5 Ways to Better Protect Civilians in Conflict Zones

Credit: Giles Clarke for OCHA

Each year on World Humanitarian Day, we stand in solidarity with the millions of people affected by conflict and the aid and health workers who risk their lives to assist them. We take the day as an opportunity to remind the world of our collective responsibility to bring that suffering to an end.

World Humanitarian Day marks the bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad on 19 August 2003, in which 22 people were killed.

Today, in conflict zones all over the world, civilians are routinely killed or maimed, towns and cities are damaged and destroyed, in targeted or indiscriminate attacks. People are cut off from food, water and life-saving assistance, in some cases, starved as a deliberate tactic of war.

Humanitarian and medical personnel are killed, injured, kidnapped or otherwise prevented from reaching people in need. They are exposed to legal obstacles and even forms of punishment for impartially providing aid and care to people who need it to survive.

Civilians in conflict zones are #NotATarget. This year, we are continuing our #NotATarget campaign by launching the first-ever living petition to call leaders gathering at next month’s UN General Assembly to take concrete action to protect civilians in conflict, in line with their international obligations.

Here we call for five actions, that if taken, will better protect civilians in conflict zones around the world.

Credit: Thaer Al Khalidiya/REUTERS
  1. Parties to conflict should avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Last year, three out of every four victims of explosive weapons were civilians. The use of air-dropped bombs, artillery, mortars, rockets, IEDs and other explosive weapons in towns and cities kills and maims civilians, and destroys and damages their homes, hospitals, schools, electricity grids and water and sanitation systems — the critical infrastructure they rely on. This has devastating long-term consequences for civilians. Whenever parties have embraced tactical alternatives, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the number of civilians injured or killed has dropped dramatically. We echo the UN Secretary-General’s call on all parties to avoid using explosive weapons in populated areas.

Credit: Giles Clarke for OCHA

2. The UN Security Council should not accept attacks on children as the “new normal” of armed conflict.

Attacks on children in armed conflicts have continued unabated during the first six months of the year, and many long-running wars have seen new spikes in the killing and maiming of children in attacks, from the Central African Republic to South Sudan, and from Syria and Yemen to Afghanistan and beyond. Warring parties have indiscriminately or deliberately attacked schools, hospitals and essential water infrastructure; used children as human shields; recruited children into armed groups and State forces; killed children with chemical weapons; raped and sexually exploited children; and forced them to be suicide bombers.

We must not accept this as the “new normal” of armed conflict. We call for zero tolerance for methods of warfare that deliberately or indiscriminately harm children. Parties to conflict respect international humanitarian law, and their commitments on child protection, such as the Safe Schools Declaration. It is essential that the United Nations Security Council holds parties to conflicts to account, and prioritizes actions which protect children, such as the July resolution related to children recruited into armed groups.

Credit: Giles Clarke for OCHA

3. States should ensure that civilians in conflict zones can access medical care and humanitarian assistance, and they should enable humanitarian and health workers to work in safety.

According to the 2018 Aid Worker Security Report, 313 aid workers were attacked in 2017, resulting in 139 deaths. In the same year, the World Health Organisation recorded 322 attacks on medical workers, that resulted in 242 deaths. Directing attacks against medical or aid workers violates international humanitarian law, which outlines the obligations of fighting parties to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches people in need; and medical care is provided for the wounded and sick –fighters and civilians. All parties to armed conflict and Member States should implement the Secretary-General’s recommendations on the protection of medical care. Attacks against humanitarian aid or medical care must be investigated, and perpetrators of serious violations of the law must be held to account.

Credit: Giles Clarke for OCHA

4. States should ensure better protection and assistance of people forcibly displaced within their country and uphold their human rights.

Conflict, violence and persecution have forced 68.5 million people from their homes. Two thirds of these people are now IDPs — people who are internally displaced within their own countries. Once displaced, many of these IDPs will not return home for years — even decades — if ever. Governments must ensure IDPs have access to the protection and assistance they need. IDPs must also have the right to freedom of movement — including the right to voluntary and safe return to their home, to resettle in another part of the country, or to seek asylum in another country. Moreover, Governments should put in place development plans to enable IDPs to access housing, work and schools.

Credit: Jihan El Alaily/OCHA

5. States should condition their arms exports on respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.

The volume of international transfers of major weapons has been rising steadily since the early 2000s, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. States should adopt legislative and other measures conditioning the export of arms on respect for international humanitarian and human rights law, including pre-export assessments of the risk of unlawful use, in line with the Arms Trade Treaty and a number of regional treaties. Several Member States have already adopted strong controls with respect to their arms exports. Others should now follow their lead.

Click here to: Sign the #NotATarget Living Petition with a Selfie.