Etienne Hakizimana (left), his daughter Christian Tuamini (center, age 12), and his wife Dusabe Dukundane, in their family run shop in Magunga IDP camp in Goma. Credit: Liz Lucas/Oxfam America
Too many civilians continue to die in conflict

Preventing atrocities: the real test of new world order

“In today’s interdependent world no country is immune to the insecurity and threats from a conflict on the other side of the globe.”
Ed Cairns
Policy advisor, Oxfam
Published: 29 September 2008

The major shift in global power provides an opportunity to protect all civilians from genocide and other atrocities, said international agency Oxfam in a new report published today.

For a Safer Tomorrow - Protecting Civilians in a Multipolar World warns that the world will be less safe for all unless emerging and existing global powers work together better to prevent atrocities and ensure the safety of people caught up in armed conflict.

A new US President, the re-emergence of Russia, the rise of China and India, and a stronger European Union and African Union creates a different world order which must do a better job protecting people whose lives are threatened by conflict. During the recent crisis in Georgia, there was much debate about the impact on world politics but less about the civilians caught in the fighting and forced to flee their homes.

“Ensuring the safety of civilians has got to be the overriding priority in any conflict, including the ‘war on terror’. For far too long, governments have agreed that civilians must be protected but when it comes to the crunch – and peoples’ lives are at risk - too often narrow, self-interest takes priority. As we have seen from Afghanistan to Iraq, civilian casualties can ferment existing anger and feelings of injustice, and contribute to a continuous cycle of violence and revenge,“ said the report author Ed Cairns of Oxfam.

“In today’s interdependent world no country is immune to the insecurity and threats from a conflict on the other side of the globe. It is in all our interests to ensure that civilians are protected.”

In 2006, 63 per cent of the world’s refugees were from Iraq and Afghanistan while Oxfam’s own research shows that between 1990 and 2005, armed conflict cost Africa an average of $18bn a year.

The report states that the ‘war on terror’ has overshadowed crises like the Democratic Republic of Congo which, with a death toll more than twice that of Iraq, has lost 5.4 million or eight per cent of its people to conflict, and the deadly hunger and disease that it has unleashed since 1998. This year more than a thousand women a month have reported being raped, many as part of a systematic campaign linked to the conflict.

For a Safer Tomorrow is based on Oxfam’s experience responding to the world’s conflicts for more than 60 years. It reviews the protection of civilians in current and recent conflicts, and examines the implications of the shift in global power. It sets out an agenda to protect civilians through local, national and regional action with far more consistent international support.

“In the past, the world has failed to protect people from murder and assault in places like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The emerging world order must do a much better job if we are to ensure the changing world is not just a different world but a safer one too,” said Cairns.

It will take political will and fortitude to prevent future genocides and atrocities.  However examples from the last year show that when the world is willing to act to prevent bloodshed or to bring to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity, it can get results.

In January 2008 Kenya did not collapse into bloody civil war, partly because of local community action to prevent widespread outbreaks of violence as well as efforts by African and international leaders to restore peace. In July, former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, was captured after 13 years on the run and is headed for justice at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

In order to protect civilians caught up in armed conflict and improve global peace and stability, Oxfam is calling on the international community to:

  • make the safety of civilians the overriding priority in the response to conflicts
  • adopt zero tolerance of war crimes – whether in counter-terrorism or elsewhere
  • act much more quickly to tackle the trends that threaten new or prolonged conflicts – including poverty and inequality, climate change and arms proliferation
  • urge all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to renounce the use of their veto when it comes to war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Read the report: For a Safer Tomorrow: Protecting Civilians in a Multipolar World

Notes to Editors

In 2005 at the UN World Summit almost every government in the world agreed that they had a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ their people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and that the international community also has a responsibility to help – firstly to support governments in doing so, and secondly, to act if any government fails to protect its own citizens.