UNSC’s efforts to protect civilians in armed conflict inconsistent and at times biased

Published: 9th May 2011

Oxfam report as UN Security Council debates on Protection of Civilians

The international community's record on protecting civilians in 2010 was uneven and often biased, according to a new report published today by international agency Oxfam. Thousands of civilians were killed in conflicts last year alone while millions were displaced from their homes.

The report comes as the United Nations Security Council, the most powerful body of the UN, holds a discussion which looks at its own successes and failures regarding the recently much publicized principle of 'protection of civilians'.

In its report “Protection of Civilians in 2010”, the aid agency looked at 18 different armed conflicts that affected civilians throughout the world in 2010 and examined - amongst others - the number of civilians reported to have been killed, raped or displaced, as well as what actions the UN Security Council took or failed to take. The report also looked at the problem of child soldiers and at the number of aid workers killed in the course of 2010.

Among the main findings based on the various data available compiled by Oxfam in its report:

  • The highest numbers of reported direct civilian fatalities in 2010 could be found in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia, where it has been estimated that, respectively, at least 4,000, 3,500, 2,700 and 2,000 civilians died.
  • Last year, Sudan had both the highest level overall of people remaining internally displaced – around 5 million – and with over 532,000 newly displaced – the highest number of people newly displaced by conflict in 2010,
  • Somalia had the highest displacement ratio, with over 16 per cent of its overall population remaining displaced, many who have been displaced for years.
  • Recruitment of child soldiers was ongoing in at least 10 of the 18 conflict affected countries studied in this report. In Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Somalia, this practice was been reported in both governmental and non-state armed groups/forces
  • Afghanistan remained the most dangerous place to work for aid workers in 2010: 29 were killed, while 71 were abducted. This corresponds to a 153 per cent increase over 2009, and is roughly eight times the 2008 figure.

Action should correspond to needs on the ground

Oxfam says in its report that action taken by the UN body to protect civilians affected by armed conflict should ideally correspond to the needs on the ground. These potential actions should respond to reliable information and analysis of threats to civilians, and as the report asserts, 'should be designed to protect civilians in greatest need'.

"We've seen over the course of 2010 that the way the international community decides who to prioritize, who to protect, is very arbitrary. The first months of 2011 are no different, with events in several troubled spots failing to generate nearly the same level of political engagement, or willingness to act swiftly, as recent events in Libya did,” said Nicolas Vercken of Oxfam and author of the report.

“Over a quarter of a million people were newly displaced in Colombia in 2010 and yet the country did not make it onto the Security Council's agenda. We need to ensure a consistent response to threats to civilians stuck in the middle of conflicts.”

Lack of information on most conflicts

The report also looks at the lack of information on civilians affected by conflicts made available to UN member states. While crucial information on protection of civilians is publicly available for high-profile conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, the UN Security Council lacks such data for the majority of conflicts, such as those in Somalia, DRC or Yemen.

Nicolas Vercken: "To put it bluntly, it's hard to see how the Security Council can make well-informed and effective decisions in the absence of reliable data or analysis on threats and incidents. It’s a crucial part of the process – to remind parties of their obligations to minimize violence against civilians and to help them decide where to act and what measures to adopt. That's simply not happening now."

Of the 18 conflict countries examined in the Oxfam report as being those with significant protection threats, only ten appeared on the UN Security Council’s agenda. As for previous years, the Council did not discuss in 2010 – nor adopt a Resolution or a Presidential Statement – on ongoing armed conflicts in Colombia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Yemen, or to hold a coherent regional discussion looking at all the areas affected by the Lord Resistance Army (LRA).

A range of options to protect civilians

The UNSC has a range of options to prevent and stop widespread violence against civilians in conflict zones – from mediation and diplomatic missions, arms and trade embargoes, sanctions, setting up courts and tribunals, peacekeeping missions, to authorizing the use of military force.

"There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response to protection of civilians in conflict-affected areas. However, the plight of civilians trapped in conflict, whether they are wounded, displaced or raped, regardless of the country, deserves attention from the international community. We ought to have consistency. This is what international humanitarian law and the principle of protection of civilians is all about,” said Surendrini Wijeyaratne, Humanitarian Policy Adviser of the Oxfam New York Office.

The report also calls on the UN system, along with regional organizations, national governments, parties to conflict, NGOs, and others, to make concerted progress in providing information on the threats to civilians in conflicts to the UN Security Council as a step towards a more consistent response to threats to civilians.

Read more

Download the report: Protection of Civilians in 2010

Take action: Help make families across central Africa safer

Oxfam's Conflicts and Emergencies Campaign

We've seen over the course of 2010 that the way the international community decides who to prioritize, who to protect, is very arbitrary.
Nicolas Vercken
Author of the report

Notes to editors

  • Eighteen countries were selected for review, based on ongoing conflict and grave human rights concerns, their presence in conflict databases and reports - specifically those of Project Ploughshares ( www.ploughshares.ca ), the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ( www.sipri.org ), and the Uppsala Conflict Data Program ( www.ucdp.uu.se ) - and their prominence in UNSC debates and Resolutions in the years 2008–10. Attention has also been given to the particular cross-border threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The eighteen countries chosen for inclusion were Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, India, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, the Occupied Palestinian Territories/Israel, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, and Yemen.
  • “Inclusion in the agenda” is defined by references made in either UNSC Resolutions, UNSC Presidential Statements, formal scheduled debates by the UNSC, or reports of the Secretary-General produced by the Council's body.


  • Of 26 relevant Resolutions in 2010, just ten included protection of civilians in their operational paragraphs; of these, three were related to Côte d’Ivoire and two each to Sudan and DRC. Resolutions on Afghanistan, Chad and CAR, and Somalia also included such commitments. None of the four Resolutions on Iraq included a commitment to action on Protection of civilians.
  • Following the pattern of 2009 figures, which indicated over 15,000 cases of rape in DRC, by mid-2010 a total of 7,685 new cases had been identified.
  • In Colombia, 2010 saw another wave of roughly 280,000 people displaced, continuing the trend of the two previous years.

Contact information

Louis Belanger on +1 917 224 0834 or louis.belanger@oxfaminternational.org