The senseless killing of civilians and scant regard for fallouts of military operations on the populace in the area of conflict has reached a level that calls for immediate intervention. Ukraine and the Hamas terror attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli employment of forces to punish Hamas are the most recent examples of the plight of non-combatants. The article illustrates the core issues and possible response to ameliorate human suffering.
As of late October, 2023, at least 1405 people, mostly civilians have been killed and 5,431 injured in Israel after the militant group Hamas launched unprecedented incursion from their bases in Gaza Strip on Saturday. In the Israeli retaliatory attacks which are still ongoing, about 7,434 have been killed, 20,867 injured and 4,00,000 displaced in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank put together. The final toll may turn out to be much higher. This is another tragic example of how civilians, especially women, children, and the elderly, are often the worst affected by armed conflicts.
In World War II, 50-55 million of the 80-85 million casualties were civilians. In one night of bombings in Dresden, Germany, nearly 25,000-35,000 civilians were killed while in Pforzheim, 17,800 civilians were killed in 22 minutes. Much later in 1994, nearly 800,000 Tutsis were killed in Rwanda in a genocide that lasted for over three months.
While wars have been taking devastating toll on civilians, mankind has also sought to limit the collateral effects of conflict. All cultures, Asian and Europeans alike, have codified the conduct of war. For example, in ancient India, the Manusmriti states that “one who surrenders or is without arms or is sleeping or is unprepared or a non-combatant must never be killed, regardless of whether the opponent is an enemy or whether one is fighting a just war or not.”
In the modern era, civilian protection was codified as international law in the 4th Geneva Convention after World War II. Later in the 20th century, protection laws were strengthened with the passing of many other international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and its 1967 protocol. The Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions ratified in 1977 brought in many significant provisions to improve the protection of civilians. If implemented, these should have brought considerable relief to the plight of civilians.
With the conclusion of the Cold War, a significant shift occurred in the geo-political landscape. This transformation was marked by a growing number of internal conflicts across Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, leading to the initiation of numerous large-scale and complex United Nations peacekeeping missions. However, these operations conducted by international troops with limited mandates and capabilities were mute spectators to the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. Consequently, the United Nations recognized the deteriorating state of civilian protection and its peacekeeping efforts., prompting a heightened focus on the “protection agenda”. This was officially declared by the United Nations, in line with its commitment to the United Nations Millenium Declaration adopted in September 2000 which pledged “to expand and strengthen the protection of civilians in complex emergencies, in conformity with international humanitarian law”.
However, it is evident that these initiatives have not led to the desired outcomes, as children, women, and the elderly continue to endure suffering in conflicts worldwide. According to various United Nations reports, there has been no improvement in key indicators of civilian protection in recent times, including population displacement, conflict-related sexual violence, civilian casualties, and child welfare. In his annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts for 2022, the United Nations Secretary-General expresses deep concern, stating, “With over 100 armed conflicts worldwide and an average conflict duration of more than 30 years, civilians continue to endure profound and enduring hardships. In 2022, as in previous years, armed conflicts resulted in fatalities, injuries, enforced disappearances, torture, rape, and other forms of suffering and loss.”
The number of forcibly displaced people has reached alarming levels, exposing these populations to various risks and acts of violence. According to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the situation is grim, with a staggering 71.1 million internally displaced individuals worldwide recorded at the close of 2022. This figure has nearly doubled since 2014 and has risen by 11 million since 2021. Of these displaced individuals, 62.5 million have been uprooted due to conflict and violence.
In Ukraine in 2022, the United Nations reported 7,957 civilian deaths and 12,560 injuries, although the actual figures are likely much higher. The elderly were particularly vulnerable, as many were either unable or unwilling to leave their homes. This placed them at greater risk of harm and deprivation, denying them access to essential resources such as food, water, healthcare, shelter, and social support networks.
The suffering of civilian populations in conflict zones can be alleviated if the international community ensures strict adherence to international humanitarian and human rights laws, along with other policies that enhance civilian protection.
All countries need to prioritize the ratification of the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols, as well as human rights and refugee laws. These provisions must also be integrated into national legislation and military/police manuals. It’s noteworthy that some major nations, such as the USA and India, have not ratified the additional protocols of the Geneva Conventions. Furthermore, Russia, which had previously ratified Protocol I, withdrew its ratification in 2019.
The international community’s inability to prosecute and punish perpetrators of war crimes, genocides and crimes against humanity, despite the provisions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, fosters a culture of violence against civilians. There is an urgent need to bolster states’ capacity and resources for investigating and prosecuting these crimes. Additionally, all nations should become parties to the Rome Statute and fully cooperate with the International Criminal Court and other investigative and judicial mechanisms.
The global increase in the number of internally displaced people is a matter of great concern. Reducing their numbers and facilitating their return to their homes will require a collaborative effort involving the United Nations, its agencies, the international community, and the governments of affected countries.
Explosive weapons are a leading cause of civilian casualties, and their use in densely populated urban areas should never be tolerated under any circumstances. The provisions of the “Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas,” signed in 2022, must be actively implemented and adhered to by all countries. The bombing of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in the Gaza is a grim reminder of the urgent need to ratify and implement this declaration.
In conclusion it will suffice to say that the existing plight of the civilians in conflicts is not acceptable by any standards of the civilised world. The international community needs to take a serious note and promote a culture of respect for the humanitarian laws and its violations should not be accepted under any circumstances.
Countries with democratic values like India should lead the initiative to strengthen the civilian protection environment by conflict resolution and building consensus amongst the comity of nations.
Maj Gen Gajinder Singh (Retd)