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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

GLOBAL: Terrorism shifts attention from civilians in conflicts - OXFAM

ABIDJAN, 16 September 2003 (IRIN) - The international community's focus on terrorism has led donors to lavish aid on countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, while neglecting the plight of civilians caught up in less strategic conflicts such as Liberia and Burundi, Oxfam said on Tuesday.

It said in a report titled "Beyond the Headlines: an agenda to protect civilians in neglected conflicts," that the focus on international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction since the suicide attacks on New York on 11 September 2001 had left civilians trapped in the world's forgotten conflicts more vulnerable than before.

Oxfam said rebels and governments alike had been terrifying civilians for years in too many civil wars. For decades these had caused much more death and destruction than terrorism.

Oxfam complained that international humanitarian law was inadequately enforced by the international community in most of the world's 42 conflicts and the suffering of civilians continued unabated.

The UK-based relief agency cited the civil war in Liberia as one case where armed attacks on civilians by both government and rebel forces had become commonplace over the past four years. Displaced people, who had been forced to leave their homes by the fighting, were particularly vulnerable to harrassment by gunmen, it noted.

A general climate of fear and insecurity in Liberia had been heightened by the abduction and killing of civilians and aid workers.

Oxfam said those marched off at gunpoint were often men and youths who were in turn forced into military service for the warring parties.

In June and July this year, more than 200,000 people fled from the outskirts of Monrovia to the city centre as rebels overran camps for displaced people on the outskirts of the city and advanced into its western suburbs.

The violence killed over 1,000 people in less than two months, OXFAM said, adding that up to 50,000 people were left sheltering in the national sports stadium where sanitation was a huge problem. Latrines were overflowing and people were living in total darkness in rooms packed with bodies.

Oxfam complained that donor governments had diverted their humanitarian aid to strategic countries away from many of the people who most needed their assistance. This had undermined the independence and impartiality of humanitarian aid, it stressed.

Oxfam pointed out that nearly half of all the funds given by donor governments in 2002 to the UN's 25 humanitarian appeals went to just one country, Afghanistan. It admitted that Afghanistan was a desperately poor place, but noted that it was also top of the list of priorities in the "war on terror".

The remaining 24 countries had to struggle by on what was left, Oxfam said, noting that this pattern of unequal funding recurred year after year.

"While OXFAM is not advocating a reduction in funding to any emergency where there is need, the challenge is to provide funding without diverting resources from the millions of people affected by other emergencies," it said.

"All these measures threaten to erode the body of international law and obligations that are the only foundations we have to protect civilians across the world."

Oxfam said the UN Security Council, and particularly its five permanent members, had a critical responsibility to safeguard international peace and security.

But it stressed that their duty was not only to tackle the greatest threats to the industrialised world. It was also to uphold international law, to protect the lives and dignity of all civilians suffering in all conflicts around the world.

"They are failing far short of this goal," Oxfam said.

The aid agency said attacks on civilians had been the norm for years in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Colombia, Afghanistan, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and many other conflicts.

Thirteen million people currently live as refugees, the vast majority of them hosted by developing countries across Africa and Asia. Another 23 million live as internally displaced people within their own country, it noted.

Oxfam reiterated that the international response to humanitarian crisis should be determined by need, not by strategic interest or media coverage.

In Burundi, it said, some 300,000 people had been killed over the past decade and fighting between the government and Hutu militias forced about 100,000 to flee their homes each month.

In the DRC, an estimated 3 million people had died during the last three years of conflict, while in Rwanda 40 percent of the population had been killed or displaced since 1994.

The Oxfam report said the civil war in Sudan had claimed the lives of two million people and had caused the greatest displacement of people in Africa. The country had been plagued by 20 years of bush fighting in the south and 92 percent of its population lived below the poverty line.

Oxfam complained of well-documented massacres of civilians by the government's helicopter gunships and significant abuses by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), other rebel factions and government militias.

It urged the UN Security Council to develop strategies that would encourage the international community to engage more consistently with seemingly intractable conflicts in order to help civilians trapped in the world's forgotten wars.

[The full report is available in PDF format at: http://www.oxfam.org/eng/pdfs/pp030916_headlines.pdf]

Theme(s): (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs




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