High Level Side-Event “Civilians under fire: Humanitarian Protection and Respect for IHL”: opening remarks Minister Reynders


H.E. Didier Reynders, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs


High Level Side-Event
 “Civilians under fire: Humanitarian Protection and Respect for IHL”

New York 26th September 2018, 8.30am - 10am (CR1)


Didier Reynders

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my honor and great pleasure to welcome you today at this side event. I would like to express my sincere thanks to all of you, for having accepted our invitation. Your participation today is without any doubt an illustration of the interest and importance the international community attaches to the topic under discussion.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The latest report of the UN Secretary General on the protection of civilians highlights  a worrying trend of indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilians objects, including medical facilities and schools, that seem to occur with appalling frequency. In several conflict situations, the wounded and sick as well as medical personnel are intentionally attacked. In Syria, on the 7th of April we witnessed yet again another chemical weapons attack, taking the lives of numerous civilians in a most gruesome way. Impartial humanitarian actors continue to face widespread and persistent humanitarian access constraints and millions of civilians are forced from their homes to a perilous fate where they face heightened protection and assistance needs. The results are tremendous human suffering with long-term effects that sometimes spread over generations.

The focus of our discussions here today is how to best respond to the terrible suffering and how to prevent it from happening in the first place. Simply put: how to close the gap between principles and action and actually protect civilians.

The simple answer is that the most effective way to reduce suffering in war is to uphold and respect International Humanitarian Law (IHL). It is the most important tool to maintain a certain degree of humanity in armed conflicts. Let me point out here that respecting IHL is not rocket science. It’s actually very straightforward; IHL principles are inherently basic and simple. Respecting IHL is clearly first and foremost an issue of human decency and political will, and not a question of legal technicalities. The political will to entrench these rules in the training of the combatants. The political will to conduct the hostilities in a manner that respects IHL. The political will to punish those responsible of committing war crimes. There is no excuse and no exceptions to the applicability of IHL. No matter how complex, protracted or fragmented an armed conflict may be. No matter what labels or designations are given to the opposing parties, like “terrorists” or “foreign terrorist fighters”.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is up to all us, Governments, to ensure respect for IHL including by entrenching IHL rules in training of combatants and military practices and by putting in place appropriate legislative and institutional arrangements to address violations of IHL and hold those who commit such violations to account.  It is helpful to remind here, that the level to which people are protected from IHL violations during an armed conflict, has a great impact on the prospects for peace and reconciliation, reconstruction and the return and reintegration of displaced people.

I would like to mention a few examples of initiatives Belgium has taken in order to increase compliance with IHL:

  • In 1987 Belgium established an Interministerial Commission on Humanitarian Law to ensure the proper implementation of IHL. We also gave it the means necessary to hold perpetrators  of IHL violations accountable, including by establishing universal jurisdiction once a sufficient connecting factor allows it. Belgium has also ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and its amendment and we call on all States, who haven’t already done so, to do the same.
  • At international level, Belgium actively supports and participates in the intergovernmental process of strengthening respect for international humanitarian law facilitated by Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The work of the ICRC is indispensable and that is why we find it so important to continue to support the work of the ICRC financially.
  • We have incorporated IHL into the training of our military and support the training module “Train the trainers” developed by DPKO-DFS for Troop Contributing Countries. A few training sessions have taken place in English. Belgium funded the first session for French speaking Troop Contributing Countries, which took place in Entebbe last June. We are also supporting the translation into French of many of the peacekeeping modules and in doing so hope to contribute to the preparation of troops deployed in a French speaking environment.
  • Like others, Belgium has made a commitment to protect civilians through the Kigali Principles, the Safe Schools Declaration and the political declaration on the protection of medical personnel in armed conflict, to name just a few very recent examples. Today we welcome the broad adherence to all these principles by Troop Contributing Countries. This is a positive development and we encourage more countries to join the movement, but also to commit to concretely implement these principles on the ground.

Other States might have different experiences and practices on how they should disseminate IHL, integrate it into their military planning or respond to grave IHL violations.  Some practices may be more successful than others in ensuring the right protection for civilians and some countries might have developed tools that could be of interest for others. Sharing best practices should be encouraged and there are currently several fora that allow such an exchange, mainly at regional level. 

However, there is no fora at global level that facilitates such a regular exchange between States on the implementation of IHL for the moment. The Intergovernmental Process on Strengthening Respect for International Humanitarian Law, launched at the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, will soon consider different proposals by the Swiss/ICRC co-facilitators to create such a dialogue. Ideally, this dialogue should address all types of armed conflict and the different parties to them. I am certain that the rich experience of an organization like Geneva Call, could help us devise more ways to reinforce the protection of IHL. I encourage all States to support these proposals and to constructively engage in this process.

I thank you for your attention.