Statement by Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations, at the UN Security Council Open Debate on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Statement by Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations, at the UN Security Council Open Debate on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Mr. President,

I would like to express my appreciation to the Estonian presidency for holding this important debate to discuss current state and challenges of the protection of civilians in armed conflict, including implications connected with the global COVID-19 pandemic.

I would also like to thank UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for presenting his report on the issue as well as his timely initiatives aimed at protection of the most vulnerable from the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The call for an immediate global ceasefire, which Ukraine, whose population suffers from an ongoing foreign armed aggression, immediately supported, is directly linked to our today’s discussion. This initiative is an important part of our common fight against the pandemic, which already adversely impacted the international community’s efforts in maintenance of international peace and security.

This year’s SG report provides a detailed description of both current risks as well as opportunities in the area of protection of civilians, inter alia the role of digital technologies and social media in conflict situations. We know from our own experience how damaging can be an impact of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, blockade of alternative sources of information, deliberate spread of disinformation and incitement to violence.

We noted the emphasis in the report on the environmental impact of conflicts on civilian suffering. In this regard, we value the reference to the draft principles on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts of the International Law Commission, in deliberations on which Ukraine took an active part.

Unfortunately, since the first Security Council open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict the situation has not improved and hundreds of presented recommendations over the past 20 years remain unimplemented despite their enduring relevance.

As a result, this year report records unprecedented figures of losses among civilians. In 2019 alone, more than 20,000 civilians had been killed or injured in 10 conflicts, including the one caused by the Russian aggression against my country. Accountability for each loss of life should be established. This is one of the main preconditions to achieve sustainable peace.

We agree with the Secretary-General that these figures clearly signal to the international community the need to change the approach to the accountability and to strengthen collective responsibility to prevent, stop and ensure non-repetition of attacks against civilians in conflict situations.

At the same time, we regret that the report did not pay due attention to the protection of civilians in occupied territories as well as to the insufficient implementation of relevant thematic United Nations resolutions. In the second part of my statement, I will address some of these gaps.

Mr. President,

Unfortunately, Ukraine has become an example of consequences of violation by one of the permanent members of the Security Council of norms and principles of international law, including international humanitarian law.

For more than six years, the Russian aggression continues to take lives of civilians in my country. This international armed conflict and the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as well as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol turned the subject of protection of civilians for my country from academic to a very practical and daily issue.

In the resolutions of the General Assembly on this question, a special emphasis is placed on the necessity to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. Referring to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and Additional Protocol I thereto, of 1977, the General Assembly qualified Russia as occupying power and urged it to uphold all of its obligations under applicable international law.

Meanwhile, according to the twenty-ninth report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the human rights situation in Ukraine, during the entire conflict period the OHCHR recorded in total 3,052 conflict-related civilian deaths (1,812 men, 1,056 women, 98 boys, 49 girls and 37 adults whose sex is unknown). Taking into account the 298 persons, who perished on board Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on 17 July 2014, the total death toll of the conflict on civilians has reached at least 3,350. The number of injured civilians so far is estimated to exceed 7,000.

The armed conflict continues to affect the enjoyment of economic and social rights by the civilian population, especially by more than five million residents of the conflict-affected areas and internally displaced persons. Children, older persons and persons in vulnerable situations are at increased risk of being left behind in achieving sustainable development because of the conflict, the OHCHR report stated. The dire humanitarian situation in the conflict-affected areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions continues to deteriorate. Furthermore, the harassment by the Russian Federation of commercial vessels passing through the illegally constructed Kerch Strait bridge between Russia and temporarily occupied Crimea and its restriction of international shipping there further aggravates the economic and social situation and suffering of civilian population in the broader region already affected by the attempted annexation of Crimea and the ongoing armed conflict in Donbas.

More than 3.4 million people are expected to require humanitarian assistance in 2020. Over half a million people live in the areas directly affected by the armed conflict, while another two million people are exposed to landmines and explosive remnants of war. This area, according to the UN, has already become one of the most mine-contaminated stretches of land in the world. We are particularly concerned at the latest reports of shelling of civilian infrastructure by the Russian occupation forces, as well as the use of civilian facilities to hide military equipment. It reminds us of a well-known practice of the Russian armed forces to hide behind the civilians, widely used in the orchestrated occupation of the Crimean peninsula back in 2014.[1]

In the context of the spread of the acute respiratory disease COVID-19, the state of protection of life and health of civilians in the temporarily occupied territories became more alarming and needs special attention of the international community.

As the party to the conflict, Russia persists in disregarding its duty of an occupying power under international humanitarian law to ensure and maintain public health of the population and uses the recent aggravation of the humanitarian situation as a smokescreen for further attacks on the rights and freedoms of Crimea residents.

The spread of the pandemic did not stop the Russian authorities from announcing another conscription into the occupying army of the Russian Federation, which is a war crime. In March 2020, a decree by the Russian President to deprive Ukrainian citizens of a right to own land in Crimea became yet another uncouth demonstration of Moscow’s disregard for its responsibilities under international humanitarian law.

Moreover, for more than three years, the occupying power has been showing utmost disrespect for the International Court of Justice by ignoring its order, which demands to restore the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People and protect the identity of the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar communities under temporary occupation.

In addition, Russia continues to block proper and unhindered access of international monitoring missions, primarily by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to the occupied territories.

In this situation and in order to enable provision of necessary medical assistance to the civilian population in the occupied areas, we demand the Russian Federation to ensure unhindered access there to Ukrainian competent authorities and medical staff and provide - on a constant basis - exhaustive information on the spread of coronavirus disease in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine and on measures it undertakes to assist the population of these territories to cope with the pandemic. Russia should make all efforts to prevent the spreading of the COVID-19 from the occupied territory to other areas and neighboring states.

Mr. President,

Last year we celebrated the 70th anniversary the Geneva Conventions, the cornerstone documents that brought greater protection of each individual from the scourges of war.

Ukraine pays special attention to the issues related to compliance with international humanitarian law and human rights in armed conflicts as well as preventing and responding to forced displacement, protecting women and children affected by armed conflict, including combat conflict-related sexual violence.

As a party to core international instruments related to the protection of civilians we constantly promote and support all efforts aimed at strengthening their implementation and advocate ensuring respect of human rights and international humanitarian law at both bilateral and multilateral forums.

By contrast, the other party to the conflict – the Russian Federation – is ignoring the General Assembly resolutions and the OHCHR recommendations, practicing a “cherry-picking” approach to the obligations under international humanitarian law. Last year, Russia recalled the statement made at the ratification of Additional protocol I to the Geneva Conventions related to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts. This statement recognized the competence of the International Fact-finding Commission, which is a key mechanism in achieving objectives, undertaken by the State Parties to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and to Protocol I, to "respect" and "ensure respect" for the provisions of those treaties.

This move is quite revealing in exposing Russia’s disregard for international humanitarian law and its averseness to the Commission’s mandate to investigate alleged facts of grave breaches, as defined in the Conventions and the Protocol, or other serious violations thereof. Similar approach to evading responsibility is used by Russia vis-à-vis the implementation of European Court of Human Rights decisions.

Mr. President,

In view of all the above, this dangerous trend of Russia’s abdication of its legal obligations has to be duly reflected and assessed in the next Secretary-General’s report.

Time and again, we urge Russia to uphold all of its obligations under applicable international law as an occupying power, in particular to ensure proper and unimpeded access of international human rights monitoring missions and human rights non-governmental organizations to Crimea, pursuant to General Assembly resolutions 71/205, 72/190, 73/263, and 74/168; immediately release without preconditions Ukrainian citizens, who were unlawfully detained; end the practice of transfers of its own population to the occupied territories and forcible transfers and deportations of protected persons, including detainees, to areas outside the occupied territory; refrain from compelling residents of Crimea to swear allegiance and serve in the armed forces of the Russian Federation, to name a few.

To conclude, I would like to quote Judge and former President of the United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals Theodor Meron, who in his essay “Closing the accountability gap: concrete steps toward ending impunity for atrocity crimes” wrote that (quote-unquote) “ensuring accountability for atrocity crimes should not be seen as a mere political option: one choice among many facing national authorities and diplomats. It should be understood as a political, legal, and fundamentally human and humanitarian imperative”.

I thank you.