UN officials say 2023 saw an ‘alarming lack of compliance’ with international humanitarian law News
Ank gsx, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
UN officials say 2023 saw an ‘alarming lack of compliance’ with international humanitarian law

Senior UN Officials decried the “plight of civilians” resulting from conflict in 2023 as “resoundingly dire” on Tuesday, pointing out civilian suffering and disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law around the world. Their remarks coincide with the 75th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (GC), which the international community created in the aftermath of the Second World War and marked the beginning of protecting victims in armed conflict under international law.

UN Deputy Relief Coordinator Joyce Msuya spoke to ambassadors at the Security Council and warned that the number of civilian deaths in 2023 “signals an alarming lack of compliance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” Especially, she pointed out the alarming reality that violations occur despite parties claiming to be compliant with international law. Msuya called for a more “holistic” approach to ensure compliance and protection of civilians, taking into account the “complex, cumulative and long-term nature of the full range of civilian harm.”

Msuya decried the number of civilian deaths that occurred during armed conflict in 2023, with 33,000 civilians having lost their lives, which marks a 72 per cent increase compared to the previous year. The actual figures are believed to be much higher.

The UN Official went on to devote special attention to the Israeli military operation in response to the Hamas attacks on October 7 as having “resulted in death, destruction and suffering at a pace and scale unprecedented in the recent past.” Moreover, the similarly brutal conflict in Sudan, which has seen millions of people displaced and just as many on the brink of starvation, claimed thousands of civilian lives. In addition, conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Nigeria, the Sahel, Somalia, Syria, and Ukraine continued to have a “grave and lasting impact on civilian lives.”

The leading cause of civilian casualties in Ukraine and Sudan suffering was the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, according to Msuya. This is especially alarming since eighty-three states had endorsed the Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated areas in 2022 which is deemed a significant improvement on the matter of preventing widespread civilian deaths.

Moreover, civilians were also affected by the damage and destruction of critical infrastructure, disrupting the provision of electricity, water, and health care. Attacks of this kind on the infrastructure were already outlawed in the 1949 Geneva Convention under Articles 51 and 54.

Msuya also decried the ongoing attacks on humanitarian workers, as 142 staff of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) perished in the violence in Gaza between October and December. An attack in Rafah killed a UN staff member working there in early May, a few days after UNRWA closed its East Jerusalem office amidst two arson attacks from Israeli extremists, prompting severe condemnations.

Finally, Msuya concluded by stating that the existing framework of humanitarian law is getting improved, inter alia, through soft law such as the Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated areas.

A report recently released by the UN Security Council highlights the seriousness of the status quo of civilians in armed conflicts around the world. It goes on to make recommendations about how the international humanitarian law framework should be improved, and how compliance should be ensured. But it especially urges to “reflect on our understanding of what it means to protect civilians in armed conflict.”