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UN: World is failing to protect millions of civilians caught in conflicts

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. chief on Tuesday decried the “terrible truth” that the world is failing to live up to its commitments to protect a growing number of civilians caught in conflicts. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the guardian of treaties enshrining those commitments, lamented that countless civilians are experiencing “a living hell.”

From Ukraine and Sudan to Africa’s Sahel and the Mideast, civilians are scrambling to evade missiles and explosives and to find food and medicine — and the humanitarian situation is deteriorating.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the Security Council should urge countries to respect the rules of war.

“Governments with influence over warring parties should engage in political dialogue and train forces on protecting civilians,” he said. “And countries that export weapons should refuse to do business with any party that fails to comply with international humanitarian law.”

His recent report on the protection of civilians in conflicts in 2022 points to over 100 conflicts worldwide and an average duration of more than 30 years. Last year, though, saw new highs for the number of people forcibly displaced and a 53% increase in U.N. recorded civilian deaths to nearly 17,000, including almost 8,000 in Ukraine.

Mirjana Spoljaric, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said during recent visits to Africa, Europe and the Mideast she saw a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation with “entire regions trapped in cycles of conflict without an end in sight.”

Spoljaric said many of the conflicts are compounded by climate shocks, food insecurity and economic hardship. She issued an urgent call to countries to protect civilians and critical infrastructure in urban areas, pointing to large-scale destruction in Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. She also urged that food be provided to all civilians in conflict areas and for access to be given to humanitarian workers.

“We need to break the pattern of violations, and this can be done through strong political will and sustained action,” she said.

Switzerland, which is serving its first two-year term on the Security Council, chose the protection of civilians in conflict as its showcase event. Representatives from over 80 countries were scheduled to speak, a reflection of widespread concern.

Swiss President Alain Berset, who chaired Tuesday's meeting, said that as the depository state for the Geneva Conventions and the home of the Geneva-based ICRC, respect for international humanitarian law was a long-standing priority for the country.

The number of people facing acute food insecurity rose to 258 million last year, which he noted was "30 times the population of New York City. More than two-thirds of them live in conflict zones, including in Congo, Sudan, the Sahel, Somalia, Myanmar and Afghanistan, or in countries where violence is widespread such as Haiti, Berset said.

He urged all countries to implement a 2018 Security Council resolution against the use of starvation as a method of warfare and unlawfully denying humanitarian access and life-saving supplies to civilians, and a 2021 resolution condemning unlawful attacks that deprive civilians of essential services.

The meeting saw clashes between Ukraine’s Western supporters and Russia, as the council has seen at many sessions since Moscow’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of its neighbor.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the increase in civilian deaths shows the human toll of the war. She also accused Russia of pushing millions of people in Africa and the Middle East into food insecurity by using “food as a weapon of war in Ukraine,” including blocking Ukrainian grain shipments for months.

She said the agreement allowing the shipment of Ukrainian grain from Black Sea ports, which was extended for two months on May 17, was a “beacon of hope to the world.”

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia claimed very little of the more than 30 million tons of grain shipped under the Black Sea deal has gone to developing countries, and that the shipment from Russia of ammonia — a key ingredient of fertilizer — that was supposed to be part of the July 2022 deal “has effectively not even begun.”