For a Safer Tomorrow

Protecting civilians in a multipolar world

Published: 26 September 2008

In the DRC, increasing violence has forced 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. Sixty years after the main Geneva Conventions enshrined civilians’ rights to protection, they are violated in every current conflict.

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. There are, however, successful examples of protecting civilians that show what governments and others can do when they choose to.

They have an interest in protecting civilians, 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 technology.

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. 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.