Civilians still the primary victims of armed conflict

A new report from Oxfam, Protection of Civilians in 2010: Facts, figures, and the UN Security Council’s response (Report), offers a clear and disturbing account of the devastating impact of war, but goes on to present a compelling set of recommendations designed to enhance both national and international protections to vulnerable civilians.

Throughout, the report refers to the lack of reliable information and calls for the
international community to become much more consistent in considering responses
to crises wherever they occur.

The challenge to protect civilians in the context of armed conflict is a much broader objective than that of the “responsibility to protect.” The latter focuses on the prevention of mass atrocities defined by the phrase, “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The protection of civilians is focused on the obligation to prevent harm to civilians in the conduct of hostilities generally – an obligation to protect
in all situations, not just those that reach the level of mass atrocities.

Focused on the impact of war on civilians in 2010, here are some highlights from the Executive Summary.

“Worldwide, civilians continue to bear the brunt of armed conflict. In 2010, millions of men, women, and children were threatened, injured, killed, raped, displaced, recruited by force, or deprived of safe water and food.

“Reported civilian fatalities in Afghanistan stood at 2,777 for 2010, representing an increase of 15 per cent on 2009 figures.

“Last year, Sudan had both the highest level overall of people remaining internally-displaced – around 5 million – and the highest number of people newly displaced by conflict. In 2010, over 532,000 people were displaced within the country: over half of these were in Darfur and the remainder in Southern Sudan.

“Somalia was further engulfed in fighting and a severe humanitarian crisis. According to UNHCR, 2010 was the worst year in a decade for civilian casualties, with at least 7,600 people reporting weapons-related injuries. Other reports indicate at least 2,100 civilian deaths recorded in Mogadishu alone.

“In Colombia, 2010 saw roughly 280,000 people displaced as a result of internal conflict.

“In Iraq, the positive trend over the past three years of declining civilian casualties continued, but civilian deaths still exceeded 4,000, making it the conflict-affected country with the highest number of civilian fatalities.

“Following spikes in violence in 2009 in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel and Chad, 2010 saw significantly fewer civilian casualties, although the protection of civilians remains an overall concern in those areas.

“The Lord’s Resistance Army, operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Sudan, continued to regularly attack civilians across these countries, displacing tens of thousands of people. In 2010, 306 known LRA attacks resulted in 355 deaths and 680 abductions.”

The report recalls the core mandate of the UNSC to maintain international peace and security and explains that since 1999, especially in the aftermath large-scale
civilian atrocities in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, the Security
Council has made the protection of civilians a key concern. In an eminently readable and informative account, the report offers a careful and critical assessment of the Security Council’s implementation of this commitment.

Here are just two of the report’s many recommendations:

“States, whether hosting conflicts or not, should actively work to protect civilians from armed conflict and grave violence by using mediation and diplomatic tools to prevent violence and by acting at the earliest stage of a foreseeable crisis. This requires investment in early-warning capabilities to monitor and respond to rising threats before they erupt.”

“At a global level, the UNSC must provide clear leadership in protecting civilians affected by conflict by acting consistently to protect civilians, particularly when the authorizing the use of force, ensuring that such authorization is based on a clear articulation of threats and risks to civilians, and indicating how the proposed actions will minimize and address such threats.”

For the full report, go to the Oxfam website : http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/protection-of-civilians-in-2010-09052011-en.pdf.

eregehr@uwaterloo.ca

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