In-depth: Civilian Protection in Armed Conflict

AFRICA: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Photo: ICRC
NAIROBI, 3 March 2003 (IRIN) - The reality of millions of civilians caught up in armed conflict is desperate, and civilians are now the main casualties of war worldwide - often specifically targeted by warring parties rather than merely caught up in the fighting.

"The toll of dead and wounded - particularly among innocent civilians - has risen to levels that can be described, without any exaggeration, as appalling," according to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In a series of reports and interviews that comprise this Web Special on Civilian Protection in Armed Conflict, IRIN explores the provisions for protection, the main problems encountered in achieving this, and the prospects and concerns for the future.

The web special also looks at particular problems in the area of protection, both thematically and geographically, bringing together many of the ideas, instruments and resources related to this area, including the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

Key issues surrounding IHL

IHL lays down the minimum protection and standards applicable to situations where people are most vulnerable in armed conflict. It aims to prevent situations that might exacerbate vulnerabilities, such as displacement and destruction of civilian property.

IHL law demands of belligerents that they respect the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, attack only military targets, and use only the degree of violence proportionate to their military requirements, all the while taking due care to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Regrettably, the practices of belligerents in war lag well behind legal requirements, and the global "culture of protection" of civilians called for by Kofi Annan is still a distant prospect. In short, civilians are in dire need of protection and assistance in situations of violence around the world.

The engagement by aid agencies in the protection of civilians is based on 'humanitarian principles', which derive from IHL and at once establish the nonaligned (neutral, impartial, independent) role of humanitarian agencies in situations of violence, and protect the "humanitarian space" required by agencies to assure the safety and welfare of civilians.

But the nature of war is changing - with conflicts increasingly inter-related, involving non-state actors and including the deliberate targeting of civilians - and this has led some observers to question the relevance, or at the least the applicability, of IHL.

Meanwhile, Kofi Annan and others have highlighted various challenges presented by the need to enhance the protection of civilians, as well as practical actions required and some of the tools and strategies that might be used.

The United Nations has also welcomed the inauguration of the International Criminal Court in March, as another part of the protection equation: providing for the prosecution of war criminals, and thus an end to impunity, in order to serve as a deterrent to those who would violate the rights of civilians, and others, in wartime.

In a special series of interviews, IRIN solicited the opinions of representatives from: the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Medecins Sans Frontieres, who have long been involved in terms of action and thinking on the issue; a protection expert from the Canadian government, which has been actively advocating a broad human security agenda; and a research fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute in Britain, which has been advancing useful critiques on principled humanitarian action, accountability, and the limits of humanitarianism, among other matters.

Humanitarian law has ample provision for dealing with modern warfare, according to ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger. The challenge is to have those provisions respected and put into practice by all.

But what are the barriers to this, how can they be overcome and IHL be made to work better for civilians, and what are the implications for humanitarian workers and agencies aiming to protect civilians? These questions are at the heart of the IRIN web special.
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