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For a Safer Tomorrow: Protecting civilians in a multipolar world

by Luna Allison | May 11, 2010


One night in March 2007, soldiers arrived in
the village of Buramba in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). By
the time they left at least 15 people were dead. At 5.30 in the
morning’, one survivor said, I saw the soldiers coming to our
house…They kicked down the door, and killed eight people inside. Only
my four grandchildren survived. [They] continued firing in the village.
I fled into the bush. I returned three days later to see the bodies of
my children and my mother. The bodies were in latrines; I could see the
feet of my mother sticking out.’

The point about this
story is not that it is shocking, but that in many parts of the world
it is unexceptional. In the DRC, the violence that has increased since
that incident has forced even more people to flee from their homes, and
led to the deaths of almost 1,500 people a day. Though no other
conflict causes that kind of death rate, Oxfam’s workers hear similar
stories of murder, rape, and displacement from men and women from
Colombia to Sudan every day. That is why Oxfam is publishing this
report. Sixty years after the main Geneva Conventions enshrined
civilians’ rights to protection, they are violated in every current
conflict. Many people sympathise with those who suffer these
atrocities, but feel impotent to do anything about it. Many governments
feel the same. They think that there is little that can be done. That
is wrong.

Some states and non-state actors choose to kill
civilians, or pursue strategies in which civilians are too likely to
die. Some governments choose to protect their citizens: to keep them
safe. Some do not protect all of them, or not well enough. This report
will argue that this is far from inevitable that successful examples
of protecting civilians show what governments and others can do when
they choose to. It will argue that they have an interest in doing so,
because mass atrocities fuel the conflicts that, in an interdependent
world, create security threats that cannot be contained. And an
increasing number of governments have a moral interest’ too, because
their electorates expect them to help prevent, not just condemn, the
atrocities they see beamed around the world through modern information

Governments and others can reduce the mass atrocities
that blight the world in the early twenty-first century. To do so, they
need to make four changes that this report will explore. They need to:

  • make
    the protection of civilians the overriding priority in the response to
    conflicts everywhere actively working to protect civilians, and
    upholding the Responsibility to Protect civilians from mass atrocities,
    agreed at the 2005 UN World Summit, as a cornerstone of policy;
  • adopt
    zero tolerance of war crimes whether in counter-terrorism or
    elsewhere applying the same standard of international opprobrium to
    war crimes committed by friends or foes alike;
  • act
    much more quickly to tackle the trends that threaten new or prolonged
    conflicts including poverty and inequality, climate change, and arms
    proliferation so that we can be better at preventing as well as
    reacting to conflicts;
  • join up effective action
    at every level, from local communities to the UN Security Council so
    that international action works in conjunction with what works on the
    ground. To help achieve this, the way the UN Security Council works
    should be urgently reformed with greater transparency and
    accountability, in which the Council’s members have to account for
    their performance in pursuing international peace and security,
    including their Responsibility to Protect civilians from mass
    atrocities. All permanent members of the Security Council should
    renounce the use of their veto when the Council is discussing
    situations of actual or incipient war crimes, crimes against humanity,
    ethnic cleansing, and genocide.

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