCHA to keep promoting a strong and collaborative humanitarian action that protects people and promotes respect for international humanitarian law and principles.

The ICRC is also a key institution in promoting respect for international humanitarian law and in providing protection and assistance for victims of armed conflicts. Switzerland strongly believes that coordinated action among actors is essential in order to achieve progress in the protection of civilians. Enhancing the efficiency and reinforcing the coherence of approaches to protection will allow the international community to better address the protection of civilians affected by armed conflicts.

Switzerland, in its endeavour to promote a coordinated response, has developed a Strategy on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. This strategy focuses mainly on actions aimed at fostering respect for the legal framework, at consolidating actions in favor of persons in need of protection and at supporting peace-keeping actions. A central topic of the strategy is the promotion of access for humanitarian workers to victims of armed conflict. By upholding rules of general international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international criminal law, we strive to protect both humanitarian workers and affected civilian populations. We believe that the impartiality of humanitarian personnel is a prerequisite for negotiating humanitarian access.

These are some of the Swiss priorities to strengthen the protection of civilians. I am happy that with South Sudan, a State concerned with protection issues has joined us today and will report to us about its own perspective. And I am interested to learn how the international community can contribute to strengthen new governments structures in assuming this important responsibility. And of course, I am very keen to learn how the United Nations and the ICRC are facing the challenges of protection.

Thank you.

Ueli Maurer

Head of the Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports (since 2009). President of the Swiss Confederation (since 2013).

 
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