Bill Scheurer / United Nations – 2007-06-20 22:54:50
UNITED NATIONS (June 20, 2007) — UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, oversees care for more than 20 million people — refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, and others — who have been driven from their homes by war or other armed conflict.
This figure does not count another nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees, served by another UN agency. The Norwegian relief agency estimates the number of refugees and displaced persons at more than 40 million.
Last year was one of the worst ever for refugees, and 2007 is getting even worse, with conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan’s Darfur. The Iraq War alone has displaced nearly 5 million people.
The U.S. military is directly involved in the first three of these noted wars. In addition to being the biggest purveyor of arms in the world, we also now may be the biggest producer of refugees.
Not surprisingly, these three theaters of U.S. militarism rank #2 (Iraq), #3 (Somalia), and #8 (Afghanistan) in the Failed States Index 2007 released by Foreign Policy this month. Sudan, with its ongoing genocide in Darfur, remains #1.
Living And Dead
But, refugees are only the living victims of war. Civilians also suffer the most casualties in war. On June 22, the UN Security Council will hold its semiannual debate on protection of civilians in armed conflict.
Items for discussion will include the deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate use of force, displacement of civilians, and the safety and access of journalists and humanitarian personnel. Given the disproportionate U.S. influence over this body, nothing of substance is likely to come from these meetings. In fact, the U.S. is a major impediment to international bans on landmines, cluster-bombs, and other indiscriminate weapons.
Civilian casualties of U.S. military operations continue to rise in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the U.S. increases its current attacks in both countries, and its use of air power, this will only get worse.
In addition to damaging our national security by destroying our relationships with the world, this military adventurism cheapens our regard for life. Currently, the U.S. military will pay a maximum of $2,500 for a civilian death, the same amount it pays for destroying a car.
Of course, these are Iraqi lives. The U.S. government paid $1.8 million for each victim of the 9/11 attacks. That is the problem. Our lives are worth nearly 1,000 times more than theirs, in the eyes of our government.
Name Every Victim
We honor “our” dead. We recover their bodies, name their names, and display their faces. We compensate their relatives for their loss. And, well we should.
But, what we need, if we are ever to value life and peace and security in this world — is a new policy, one that honors every victim of war. Imagine if we named every victim, showed every photo on the nightly news, compensated every surviving family for their loss. It would be difficult for us to maintain “business as usual” in war, or to wage war at all.
Maybe we could take it one step at a time. Start out by passing a simple “Name Every Victim” law.
We could require the U.S. military — working with groups like CIVIC, International Rescue Committee, International Committee of the Red Cross, and Relief International — to document a good faith, best efforts attempt to identify and name every victim of every engagement.
The law would require the military to exercise the same level of care that we do for our fallen soldiers in this regard. Give every victim a name — a human dignity and identity.
There is a popular saying that “truth is the first casualty of war.” I have always considered it the second. Humanity — both, “ours” and “theirs” — is the first casualty of war.
World Refugee Day:
Displacement in the 21st Century.
A New Paradigm
The refugee challenge in the 21st century is changing rapidly. People are forced to flee their homes for increasingly complicated and interlinked reasons. Some 40 million people worldwide are already uprooted by violence and persecution, and it is likely that the future will see more people on the run as a growing number of push factors compound one another to create conditions for further forced displacement.
Today people do not just flee persecution and war but also injustice, exclusion, environmental pressures, competition for scarce resources and all the miserable human consequences of dysfunctional states.
The task facing the international community in this new environment is to find ways to unlock the potential of refugees who have so much to offer if they are given the opportunity to regain control over their lives.
There are three ways we at the UN Refugee Agency are making this goal a reality: we protect, we build and we advocate. First, we protect refugee rights to safety, shelter and health, focusing special attention on the most vulnerable people, particularly women and girls.
Second, we work with our partners to build the capacity of refugees to fend for themselves once they are able to do so. And we work hard to find solutions so that refugees become self-sufficient as soon as possible.
Third, we advocate to draw attention to the plight of refugees and to raise the money necessary to get the job done. Our goal is to persuade people that it is our common responsibility to make a difference for those forced to pick-up and go through no fault of their own. Results on the ground show we are making progress.
Last year, we helped hundreds of thousands of people return home. In Africa, bright spots include stepped-up repatriation to South Sudan and winding up of UNHCR’s operations in Liberia and Angola. In April, we held a major conference in Geneva and mobilized international support for the millions fleeing conflict in Iraq.
We cannot do this alone. But with your support UNHCR can begin to turn the tide, giving refugees hope for the future and new opportunities for their families and their communities.