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USG DiCarlo's opening remarks at the "Contributions of Special Political Missions to the Protection of Civilians" side event

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

Thank you very much for joining us for this side event. 

We welcome the opportunity to have this conversation on the important contributions of special political missions (SPMs) to the protection of civilians and the broader protection agenda. 

I am grateful to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for co-organizing this event with us. They are key partners in our work to protect civilians in regions we are deployed.

Colleagues,  What we are discussing this week is at the heart of our Organization’s mission. I would even say that protection, in its different dimensions, is the essence of the UN. It is what people look to us for, it is what we commit to do. 

In my job, I answer questions every day, including some very thorny ones, particularly from member states. But no questions are harder than those from survivors of violent conflict or people living under the shadow of war: What is the UN going to do to help us now? Why don’t you do more? How can you protect us?

Those questions are not unrealistic or naïve. Our answers, however, often betray our limitations. Closing the gap between the expectations of those we serve and our capacities is our biggest challenge. It is also a privilege. 

That is why I am so glad that colleagues from several of our missions are joining us today to brief us from the field on how their work contributes to the protection of civilians.  

Special political missions are deployed to some of the most complex environments around the world, from Afghanistan and Somalia to Syria and Yemen. Protection does not always figure explicity in their mandates, yet it is fundamental to their work. 

The surest way to keep civilians from harm is to achieve political solutions to prevent or resolve conflict. The recent developments in Israel-Palestine are a painful example of the devastating consequences for civilians when such solutions remain elusive.  

Carrying out preventive diplomacy, working to end hostilities, facilitate local or national ceasefires, or promote dialogue and political engagement are ways in which special political missions seek to increase peace overall - and in some contexts engage specifically to change the behaviour of parties who perpetrate violence against civilians. 

It is through these core activities that special political missions make their primary contribution to protection, in support of national authorities. 

In Libya, for example, peacemaking efforts based on intense political engagement with key stakeholders led to a nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2020. 

The implementation of this ceasefire has resulted in a dramatic reduction in civilian casualties. While UNSMIL recorded 489 civilian casualties from January to June 2020, the number of casualties dropped to 31 in the second half of the year. 

Today, the ceasefire continues to hold, and has helped to create space for a political process and establishment of a Government of National Unity.    

In Yemen, the Stockholm Agreement reached in December 2018 under the auspices of the United Nations and the subsequent deployment of a United Nations monitoring mission in Hudaydah  averted a potentially catastrophic fight for the city and ports, and led to an overall reduction of violence across Hudaydah governorate. 

A significant number of IDPs have now returned to the city, and previously deserted markets are crowded again with the increasing flow of vital commodities into the port.

In Colombia, consecutive special political missions have backed the implementation and verification of the peace agreement that dramatically reduced, though not yet fully eliminated, conflict-related violence. 

The disarmament and demobilization of the FARC-EP under UN verification removed from the battlefield a nationwide insurgency and its armaments.

The impact of the peace process in Colombia was felt quickly.  Kidnappings, which in the early 2000s were at more than 2,700 per year, are now relatively rare (under 100 in 2020). Internal displacement in 2020 was estimated a 70,000 persons, less than a tenth the level at the height of the conflict. 

The presence of the current Verification Mission allows it to constantly press for full respect of the commitments the parties have undertaken. These include, for example, the obligation to provide livelihoods and security to protect some 13,000 ex-combatants who are now unarmed civilians. 

Second, special political missions’ work in the area of human rights – and in particular helping ensure the full protection of the rights of civilian populations, including to life, safety and security – is another critical contribution to protection. 

Our special political mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, reports on civilian casualties as a central part of its human rights work. In addition to helping identify areas of vulnerability for civilians, this reporting has provided a platform for the mission to engage in advocacy with conflict actors. 

Just in the first three months of this year, UNAMA documented 1,783 civilian casualties (573 killed and 1,210 injured), highlighting the urgent need for measures to reduce violence and the ultimate, overarching need to reach a lasting peace agreement.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM)  implements our Human Rights Due Diligence Policy - a framework  to ensure that security forces receiving the UN’s support -- including through the African Union Mission to Somalia-- are not involved in human rights violations.

A third contribution of special political missions is to support host governments in carrying out specialized mandates from the Security Council.  These mandates may be related to the protection of specific groups, such as children, women, or those vulnerable to sexual violence in conflict. 

Several special political missions, working together with the Office of the SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict, engage with conflict parties to secure commitments to prohibit sexual violence in their ranks. 

For example, the UN has signed, over the years, Joint Communiques on the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence with armed actors in Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. 

And our missions in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan have dedicated child protection advisers focused on implementing specific Security Council mandates together with the Office of the SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict.

Finally, in specific cases, SPMs have received mandates from the Security Council to support national authorities in their protection of civilians efforts.

The most recently established special political mission, the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) supports national and local authorities on protection of civilians, in particular internally displaced persons, in the conflict-affected areas. 

As you will hear from the panel in more detail, UNITAMS and its  UN country team partners work closely together to strengthen the protective environment. They support  the transitional Government of Sudan in implementing the National Plan for Civilian Protection and in peacebuilding efforts.


In closing, I want to reiterate the importance of keeping people at the centre of our work. People like the women I met in Afghanistan, forging a path towards an inclusive and equal society, against immense odds -- and physical threats. 

Or the former combatants I spoke to in Colombia, trying to rejoin society as full citizens after decades of war. Or the the Somali youth who told me of their efforts to build peace and democracy in their country while often braving horrific violence. 

Last year, I met with a young indigenous woman from Libya working on sexual and gender-based violence issues and the  advancement of women’s political participation. The hopes, fears and frustrations that she described of Libyan women seeking to engage in political life were both moving and, regrettably, applicable to so many others contexts. 

Her voice, and that of other activists and community leaders working to defend the rights of people who are affected by conflict and violence will continue to be at the centre of our work.

I am pleased that we are joined today by a very strong panel to share their experiences and good practices. I am sure that this will be a fruitful discussion.