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Reclaiming protection of civilians under International Humanitarian Law: Intervention by AOAV’s CEO Steve Smith

I would like to thank the Chair for opportunity to speak on this issue that is of such importance to my organisation, Action on Armed Violence.

We at AOAV strongly support measures to enhance the documentation of the effects of hostilities on civilians during armed conflicts.

We see this as being vital during both conflict and in post conflict situations. During conflict itself, such measuring and monitoring serves several purposes. One of the most obvious is to ensure that those who contravene the Laws of Armed Conflict and International Humanitarian Law are brought to book. But this is not just about providing the processes that allow accountability to be pursued. If troops on the ground know that documentation processes are in place, they know that their behaviour may be subject to review. It is a check mechanism that shows that IHL is taken seriously at higher command level, and must therefore be similarly addressed at the lower levels.

Looking at the wider importance of documenting the effects of hostilities on civilians, many of you will be aware that AOAV has been recording incidents of explosive violence worldwide – including, specifically, the effects on civilians.

Such documentation reveals the true patterns of harm. Before we started this process, we had no idea that civilians would make up to 71% of the casualties from explosive violence worldwide in in 2011, and 78% in 2012. We would no know that 9 out of 1o casualties to mortar fire are civilians, or that IEDs caused around 60% of all civilians casualties from explosive weapons.

Revealing such patterns of harm allows states to take action from a position of strength. It allows the international community to frame its laws, guidelines, and operating procedures to minimise the adverse effects on civilians – for example, by working to stigmatise the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

But it is not just the documentation of casualties during conflict itself that should concern us. The adverse effects of hostilities on civilians touch on many areas, and will often have catastrophic long-term effects.

The international community’s focus is often on the numbers of dead – with less attention being paid to the wounded and others affected by conflict, who will often suffer life-long psychological, physical and economic effects. Looking beyond the casualties themselves, effects will also include:

  • Those families that have lost the head of the family may have their livelihoods catastrophically disrupted
  • Destruction of infrastructure that results in homelessness, the loss of manufacturing capabilities, medical facilities, energy production, and transport links.
  • As such, long term development is undermined, unemployment becomes endemic, and future investment is massively deterred.

It is vital that these effects are also document, because knowing just what needs to be tackled is essential when planning post-conflict reconstruction and drawing up the most effective plan when the aid agencies start to move in. The international community needs to be able to put in place effective programmes to support affected populations.

The end of conflict doesn’t necessarily mean the end of violence – as old scored are settles with revenge attacks, and internal security problems often arise.

This points to the need to ensure casualty reporting over the longer term. Because it is often in the longer term that civilians – and especially the direct victims – need most support.

Therefore, we believe that UN missions and humanitarian agencies should ensure that, having recorded casualties during a conflict, they should also leave a legacy, possibly through training, that allows local government officials to continue measuring and monitoring over the longer term.

To conclude Mr. Chairman,

–> Casualty recording is crucial during conflict but countries, and UN missions must consider the importance of ensuring that it continues over a longer period. This is fundamental to identifying patterns of harm and ensuring accountability.

–> The systematic and comprehensive identification of those patterns of harm that cause the highest levels of civilians casualties across conflicts worldwide is key to bringing measures to bear that prevent and avoid such patters.

–> UN missions, conflict parties and humanitarian agencies must ensure a legacy of casualty recording when they leave. This can be achieved by engaging local government and civil society organisations from the moment the casualty systems are set up.

–> Transparency in the methodology that is used to record casualties, as well as the ways information is shared, are critical elements that need to be strengthened.

Mr. Chair, thank you.