Civilians in the war zone

We are constantly being exhorted to treat the war on terror as our own war and not theirs (the Americans’). We are told to own it. From that one deduces that we should make our due contribution to the war effort. One would not argue with that line of thinking — no, not at this stage.

Now that Pakistanis find themselves caught in this quagmire of conflict they do not have much of a choice except to try and wade their way out. For this they are extending full support to the army and the government.

But through the pall of gloom that has descended on the entire nation, we must not lose sight of the most wretched victims of the war — the civilians trapped in an anguished existence in the conflict zone. They are not responsible for this tragedy that has unfolded and which is not of their making. Can you tell the little child writhing in pain from his injuries caused by a bomb that he invited this disaster?

And yet the non-combatants continue to be the sufferers with unending misery. Be they in South Waziristan, Swat, the other areas of the NWFP or Punjab they can’t be asked to pay for the sins of their rulers in civvies or khaki. Yet that is what they are being made to do.

This is an irony. The changed method of warfare today has blurred the line between the fighter, whether state or non-state, and the civilian. Insurgents and suicide bombers look out for heavily populated areas to conduct their operations. For the former, unarmed civilians serve as human shields. For the latter, crowded places ensure higher casualties for greater impact. Armies also cause civilian deaths by resorting to aerial bombing.

In the present war we have no idea of the number of civilian casualties because independent observers are not allowed access to this area. The ISPR prefers to shroud its press releases in ambiguity. When it gives the figures of those killed it lists the number of soldiers ‘martyred’ and the number of terrorists killed. The latter presumably include civilian non-combatants. Thus a week after Rah-i-Nijat was launched in South Waziristan the ISPR stated 160 people had been killed which included 142 Taliban.

Those estimated to be displaced were 120,000. Under attack from both sides, the civilians are simply ignored. Army sources said that 2,280 civilians have fallen victim to suicide bombing in the last two years. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that conducted its own fact-finding exercise in Swat estimates that from January to July 2009 372 men and women were killed by suspected Taliban — 64 being from the police.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has no two opinions on this issue. It insists that civilians who are non-combatants have some rights under the four Geneva Conventions that collectively constitute humanitarian law. A look at these documents shows how heavy are the responsibilities of the governments and armed forces vis-à-vis civilian populations.

Civilians, as well as soldiers who are injured (and therefore not combatants for a time) are entitled to humane treatment that prohibits murder, torture, cruelty and humiliation. They must be provided medical help if they need it and the displaced must be provided shelter and relief. Most importantly, the conventions grant the ICRC the right to offer its services to the parties to the conflict.

This has created dilemmas for armies and governments. In the battle of Solferino fought in 1859 between France and Austria that led to the birth of the ICRC, 40,000 soldiers were killed or injured and only one civilian was affected. Today the ratio has been reversed because of weapons of mass destruction. Besides, states are no longer engaged in international formal wars as they were a few decades ago. Today most wars are civil conflicts with plenty of external intervention and use of proxies.

The entry of non-state actors as combatants in wars is the most far-reaching development of the latter half of the 20th century that has had a profound impact on civilians. In some countries, such as Afghanistan that has been in the grip of hostilities for 30 years, an ICRC survey found 96 per cent of the population saying that it had suffered the consequences of the conflict, with 45 per cent having lost a close relative.

The need is to revise the laws and make those concerning civilians more comprehensive. As for non-state actors who are wreaking so much havoc, efforts have to be made to devise methods to facilitate a dialogue between them and international agencies so that these actors are made accountable for human rights violations they commit and comply with international obligations.

Many would ask why non-state actors, who are brutal and have no respect for the rights and dignity of people, should be shown any mercy. There are many reasons for advocating a sensible and balanced approach.

First the distinction between non-state actors and civilians can be difficult. It is better to err on the side of caution so that non-combatants’ rights are not trampled on. Secondly, two wrongs do not make a right. The Taliban’s horrendous treatment of civilians hardly absolves the government of its own international obligations. Thirdly, armies must devise strategies and weapons that do not cause disproportionate damage to civilians. For instance, rather than bombing from the air, the armed forces should fight focused battles on the ground.

Finally, independent and neutral agencies such as the ICRC must be encouraged to monitor the situation of the civilians in the conflict zone. The army cannot arrogate to itself the privilege of acting in secrecy on the plea that it is fighting a war and its strategy would be jeopardised if there are observers breathing down its neck. We do not want embedded media personnel as George Bush had in Iraq. But aid workers should be allowed entry. If war cannot be eliminated it must at least be humanised.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s