Despite several treaties and international agreements designed to protect them, civilians bear the brunt of most fighting around the world.
Indeed, since World War II, non-combatants have made up 90 percent of all war-related casualties. And academics estimate that between 1900 and 1987, a staggering 169 million civilians and unarmed soldiers were killed during conflicts, compared with the 34 million soldiers killed in combat.
In the past, armies often were expected to “live off the land,” pillaging and killing innocents as they moved from one area to another. In some conflicts, such as the religiously motivated Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), civilians were the targets of military aggression, as Protestant and Catholic armies attacked non-combatants to stamp out “heresy.”
Civilians were constantly targeted during World War II. All sides bombed civilian areas, sometimes to destroy vital industries but sometimes to “demoralize” enemy populations, like the German V-2 rocket bombing of London, the U.S. fire-bombing of Dresden or even the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. The Germans and the Japanese took the brutality a step further, wiping out entire towns and cities, and, in Germany's case, establishing concentration camps to exterminate whole races and groups of people.
The war's horrors prompted the International Committee on the Red Cross (ICRC) to recommend an international conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to regulate conduct during war. One of the four articles of the 1949 Geneva Convention specifically seeks to protect civilians and their property. The rules were refined and expanded in 1977 to protect civilians from the growing threat of terrorism.
“The civilian population, as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack,” states Protocol I, from 1977. The protocol also outlaws terrorism during war: “Acts or threats of violence, the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population [are] prohibited.”
In addition, the Geneva rules prohibit the kinds of attacks, such as carpet-bombing, most likely to cause excessive civilian casualties. They also prohibit armies from using civilians as human shields to advance strategic objectives.
The Geneva code does not prohibit attacks against legitimate military targets that may or are expected to cause so-called collateral damage and produce civilian casualties. But in these cases, commanders must do all they can to avoid hurting civilians.
Although the rules governing the treatment of civilians are clear and have been ratified by most nations, conditions for non-combatants have, if anything, gotten worse since World War II, because the Geneva rules are, essentially, unenforceable.
“While we have this nice-looking piece of paper that says all the right things, states feel free to ignore it and to act in what they see as their best interest because there's no enforcement mechanism, no way to hold them accountable,” says Thomas Lynch, an attorney at the International Human Rights Law Group in Washington, D.C. “So protecting civilians comes down to a matter of convenience.”
In addition, many conflicts of the last 60 years have taken place in the developing world, where armies are often disorganized, and non-uniformed soldiers blend in with the civilian population, a combination that often leads to the killing of many innocents.
In some recent wars, civilians have been specifically targeted. During the civil war in Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia, all sides, especially the Serbs, targeted non-combatants — often in an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” an area. Serb soldiers executed thousands of civilians and raped enemy women as a form of torture.
In Chechnya, a breakaway Russian province, up to 160,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since Russia sought to put down the uprising in 1994. Russian troops have been accused of everything from indiscriminately shelling Chechen villages to routinely torturing and executing suspected rebel sympathizers.
African conflicts have been especially hard on civilians. Over the last 40 years, civil wars in Angola, Sudan, Mozambique, Nigeria and elsewhere have left millions of innocents dead. In Sierra Leone, an entire generation has been maimed by machete-wielding soldiers who cut off the hands and feet of suspected enemy sympathizers or their children.
Even the United States is not immune from allegations that it has indiscriminately killed civilians. During the Vietnam War, for instance, American planes carpet-bombed targets in Vietnam and Cambodia. Recently, scholars have unearthed evidence suggesting that American officers ordered pilots to bomb defenseless Korean refugees, killing hundreds.
In a break from past atrocities, some recent mass killings of civilians, specifically in Bosnia and Rwanda, have led to prosecutions of some of the alleged perpetrators.
One of the thousands of civilians deliberately maimed by rebels during Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year civil war casts his ballot in presidential elections in May. Although the Geneva Convention prohibits attacks on non-combatants, 90 percent of the casualties in recent wars have been civilians. (AFP Photo/Georges Gobet)
“The idea of individual responsibility is novel,” Lynch says. “I can't say, but maybe it will begin to deter some people in the future from committing atrocities.”
In fact, several potential atrocities have been prevented or at least mitigated by humanitarian intervention. For example, in Kosovo in 1999, a U.S.-led bombing campaign prevented Serbian attempts to ethnically cleanse the province of its Albanian majority. Likewise, the same year, the presence of Australian troops likely prevented mass killing in East Timor, an Indonesian province that became independent in May.