Civilians account for the vast majority of casualties in armed conflicts and are increasingly being targeted and forced to flee their homes, the UN humanitarian chief said on Wednesday.
John Holmes said thousands of civilians died in conflicts in Gaza, Sri Lanka, Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia in 2009 and "an untold number" suffered physical and psychological injuries.
"2010 does not look much better," Holmes told an open meeting of the UN Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
He said 6.8 million people were displaced within their own country by conflict last year, more than at any point since the mid-1990s.
"An alarming total of 27.1 million, the highest ever, were internally displaced globally at the end of last year as a result of conflict," Holmes said.
While many of the 1.8 million Pakistanis displaced in 2009 have returned home, he said Congo, Sudan, Somalia, the Philippines and Colombia experienced "large scale new displacement." In the first half of 2010, he said an upsurge in violence in Darfur displaced an additional 116,000 people, another 90,000 people fled their homes in South Sudan as insecurity mounted ahead of next year's referendum on independence for the south, and violence in Kyrgyzstan forced 375,000 to flee their homes.
Holmes also pointed to an increase of violent rapes in Congo, the persistent killing and kidnapping of humanitarian workers, and the "unacceptably high" number of civilian deaths and injuries from attacks.
"From air strikes and artillery attacks in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Gaza to rockets launched at Israeli civilian areas by Palestinian militants and car bombs and suicide attacks in Pakistan or Iraq, use of explosive weapons and explosives has resulted in severe civilian suffering," he said.
Holmes expressed concern at the risk of unintended casualties from the three-fold increase in drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last year.
In Afghanistan, he said, suicide attacks and explosions by armed groups "now cause more civilian casualties than any other tactic, representing 44 percent of the total civilian casualties in 2009, or 1,054 people killed." Aerial attacks by U.S. and other international military forces caused 359 civilian deaths last year, he said.
"Suicide bombings elsewhere are also increasing," he said, citing this month's pair of suicide bombings that killed 42 people at a famed Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan.
While the council has taken some actions, Holmes said, "I fear all too little has changed for the better on the ground in recent years."
He stressed that every armed conflict in the world today involves one or more armed groups that are not linked to the government. To enhance protection of civilians and reduce human suffering, he said, contact with these armed groups is essential to enable humanitarian aid to be delivered and to try to influence their behavior and improve their compliance with international humanitarian and human rights laws.
Holmes urged the Security Council and the 192 UN member states to promote such engagement and not criminalize contacts. He also expressed concern about the protection of civilians and refugees in Chad after UN peacekeepers pull out by the end of the year. He called the humanitarian situation in eastern Congo's Kivu provinces "alarming," and he said in nearby Orientale Province, an average of 102 civilians are murdered every month and over 300 have been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army since December, including 125 children.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the council has long recognized that peace can't be achieved without redressing grievances, ending impunity and protecting human rights. She called for greater efforts to ensure that perpetrators of violence against civilians are brought to justice. She also called for an independent international inquiry into the Kyrgyzstan violence, said Afghanistan's laws aimed at protecting women's rights "remain largely unimplemented," and urged the council "to take appropriate action" to ensure that Israel lifts its blockade of Gaza.