Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stressed that the protection of civilians in armed conflict must remain an absolute priority, noting that even though the number of hostilities around the world has decreased, millions of men, women and children continue to bear the brunt of war.
"In conflicts around the world, civilians continue to be killed, maimed, raped, displaced and unable to meet their basic needs," Mr. Ban writes in his latest report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
Although there has been a decline in the number of conflicts around the world, Mr. Ban notes that large numbers of civilians "remain at risk of, or suffer, brutality and degradation."
"Some are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time," he states. "Others are deliberately targeted and subjected to atrocities in an environment of almost total impunity."
In that regard, he adds that the deliberate targeting of civilians has become more widespread in places such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, Somalia and the Sudan, "creating a climate of fear aimed at destabilizing and displacing civilian populations."
Conflict has forced some 35 million around the world to leave their homes, resulting in the highest number of refugees in years – 9.9 million – as well as some 24.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), the report states. The increase in refugees stems largely from the crisis in Iraq, which has forced well over 2 million people to seek refuge abroad.
While displacement is "the most significant humanitarian challenge that we face," says Mr. Ban, it is only the beginning of an ordeal that may last for years or even decades, marked by suffering, deprivation and a daily fight for survival. In many cases, it leads to the permanent loss of livelihoods, opportunities and cultural identity.
In addition to the 2.2 million IDPs in Iraq, the Secretary-General also draws attention to the 2.2 million internally displaced in the Darfur region of Sudan, as well as the 1.2 million in DRC and 700,000 in Somalia.
A particularly worrying trend is the increasing resort to suicide attacks in some countries, as well as civilian casualties resulting from military operations conducted against non-State armed groups in places such as Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Ban states.
Another issue of concern is the increasing number of journalists and media personnel killed or injured while reporting from areas of conflict. The Secretary-General notes that in 2006 – for the fourth consecutive year – Iraq was reportedly the most dangerous country for the media, with 64 journalists and media assistants killed, the majority of them Iraqi nationals.
Mr. Ban also calls for a more robust response to sexual violence, stating that "in no other area is our collective failure to ensure effective protection for civilians more apparent – and by its very nature more shameful – than in terms of the masses of women and girls, but also boys and men, whose lives are destroyed each year by sexual violence perpetrated in conflict."
While such violence is not confined to the DRC, Mr. Ban says "the gruelling situation in the eastern provinces of Ituri and the Kivus epitomizes the devastating effect of sexual violence in conflict." In South Kivu province alone, some 4,500 cases of sexual violence were recorded in the first half of 2007.
The Secretary-General stresses the need to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators, enact laws that criminalize sexual violence, improve access to justice for victims, and strengthen prevention and response activities by humanitarian actors, as some of the ways in which to address this particularly horrific method of warfare.