Current Challenges for International Humanitarian law – Opening Statement

Virtual event “Key-topics in current challenges for IHL”

Portuguese Presidency of the Working Party on Public International Law (COJUR)

Co-hosted by the ICRC


Opening statement by EUSR Gilmore

8 June 2021


Good afternoon everyone. I am delighted to be here with you today. I would like to thank the Portuguese Presidency and the ICRC for inviting me to make an opening statement at this timely event on international humanitarian law. Looking forward to the discussion on the four IHL topics identified by the ICRC in the 2019 report “International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts”.

I would to thank the Portuguese Presidency for your excellent engagement on human rights, IHL and international criminal justice matters and to the ICRC for your tireless efforts around the globe to preserve human dignity and relieve suffering in conflict situations as well as your crucial work as the guardian of IHL.

In February 2019, the Council added a new emphasis to my mandate to contribute to the promotion of compliance with IHL and the promotion of support for international criminal justice, in particular, support for the ICC. This emphasis remained in the renewal of my mandate in February 2021. Let me give you two examples of what I have done.

First, my engagement to mainstream IHL in my bilateral and multilateral engagement. I have co-chaired or opened several EU Human Rights Dialogues with third countries. In cases, where it has been relevant, IHL and international criminal justice issues have been raised, as in the Human Rights Dialogues with Colombia, Myanmar and Ukraine. Issues raised include the protection of civilians and children, medical care and humanitarian access as well as the need for accountability for violations of IHL as an important part of combatting impunity and building peace.

Secondly, real time engagement on humanitarian contexts and conflicts. During the last year, I have worked closely with the EUSR for Sahel, to jointly address the increase in violations of human rights and IHL in the Sahel, including alleged violations committed by defence and security forces. We are engaging with the UN, regional and national actors in order to support Sahel countries in ensuring the protection of human rights and IHL.

To address the situation we are currently witnessing in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, I have met with the Minister of Finance and Minister for Women, Children and Youth on the situation. I have also talked with the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and reiterated EU’s concerns in relation to the humanitarian crisis, the need for humanitarian access, sexual violence and monitoring and documentation of alleged violations on human rights and IHL and welcomed the cooperation with the OHCHR in this regard.

In May, I met with the Yemeni Minister for Legal Affairs and Human Rights, where I raised EU’s strong concern of lack of humanitarian access, of the recruitment and use of children in the armed conflict and the widespread lack of accountability for violations committed.

The main vehicle for my work over the next 2 years will the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. The Action Plan will serve as a springboard to address not just human rights challenges in third countries but also challenges related to IHL as the Plan also includes a number of important objectives on IHL.

My engagement on IHL is complementary to existing efforts by other EU structures, such as the EEAS, the Commission, including DG ECHO and as well as drawing on and actively supporting Member States’ efforts.

The EU is committed to put the promotion of and adherence to IHL at the heart of its external action, as stated in the EU Guidelines on Promoting Compliance with IHL. This means supporting training in IHL, in particular for military and security forces. It also includes leveraging the EU’s political, economic and military weight to promote IHL compliance, as outlined by the Commission’s recent Communication on the EU’s humanitarian action and confirmed by the Council Conclusions adopted on its basis.

The EU advocates for the universalisation of IHL instruments. The EU calls on states that have not yet done so to ratify and fully implement important IHL instruments, such as the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions.

With armed conflicts increasingly fought in urban areas, exposing civilians and civilian infrastructure to substantial risk, ensuring compliance with IHL is crucial. The EU recognises the challenges associated with the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas and the impact on civilians particularly in many recent conflicts. In this regard, the EU has welcomed the ongoing consultation process, “Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare”, which Ireland have launched with the aim to contribute to the elaboration of a Political Declaration.

Climate change and environmental degradation, including in armed conflicts and on the protection of civilians, is of great concern and requires urgent joint actions. The EU condemns the use of the destruction of the environment as a means of warfare, especially where there it directly affects the civilian population and the access to natural resources for water, food and livelihoods. I also welcome the ICRC’s work in clarifying the obligations of parties to conflicts through the Guidelines it issued on protection of natural environment in armed conflict.

In line with Council Conclusions on Humanitarian Assistance and IHL of 2019, the EU recognises the need to take into account the potential effect of counter-terrorism measures, including sanctions, on humanitarian action. In addition, the EU reiterates that any EU measures including designing and applying restrictive measures and all counter-terrorism measures, must be in accordance with all obligations under international law. The importance of fully adhering to humanitarian principles and IHL in EU sanctions policy has also been reaffirmed in the Council’s recent Conclusions of 20 May.

Let me end by saying, it is not the lack of law that is causing suffering, casualties, and destruction in armed conflict, but violations of the most fundamental rules of IHL. We all have a responsibility to take effective and comprehensive measures to ensure compliance with that law.

Thank you!