Uganda Heads Toward Humanity in Security Council

The Security Council floor last week was littered with wandering ambassadors and foreign ministers, each waiting their turn to talk about the protection of civilians in war. One after another, they called for stronger protections, denounced war crimes, and offered their countries' concern and condolences for the tragedies civilians suffer in conflict. Some were passionate -- others were diplomatic.

I believe most of them were sincere and their commitments to civilians are no small thing, if they follow through.

But Uganda deserves high praise for going a step further. Benedict Lukwiya, the Ugandan delegate, called on parties to conflict to make amends to civilians lawfully harmed by combat operations.

What's so special about that?

For starters, it has never before been done at the United Nations. International law provides redress for civilians harmed as a result of violations of international law (at least in theory), but warring parties have no such obligation to help civilians they've lawfully harmed in war. Lukwiya reminded his Security Council colleagues:

Long after the guns have gone silent, affected populations, many of whom end up losing everything, are left to pick up the pieces with no assistance, even from friendly forces. International law does not provide for making amends to individuals, who lose property or livelihood as a result of armed conflict.

These survivors, who constitute what is colloquially known as "collateral damage," are more often ignored or forgotten. So while most of the Security Council focused on justice and accountability for intentional harm committed against civilians, Uganda reminded us that the distinction between lawful and unlawful harm shouldn't give warring parties an excuse to walk away from civilian suffering.

Lukwiya continued:

This draft resolution calls for national reparation programs for victims as well as institutional reforms. However, my delegation would like to go a step farther and also recognize the need for all parties to armed conflict to emphasize the dignity of civilians by recognizing losses that result from lawful combat operations as well as providing meaningful amends to affected individuals and communities, such as financial assistance or funding for humanitarian aid programs.

Interestingly, the United States has an important "making amends" story, but chose not to tell it. The US military has a long tradition dating back to Vietnam of offering small amounts of monetary assistance to the families of civilians harmed as a result of U.S. combat operations.

Over the past few years, the US Congress has appropriated over $100 million for war victim assistance programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. These funds help survivors devastated by war get back on their feet.

The US wasn't required by any law to do these things. And even though the efforts aren't perfect, they helped hundreds of thousands of people. The failure to highlight them and urge other states to follow suit in the Security Council certainly seems a missed opportunity.

Now, Uganda doesn't have a perfect record on protection of civilians (northern Uganda, Somalia...). But in a brilliant moment at the Security Council lectern, Uganda did some heavy lifting for the benefit of civilians caught in war. Lukwiya summed up:

My delegation encourages all member state to embrace the concept of making amends - not because there is any legal obligation to do so, but simply in the interests of mitigating suffering and promoting humanity.