President Kaljulaid of Estonia: pandemic cannot be used as pretext to hinder access of humanitarian aid

Open Debate via VTC at the UN Security Council on Protection of Civilian in Armed Conflict

The restrictions on movement related to the pandemic are understandable, but they must not be used to artificially obstruct the provision of humanitarian aid in conflict areas, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid said at a high-level discussion on the protection of civilians in armed conflict at the UN Security Council today.

At the heart of Estonia’s work in the Security Council is compliance with international law, and it is important that international law including international humanitarian law is not applied selectively, the Estonian Head of State explained. Under the pretext of the pandemic the flow of the humanitarian aid is artificially obstructed and will not reach the most vulnerable. For example, 3.5 million people in occupied eastern Ukraine are in need of humanitarian aid and protection after six years of war. “Estonia also calls for unimpeded humanitarian access in Syria. All arguments not to extend the cross-border mechanism in July don’t correspond with the reality on the ground,” President Kaljulaid added.

President Kaljulaid also stated that the Security Council is not sufficiently implementing what has already been agreed to protect civilians in conflict areas, and the pandemic adds even more risks that we must be able to mitigate. According to the Head of State, it is extremely unfortunate that the Security Council has still not been able to give joint approval to the call of the UN Secretary General António Guterres for a global ceasefire, thus not using its voice that has a moral force.

In her speech, President Kaljulaid also encouraged the use of new technologies that could improve the availability of humanitarian aid and called not to get bogged down in the discussions of the Security Council over wording disputes, which do not contribute to the protection of civilians. The full text of President Kaljulaid’s speech is attached to the press release.

The high-level discussion took place within the framework of the Estonian Presidency with the briefings by UN Secretary General António Guterres, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer, and former President of Liberia and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.


Statement by  President Kersti Kaljulaid at a high-level discussion on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts at the UN Security Council

Mr Secretary General,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, thank you for the comprehensive and insightful briefings.

Mine starts with a confession. I feel helpless. And also, responsible that I am not able to do more to put things right.

Sitting on the safe side of the conflict line in Ukraine, talking to some of the 1,4 million who have fled the war in Ukraine, Europe, in the 21st century. But some 3,5 million have been left behind, in dire need of humanitarian assistance and protection.

Or visiting a shelter of the UN Migration Organization, trying to comprehend the suffering of the minors gathered there, some bearing the wounds life should have never inflicted on these young ones. I feel inadequate. All the things I brought them feel inadequate, too.

All of us, the leaders, collectively feel so inadequate. When I look into these young eyes, full of acceptance of their fate, I cannot fully comprehend. Time stands still, at a point in their timeline, where the past is suffering and the future is insecure.

Estonia has put the principles of international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, at the center of our work here, in the Security Council. The Secretary General’s annual report indicates that the normative framework for the protection of civilians is not really working in real life.

We are, indeed, inadequate in implementing what we have agreed already.  The pandemic adds a new layer of risks, which we must be able to mitigate.

Estonia supports the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire during the COVID pandemic. The Security Council must really do something about it, making sure at least state actors heed the call.

I’m particularly concerned about the most vulnerable – women, children and adolescents. In Africa, midwives are presented with daily fears of becoming infected with various diseases, not just COVID-19, while attending to mothers. Patricia Mwenyeheri, a midwife in Malawi, only has access to one hand washing basin in her maternity ward. Is this adequate? Two weeks ago, a four-year-old girl was raped in Mogadishu. Is this gruesome sexual-violence acceptable?

Tomorrow, a virtual Every Woman Every Child high-level roundtable will discuss what can we do specifically in these trying times, when the only positive is that the health threats people constantly face in less developed parts of the world, ravaged by conflict, are more palpable for all of us, because of COVID. 

Estonia has contributed to the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan and the International Red Cross appeals.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In Libya, 221 schools are non-functional. Unlawful attacks against schools, universities, students and teachers are frequent in conflicts around the globe. In February, journalists Abdel Nasser Haj Hamdan and Amjad Aktalati were killed in an airstrike on Idlib, while they were providing us primary source information from the conflict in Syria. We must protect civil society organizations and human rights defenders who are our partners, who are practically delivering, risking their lives. The war has an ever-changing face – urbanization of conflict, climate change – but they all confirm the significance of the fundamental framework of international law.

New technologies can improve humanitarian assistance. Artificial intelligence is already reuniting lost family members separated by conflict, as people testify on the Red Cross Trace the Face web site. At the same time, we have seen cyber-attacks targeting critical infrastructure, including healthcare. Therefore, existing international law needs to apply also in cyber space. And cyber security has to be part of both conflict prevention and resolutions. Estonia promised to bring cyber security to the Security Council and I believe we have delivered.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There are a number of tools for the Council to enhance compliance with international law and to ensure accountability. Investigative and judicial mechanisms. Mandating peacekeeping missions. Targeted sanctions. These tools need to be applied consistently across conflict situations. When it comes to sanctions, we observe with concern how the global pandemic is used as a pretext to call for their termination. Sanctions are built so as not to hinder humanitarian aid. There are other developments which do.

Estonia calls for unimpeded humanitarian access in Syria. All arguments not to extend the cross-border mechanism in July don’t correspond with the reality on the ground.

We must value accountability. Member states have to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Court.  UN monitoring missions of the conflicts also raise valuable awareness of the perpetrators and their actions on the ground.

The Secretary-General has repeatedly pointed to the key element of political will in moving from normative commitments to actual improvement in the protection of civilians. It is sometimes hard to comprehend how blatantly lacking this will can be. I see every time that girl with one hand, trying to care for a little sister – an image of pure, innocent suffering – each and every time I hear we could not agree on the wording here in SC. We are powerful, together, aided by international law and good people globally – if we want to be.