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THE SECRETARY-GENERAL'S REMARKS AT PRESS ENCOUNTER WITH MR. PETER MAURER, PRESIDENT OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS, ON JOINT CALL FOR PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS

31 October 2015

[Scroll down for Q&A]

Good afternoon. Thank you for being here on a Saturday afternoon.

President Peter Maurer of ICRC and I have just held a meeting to talk about our grave concern over the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for international humanitarian law.

Just yesterday, dozens of people were reportedly killed and many more were wounded when Syrian government forces fired missiles into a marketplace in Douma. Airstrikes have increased on besieged populated areas. Indiscriminate firing of rockets also continues on Damascus.

Such deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian areas is a clear breach of international law. The continuing violence is a clear indication that a political solution to the conflict in Syria is desperately needed – the fighting must stop now. There is no military solution to the crisis – not in Syria or anywhere else.

From Afghanistan to the Central African Republic, from Ukraine to Yemen, combatants and those who control them are defying humanity’s most basic rules.

Every day, civilians – ordinary women, men and children – are being deliberately or recklessly injured and killed, tortured and abducted. Every hour, people in dire circumstances are being denied the medical care, food, water and shelter they need to survive.

Healthcare facilities have special protected status under international humanitarian law.

Yet the hospital attacked earlier this week in Saada, Yemen, was the 39th health centre to be hit since March. More children in Yemen may die from a lack of medicines and healthcare than from bullets and bombs.

The bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital earlier this month in Kunduz, Afghanistan, was yet another tragedy – a so-called surgical strike that instead destroyed a surgical ward.

These violations have become so routine there is a risk people will think that the deliberate bombing of civilians, the targeting of humanitarian and healthcare workers, and attacks on schools, hospitals and places of worship are an inevitable result of conflict.

International humanitarian law is being flouted on a global scale. The international community is failing to hold perpetrators to account.

Today, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross are calling for an end to impunity, an end to the callous disregard for human life, and a recommitment to international humanitarian law.

We call on all those with influence to pressure all parties in conflict to treat civilians with humanity and to abide by the law.

This means political and diplomatic measures, and referrals to national and special investigative tribunals or courts.

We urge an end to the use of heavy explosive weapons in densely populated urban areas, which overwhelmingly kill civilians.

We call for respect for humanitarian access, so that people can reach the aid they need, and so that humanitarians can deliver that aid.

We call on the international community to give greater support to displaced people and refugees.

Both our organizations are taking urgent steps to address these issues.

Protecting civilians in conflict will also be one of the main themes of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul next May.

But international humanitarian law is not a solution. It is a way to mitigate the damage caused by war.

Most of all, we call for greater commitment and effective action to prevent and end conflicts.

Long-term solutions lie in treating the root causes of war and in negotiating sustainable peace.

I urge Member States to show far more commitment and engagement to maintain peace and security. Without that, we can expect only greater chaos and suffering.

That is why I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the talks on Syria that started in Vienna yesterday. I am encouraged that the participants have reached a mutual understanding on a number of key issues, including the need to accelerate all diplomatic efforts to end the war.

I commend the efforts and commitment of the 17 countries and the European Union for launching this much needed political process. This is the first meaningful understanding among international actors since the 2012 Geneva Communiqué, and the first one to have been reached in the presence of all the countries that hold the key to a resolution to the Syrian conflict.

Let me also praise the leadership of US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for facilitating this outcome.

While I know that substantial differences still remain, I hope that in the coming days and weeks they will be able to make further progress towards a Syrian-led political solution to the crisis. The United Nations stands ready to support these efforts.

Protecting civilians in wartime is a cornerstone of the international system and the United Nations. Indifference will only make our world less secure. The continued failure to act is a disgrace and a stain on the conscience of the world.

Enough is enough. Even war has rules; it is time to enforce them.

Thank you.

Q: Secretary-General, you say you are encouraged by the talks on Syria. Can you foresee a political solution for Syria in which President Assad will stay in Government?

This has been an issue for some time, quite long time. I believe that the future of Syria or future of all these peace talks, Syrian-led negotiations, should not be held up by an issue of the future of one man. Basically, I believe that it is up to the Syrian people who have to decide the future of President Assad.

But, having said that, I know that this has been also discussed by among the participants in Vienna. But what is my understanding is what they have focused more is on how to initiate, restart the political process again. What is most needed at this time is to have a nation-wide ceasefire, so that humanitarian assistance could be delivered to many millions of people who need assistance; so that genuine dialogue should be started.

United Nations stands ready to do everything possible to help move the political process forward. We are ready to work with the Syrian parties to put in place a desperately needed national ceasefire and launch a Syrian-led political process that will lead to a credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance, followed by new constitutional and elections. In that course, I believe that the future of President Assad will be decided.

Q: On attacks on humanitarian facilities and hospitals

This is the main purpose of our meeting together, on an urgent basis. President Peter Maurer and I focused on this.

We are deeply concerned about the disrespect of International Humanitarian Law, and at particular the response from countries involved. There have been many such cases as we have seen most recently. The aerial attacks on the Médecins Sans Frontières‎ (MSF) hospital in Afghanistan, Kunduz, and also most recently in Yemen again, another MSF hospital.

Attack on hospitals and humanitarian workers, medical workers - that is a crime against humanity. I understand some inquiries by the United States and some countries are now going on. I have been urging them to have thorough, independent, credible investigation.

Whether this could be referred to independent, international inquiry – that is the prerogative of the Member States of the United Nations. I would support any such investigation, thorough, and independent and credible investigation, so that there will be no such repetition of harming doctors, and nurses and medical workers, and mostly patients and civilian populations.

That is why we must make sure that there should be firm commitment on this. What we have discussed today is that, first of all, we have to enhance compliance with International Humanitarian Law and accountability for violators.

Second, end the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, as they are likely to have indiscriminate effects. And thirdly, protecting and ensuring access to medical and humanitarian relief missions and fourthly, assisting and protecting the displaced and finding durable solutions for protracted displacement. These will be the ones, which we are going to discuss closely and make it happen.

In that regard, I expect that the 32nd Red Cross and Red Crescent meeting in December and also the World Humanitarian Summit meeting, which I will convene in May in Istanbul next year, will have a good opportunity to have some mechanism to enforce this.

Q: On international humanitarian fact finding mission to Kunduz, Afghanistan.

Secretary-General: I think I have answered partially just now. As I said, the US Government has begun their own investigation. I have urged them to have a very thorough, independent and credible investigation. And about initiating the international humanitarian fact finding mission, that, I think, is a prerogative of Member States. Having said that, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, I would fully support that idea.

Q: [In French: on Russian airplane crash in Egypt]

Secretary-General: I have seen the reports and I have also seen the report claiming responsibility of ISIL. Whoever has done it, it is totally unacceptable crime and I am condemning in the strongest possible terms, such a brutal crime committed against airlines and so many passengers. That is totally unacceptable and must be thoroughly investigated. At the same time, I would like to take this opportunity to express my deepest condolences and sympathy to the countries concerned, I think this time Russia, and also families of victims. Again, I hope there should be a thorough investigation on this matter.