ISSUE 3 May 1995

Humanitarian Exchange Magazine

Draft Convention on the Safety of UN and Associated Personnel

by Humanitarian Practice Network

The safety and security of personnel working in war-torn communities has become a significant, and controversial, issue.

More peacekeepers have died in the six years since 1989, than in the previous four decades. Numerous UN and associated personnel have been killed, taken hostage or otherwise maltreated. The question of safety and security in Bosnia has challenged military and civilian personnel alike, and UNHCR has issued guidelines on procedures and safety equipment for civilian personnel.

In complex emergencies, particularly in areas where government authority has broken down, non-UN personnel working for NGOs have also lost their innocence.

In countries such as Somalia, some organisations have hired local gunmen or have paid ‘taxes’ to militia, or requested the protection of UN peacekeepers.

Stung by attacks on UN and associated personnel in Somalia and Cambodia, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in December 1993 calling for a legal response. In November 1994, the UN’s Sixth (Legal) Committee produced a Convention, sponsored by some 40 states (including the Russian Federation and the United States) which was adopted without a vote.

The Convention on the Safety of UN and Associated Personnel obliges host states to ensure the safety of personnel and their equipment to facilitate the prompt release on identification of captured and detained personnel, criminalises attacks or threats to attack personnel, and requires the exchange of information to prevent and record crimes. Finally, it introduces the ‘prosecute or extradite’ principle regarding alleged offenders.

However, the Convention is notable for its limitations regarding scope and implementation. First it applies only to personnel, whether civilian, military or police, who are engaged in a UN-controlled operation for maintaining or restoring international peace and security, or where the Security Council or General Assembly has declared that there is an ‘exceptional risk’ to the safety of personnel involved.

In effect, this means that it covers personnel who have been mandated by the Security Council, General Assembly or the Secretariat. To the disappointment of voluntary organisations and non-UN personnel, it generally excludes NGOs and bodies such as the ICRC, unless deployed under an agreement with the UN Secretary-General or a specialised UN agency.

It also excludes personnel who are operating in situations which do not fall into ‘exceptional risk’ or ‘peace and security’ operations. Second, the onus of legal obligation is placed firmly on states to comply with the provisions. Indeed, the specified crimes have to be incorporated into national law. Jurisdiction over the crimes remains under state control, the right of states to prevent persons entering their territory is safeguarded, and the principle of host consent to the immunities of UN and associated personnel is emphasised.

The Convention is likely to be ratified by at least 22 states, the number required to bring it into effect. The impact of the Convention on the security of NGO personnel remains to be seen. Will it lead to the arrest and prosecution of those who attack aid convoys protected by peace-keeping forces? If so, would this itself exacerbate violence in the longer term by leading to revenge attacks on aid personnel?

Once again, it is unclear whether the UN analysis of the dynamics of violence in complex emergencies is accurate and relevant. In addition, the loophole of selectivity has been built in, whereby the Security Council and the General Assembly can decide where, when and to whom the instrument applies. In the light of these limitations and those described above, NGOs would be right to remain wary that this new Convention will exert a profound influence on the security of their operations.

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