Civilians are not a target

Rachel Hastie Humanitarian, Protection

For World Humanitarian Day Rachel Hastie, Oxfam’s Global Protection Adviser, reflects on our common humanity and what it means.

Some years back I was walking my children to school before catching a flight to Darfur. I was going to meet people – ordinary civilians – who had fled attacks on their villages and were still facing dangers and a very uncertain future. Hearing this another parent asked, ‘How can you bear to listen to all that suffering? It must be dreadful.’ It struck me as an extraordinary comment. Experiencing the suffering was the hard part, for the millions of people caught up in conflict. Just hearing about it from my safe life in a peaceful country was not a hardship, but I felt placed on me an obligation to do something to help alleviate that suffering and make sure that in future ordinary people caught up in conflict would be protected.

It is true that I have heard some stories and experiences so horrifying that I will never forget them: the worst of what humans can do to each other, sometimes in shockingly brutal detail and almost always it was civilians, those who should have been protected, who were telling me these stories. It also means I have seen the very best of human behaviour too – the people who have put themselves at risk again and again to help others and continue to do so, the ingenuity, bravery, tenacity, compassion and kindness of those who help others in times of crisis. 

I have heard some stories and experiences so horrifying that I will never forget them

World Humanitarian Day on Saturday 19th August is always a moment to reflect on our common humanity and what that means. I am constantly inspired by my colleagues, the amazing people who work for Oxfam and other aid agencies, the community leaders, activists, and volunteers who take in orphans and refugees, despite themselves suffering hardship and shortages, or even threats to their own lives. I wonder what kind of a world we would live in if we didn’t feel compassion and empathy for those who are suffering and fight for their rights and protection, just as I hope others would help me and fight for my rights and protection if it happened to me and my family.

People have told me about the moments their lives change – when they watched the tanks roll into their town, the knock on the door before armed men pulled them from their homes, or the moment the bombs started raining down and they ran for their lives. I imagined what I would do if that happened in my town, when I was pregnant, when my children were young, or I was caring for elderly and disabled parents.

The most basic human instinct when faced with dangers like these is to run, to flee, to find a safer place and that is what 65 million people worldwide have done. The people we see arriving in boats on beaches in Greece and Italy are only on the final stages of what has often been a long and brutal journey as Oxfam’s recent report on migrants experience of torture, sexual violence and slavery in Libya shows. They are doing exactly what I would do in their shoes – gather my family and run from danger to the safest place I could find.

One woman who fled violence in South Sudan with her neighbour told me they walked through the heat, dodging armed men, lacking water and desperately trying to carry their young children to safety. One day she realised the toddler strapped to her friend’s back had died. They’d fought so hard to keep their families’ safe, it took her hours to build up the courage to break the news to her. Finally, they made it to Uganda where they have been supported, but the horrors of the attacks on their community, and those they lost along the way stay with them.

Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure like water systems, healthcare, hospitals and food production have wider impacts too. Conflict has led to the appalling cholera outbreak in Yemen, and taken it and Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan to the brink of famine. Attacks on civilians – the killings, rape, torture and detention of ordinary people, and destruction of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure is prohibited by the laws of war, yet it happens time and time again and will continue to do so until those responsible are held to account.

For every person who enslaves and tortures refugees, there are many more who support and welcome them
There is something we can all do, though, bound by our common humanity. For every person who enslaves and tortures refugees, there are many more who support and welcome them, helping them reunite with their families. For every politician or leader who authorises the sale of weapons that they know will be used to bomb civilians in places like Yemen, there are thousands protesting it. For every warmonger who attacks civilians there are millions of us to hold them to account. World leaders need reminding that they must ensure compliance with the laws of war. Civilians in armed conflict need protecting, they are not and never should be targets, and all of us must make sure that those who can, and should stop the targeting of civilians do so.


Nick Bryer