Conflict has transitioned from being fixed at the battlefield to guerrilla-style warfare, which is not defined by state boundaries and is now a part of everyday life for citizens in conflict zones around the world. The changing nature of conflict has led to an increase in both indirect and intentional civilian casualties. During the mid-1990s, conflicts in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sierra Leone, and East Timor prompted the UN to place civilian protection on the agenda. Groups most vulnerable to conflict include children, who are more sensitive to witnessing violence, are at risk of being used as child soldiers, and are more likely to become malnourished. Women are also disproportionately affected, and are likely to become victims of conflict-related sexual violence, or to become targets and tools in war. Healthcare workers and hospitals providing essential care to civilians in need are increasingly being targeted by parties to armed conflict. Conflicts uproot people and force them out of their homes, creating a massive refugee crisis.
On May 22nd, 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated that, of the more than 128 million people around the world who need humanitarian aid, the majority of this need is created by conflict. He also called for the development of a National Policy Framework for the protection of civilians in every state, engagement with non-state actors to create plans for ending atrocities against civilians, supported advocacy for the protection of civilians, and ensured accountability for violating parties through the international courts if necessary. Developing and enforcing these policies in each member state is necessary to protect civilians, and also to provide groundwork for lasting peace. There is currently a multitude of existing resolutions relevant to the issues facing civilians in conflict zones. However, many of these documents, such as UN Security Council Resolution 2286 (2016) addressing the protection of healthcare workers, have not seen very much success or implementation. There is a significant lack of dialogue about the protection of both women and children in conflict – two groups with distinct needs, though they are often grouped together. The challenge of dealing with non-state actors and their actions against civilians remains unresolved. The protection of civilians is a topic that has a long history at the UN, yet violations against civilians have only increased.
Implementation and enforcement remain a major problem in the protection of civilians. Attacks against health care workers and healthcare centers discourage health care workers from helping more people, cost valuable expertise, discourage civilians from seeking medical help, and affect vulnerable populations. Attacks against civilians have been correlated with a rise in terrorism and as major impediments to long lasting peace, creating even more incentive to reduce human rights violations. How can DISEC respond to more effectively protect the rights of civilians in the ever-changing dynamic of conflict zones?