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27 May 2008 - Security Council: Protection of civilians in armed conflict - Statement by Mr. Jean-Maurice Ripert, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations

(translated from statement made in french)

Allow me to thank the presidency of the Council for this timely meeting and also to thank John Holmes for his introduction to our debate.

This debate is taking place in a very particular context. The Secretary-General and Mr. Holmes have just returned from Burma. Clearly, the situation of the civilian population victims of cyclone Nargis cannot be confused with the situation of the civilian population victims of an armed conflict. But can we talk about the protection of civilians without talking about the tragedy that we have been watching for weeks now for hundreds of thousands of persons in Burma? Can we talk about access to humanitarian assistance without addressing the obstacles that have unacceptably been encountered in access to Burmese civilians? In the face of such a heavy reality, can the Council retreat into an academic distinction between two types of population: the victims of armed conflict and the victims of a natural disaster? We do not believe that, all the less because the victims of cyclone Nargis are not just the victims of a natural phenomenon.

As our Minister for Foreign Affairs said on 19 May, "The Burmese people are the victims of a two fold scourge — a natural disaster on an exceptional scale on the one hand and the stubborn obstruction of proposals for emergency assistance on the other. In French national law, that is called ’non assistance to persons in danger’".

We do not know today whether the assurance given by the Burmese authorities to the Secretary-General, and then at the donors conference that was held in Rangoon on Sunday, will be translated into action. We do not know whether all the international assistance that has been proposed will actually be accepted. We do not know whether the humanitarian agencies will truly have access to the distressed population.

What we do know, however — and I am referring to what Mr. Holmes said on behalf of the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Sunday -that only 41 per cent of the population affected by the cyclone has received any assistance, that is, 1 million out of 2.4 million people. What we know is that out of this 1 million people who have begun to receive some assistance, a vast majority are in the Rangoon area; only a minority of victims living in the delta has received help. What we know is that the population in the delta was deprived of the 1,500 tons of food supplies and other relief — the equivalent of 30 cargo planes — that the French ship Mistral could have provided starting 15 May.

Finally, what we know — and I am referring again to Mr. Holmes’s remarks in Rangoon — is that there is a possibility of a second wave of deaths that will be the result of epidemics and malnutrition.

Do we have to accept this? Should we do nothing and condemn the population of Burma? If the commitment to openness and cooperation undertaken by the Burmese authorities several days ago are not followed by actions, should our Council continue to hide behind a restrictive interpretation of its competencies? Some were surprised to hear Bernard Kouchner talk about the responsibility to protect. But, as we have had the opportunity to emphasize, there is always a risk of slipping from not helping people in danger to crimes against humanity. Must we really wait until we have crossed that threshold before the Council agrees to consider a situation? I will say this clearly: that is not the concept of the United Nations or of the Security Council that France champions.

That is all the more the case, in view of the fact that the concept of non-assistance to persons in danger is not foreign to the international community, least of all to the United Nations. On 8 December 1988, 20 years ago, the General Assembly adopted its resolution 43/131, which sets out, if not legal, then at least political obligations. By virtue of the principle of subsidiarity, it is the territorially competent State that bears the primary role in organizing, carrying out and distributing assistance. If, and only if, that State is not in a position to cope with the situation, because of a lack of means or political will, the international community takes over and replaces the State that is failing to assist the endangered population.

Resolution 45/100, adopted by the General Assembly on 14 December 1990, confirmed the principle of free access to victims of natural catastrophes and other similar emergency situations.

For all those reasons, if the situation does not rapidly change in Burma to the benefit of the population affected by the cyclone, France will not sit idly by in the Council. The Security Council can decide to intervene to force the delivery of humanitarian assistance, as it did in the recent past by opening humanitarian corridors in Kurdistan, Bosnia and Somalia. Was the outrage at those massacres greater than that provoked by those drowned or starving in Burmese countryside?

I have spoken at length about what seems indispensable to us. I shall be more concise on the remainder of the themes related to our debate.

In the view of France, it is indispensable to promote the protection of civilians throughout United Nations activities, in particular in the context of peacekeeping missions. As the Secretary-General recommended, we think it is useful that States members of the Council take the initiative to meet at the expert level to consider ways and means of more systematically tackling the protection of civilians when peacekeeping operations are set up or when their mandates are renewed. France, together with others, is ready to initiate such meetings. The troop-contributing countries should naturally be associated with these endeavours in some way or another.

In addition, we commend the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the information it has provided on obstacles to humanitarian assistance to populations in need.

We also hope that all Council resolutions on the protection of civilians are given systematic follow-up. We are thinking, of course, of resolution 1674 (2006). In that regard, we look forward to the adoption of a presidential statement at the end of today’s debate, calling upon the Secretary-General to inform us, in the context of his next report, on the implementation of protection mandates by United Nations missions. Another aspect of resolution 1674 (2006) is of great importance for us: combating impunity. The International Criminal Court has a key part to play. The obligation to cooperate arising from the Rome Statute and from Security Council resolutions must be respected.

We are also thinking of resolution 1325 (2000) on women and peace and security. As already stated here, sexual violence is systematically being used as a weapon of war. These are abominable crimes affecting millions of people. Such crimes must be prevented and punished. I welcome in this regard the arrest this weekend of Mr. Bemba, who had been sought by the International Criminal Court for many crimes, especially for sexual violence. I would also like to repeat our preoccupation with reports of abuses involving peacekeeping personnel. The soldiers of peace must have exemplary conduct; the United Nations must see to that.

We are also thinking about resolution 1502 (2003) on the protection of humanitarian personnel and about 1738 (2006) on the protection of journalists.

I also reiterate my commitment as Chairman of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict in favour of very effective implementation of resolution 1612 (2005).

I wish to conclude my statement by sharing with members the decision just taken by France in order to contribute to the momentum that has begun even before we see the final text of the treaty now being negotiated, to immediately withdraw the M26 rocket from operational service. This is an important gesture that attests to the responsible attitude of our armed forces. That weapon actually accounts for 90 per cent of our cluster munitions stockpiles.

In doing this, France, which has not used cluster munitions in 17 years, shows that it is possible to reconcile humanitarian demands with the requirements of defence. Following the Oslo Conference on Cluster Munitions in February 2007, France was among the first States to be mobilized by a clear objective: to prevent the humanitarian tragedy caused by cluster munitions.

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