Conflict and Dislocation

Stephen DeAngelis

June 05, 2008

With over 5 million people in China having lost their homes during the recent series of earthquakes, the plight of the half a million people dislodged by conflict during the first five months of 2008 seems to pale in comparison [“UN: over 500,000 people uprooted by conflict this year,” by Edith M. Lederer, Washington Post, 28 May 2008]. For dislodged individuals, however, the tragedy is the same no matter the location. What compounds the tragedy for those dislodged by conflict is that their situation is the result of deliberate human action rather than the vagaries of nature. Most of those dislocated because of conflict, Lederer reports, are found in Africa.

“John Holmes told the United Nations Security Council that although peace is being consolidated in Ivory Coast, Nepal and East Timor and there have been some other positive developments, ‘millions of ordinary people are still trapped in the horror of war and conflict, hoping desperately to rise from the chaos that surrounds them into more peaceful times.’ Holmes spoke at a daylong meeting of the council focusing on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, an issue that has produced four council resolutions but no real solution. A statement adopted by consensus and read at the end of Tuesday’s meeting reaffirmed the council’s commitment ‘to addressing the impact of armed conflict on civilians,’ including excessive use of force and sexual and gender-based violence. Holmes stressed the ‘collective responsibility’ of the U.N. and individual nations to prevent war, secure peace and protect civilians, citing varying degrees of progress.”

Isaac Asimov once wrote, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” In cases like Zimbabwe and the Sudan, that is probably true. Asimov, however, was highlighting the folly of incompetence not describing the causes of violence — which are legion. After survival (i.e., the provision of food, water, and housing), what people desire most is security. A lack of security means that people live in constant fear and without hope. There has been some progress in fostering security in war torn regions, but not much.

“Mediation in Kenya reduced post-election violence, he said, and the full deployment of peacekeepers in Chad, the Central African Republic and Darfur ‘has the potential to augment significantly efforts to protect and assist those caught in the turmoil of violence in the region. But the risks of deterioration are currently very great,’ Holmes warned, urging that the three missions receive all the required troops and resources. He said in the first five months of the year, more than half a million people have been displaced by conflict, both within and across borders. ‘In Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, Somalia and Sudan, over 337,000 civilians have been forced to flee violence this year, some of them not for the first time,’ he said. In Congo, the fruits of a conference in January on peace, security and development are yet to be felt by those sheltering in camps and public buildings, including 175,000 people newly displaced this year. ‘In Iraq, sectarian violence, as well as armed confrontations around Basra and Sadr City, have forced more thousands from their homes,’ Holmes said. ‘In Afghanistan, conflict-induced displacement continues to undermine the gains made in the return or resettlement of those previously displaced.'”

Diplomats once held the naive notion that conflict could be limited to soldiers on the battlefield. Although conventions remain on the books to that effect, the truth is that most conflict is now directed towards civilians. Civilian casualties are not “collateral damage” but intended consequences.

“[Holmes,] the U.N. humanitarian chief, lamented that civilians account for the majority of casualties in armed conflict, in violation of international humanitarian law governing the conduct of hostilities. In January and February, aerial bombings and ground attacks on villages in West Darfur left 115 civilians dead, including elderly and disabled people, women and children, he said. In April, hundreds of civilians were killed or injured in Somalia and thousands were forced to flee their homes because of fighting in the capital, Mogadishu, between government-supported Ethiopian troops and armed groups, he said. Holmes said hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured in Sri Lanka this year, 300 civilians were killed in the first four months in Afghanistan in attacks by ‘anti-government elements’ and suicide bombers struck ‘with chilling effect’ in Iraq. He called for greater adherence to international law, ‘robust action’ to prevent and respond to sexual violence in armed conflict, a treaty to ban cluster munitions which have a devastating impact on civilians and unhindered access for humanitarian workers. This is ‘fundamental to our efforts to protect civilians and assist those in need,’ he said.”

Holmes’ plea underscores what I have been saying about development and security. You can’t have one without the other. Lederer’s article is timely in that it reminds us, even as the world responds to massive natural disasters in Myanmar and China, that manmade disasters also cause devastation and heartbreak.