Beyond the headlines: an agenda for action to protect civilians in neglected conflicts
by Amelia Bookstein, Oxfam GB February 2004

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, the leaders of the major international powers have focused on what they perceive as the greatest threat to global security: the combination of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.

This is clearly wider than US policy alone: at the G8 summit in France in 2003, the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US agreed that this combination represented the greatest current threat to world security.  In Europe, the current draft of the constitution for the European Union (EU) dangerously entangles humanitarian relief in the counter-terrorism agenda. The EU Security Strategy, proposed by High Representative Javier Solana at the Thessaloniki summit in June 2003, is also largely framed in terms of counter-terrorism and the threat of weapons of mass destruction.  Across the world, governments and leaders have made the fight against terrorism their stated priority, and have channelled billions of dollars into actions defended by these arguments.  The rhetoric of ‘the war on terror’ has been used to justify crackdowns on refugees, firing on civilians as suspected terrorists and increased arms flows to states with precarious human rights records. The independence of humanitarian organisations and their ability to operate in contentious areas are also under real threat.

Terror and the world’s neglected wars

Although the threats from terrorism are real, terror is nothing new for millions of people caught up in the world’s seemingly intractable conflicts.  Rebels and governments alike have been terrifying civilians for years in too many civil conflicts.  Oxfam and our partners already witness mass destruction: from Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Indonesia, millions of people are killed, raped, injured or forced to flee their homes.

Direct attacks on civilians are part of the harsh reality of most conflicts across the globe. From Liberia to Uganda, Chechnya to Colombia, international humanitarian law is not adequately upheld by combatants or enforced by the international community, and the suffering of civilians continues unabated.  For decades, these conflicts have caused much more death and destruction than terrorism.  The attention given to the ‘war on terror’ threatens to eclipse this suffering still further, as warring parties fight with impunity.

From its work around the world, Oxfam has observed the high human cost as the international community abandons civilians to struggle through conflict unaided.  We believe it is time to refocus international attention on the conflicts that kill and impoverish millions of people year in and year out – conflicts in most ways unrelated to events since 2001.  The international community currently responds to these crises in an inconsistent way in terms of both political and diplomatic commitment, and humanitarian aid.

Nearly half of all funds given by donor governments in 2002 to the UN’s 25 humanitarian appeals went to just one country, Afghanistan – a desperately poor place, but one that was also top of the list of priorities in the ‘war on terror’.  The remaining 24 had to struggle by on what was left. This pattern of funding recurs year after year. The British government’s announcement in October 2003 that it planned to reallocate funding from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Central Asia in order to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq is just the latest example of this trend.

While Oxfam is not advocating a reduction of funding to any emergency where there is need, the challenge is to provide funding without diverting resources from the millions of people affected by other emergencies.  Donors must come up with new funds for new emergencies, and provide guarantees that they will not siphon off money from lesser-known crises to the one in the spotlight.

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War, peace and protection

We also know from our experience of working in dozens of conflicts that what civilians in war need is not primarily money, but peace. But until peace is possible, ensuring the protection of civilians is crucial.  All governments have duties under international humanitarian law to protect civilians from the worst ravages of war, to allow them to live free from violence, coercion and deprivation. Yet the international community is failing to provide that protection for most children, women and men in conflict.

There is no one-size-fits-all action to protect civilians, but international engagement is critical.  There is a range of actions that the international community must pursue more consistently:

  • Strong diplomatic pressure on warring parties to adhere to international humanitarian law in all conflicts. All military action must preserve the immunity of civilians.
  • Political support for difficult negotiations to secure access for civilians to humanitarian aid behind the lines of fire.
  • Refusing to tolerate abuse by allies in the ‘war on terror’ or in any other conflict situation.
  • Ensuring that humanitarian aid is distributed based on need, not politics. This is the responsibility of donors and multilateral organisations, as well as humanitarian agencies.
  • Ensuring that humanitarian needs and risks are assessed to the best standard of practice. Humanitarian agencies and the UN have a duty to ensure that needs assessments integrate methodologies across sectors to allow for a more precise measurement of need and risk.
  • In extreme cases, it may be necessary to contribute resources or troops to a UN-mandated mission to enforce a ceasefire and to protect civilians.
  • In all cases, states must act to prevent the supply of arms from fuelling conflicts or contributing to the abuse of human rights.

All the threats to human security must be addressed in a way that reinforces the foundations of the international multilateral system and upholds international humanitarian law designed to protect civilians.

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Since 2001, the UN Security Council has once more been overwhelmed by geopolitical events, rather than rising to the challenge. Some trends are deeply worrying.  If governments act unilaterally or in narrow coalitions, without the support or sanction of the Security Council, they not only undermine the legitimacy of their immediate actions; they also weaken the multilateral system, which is the only means of organising concerted action against widespread violence against civilians.

The world needs multilateralism in order to address widespread death and suffering. The leadership of the UN Security Council is crucial.  Despite the failures of the Security Council to fulfil its vital mandate to uphold international peace and security, it remains the only body that can authorise actions, such as Operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that can be indispensable to save lives.  Such interventions are, at times, desperately needed; they are practical proof of the existence of a committed international community that seeks to protect civilians wherever they are threatened.

It is essential to support and enhance this multilateral system. Any further moves must strengthen, not undermine, the agreed rules and standards to protect civilians. Concrete steps like the ones outlined above must be taken now to redress the damaging trends which have been set since 11 September.

The challenge is great, and it is not simply for the warring parties. It is a challenge for all governments, all signatories to the Geneva Conventions, all donors, and the UN as a collective body.  To ignore this challenge would be to abandon the historic undertaking that was made at the end of the Second World War: that we, the peoples, are committed to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. The international community must fulfil this pledge, and pursue all possible means to protect civilians from the worst ravages of conflict.


Amelia Bookstein is a Policy Advisor for Conflict for Oxfam GB.


References and further reading

Amnesty International ‘A Catalogue of Failures: G8 Arms Exports and Human Right Violations’, IOR/30/003/2003, 2003.

James Darcy and Charles-Antoine Hoffman, According to Need? Needs Assessment and Decision Making in the Humanitarian Sector, HPG Report 15 (London: ODI, July 2003).

Development Initiatives, Global Humanitarian Assistance 2003 (Nottingham: Russell Press, 2003).

Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, 1996.

Ian Smilie and Larry Minear, The Quality of Money: Donor Behaviour and Humanitarian Financing (Boston, MA: Tufts University Humanitarianism and War Project, 2003).

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