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Civilians 'bear the brunt' of war: Arbour

The Canadian who formerly headed the United Nations Human Rights Commission said the biggest trend in warfare over the last two decades has been the rise of civilian casualties.

"We seem to be ever more prepared to go to war to protect civilians, while civilians, not soldiers are increasingly the largest victims in combat," Louise Arbour, CEO of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told the Vancouver Board of Trade on April 23.

"Death, suffering, disease, malnutrition, profound deprivation in all places tend to be inflicted disproportionately on civilians," said Arbour. "Civilians, rather than military, increasingly bear the brunt of much of today's political and criminal violence."

The 1995-founded ICG is a nongovernmental organization that analyzes and advises governments and intergovernmental bodies on preventing and resolving deadly conflict. Arbour joined in 2009 after four years with the UN. She was previously a Supreme Court of Canada judge and chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

War, Arbour said, was once a "soldier-to-soldier affair." Despite the post-Second World War enactment of the 4th Geneva Convention, civilians have become bigger targets. She pointed to Syria's repression of protesters, Taliban attacks on civilians in Afghanistan and the 40,000 Tamils slaughtered on the beaches of Sri Lanka in 2009.

The Iraq Body Count project website said 106,342 to 116,710 civilian deaths had been documented in Iraq from March 2003 to April 2012. said there have been 4,486 coalition military deaths over nine years.

Civilians are under increasing risk as militaries seek to reduce the number of soldiers in harm's way through technology, like drones, which were originally used for surveillance.

"The ability to target one's enemy without risking the lives of one's soldiers obviously holds enormous attraction," Arbour said. "But the use of drones for targeted assassination poses major political, strategic and I believe important legal challenges."

Arbour said she is distressed by the secrecy surrounding such operations in isolated, inaccessible areas, making it "virtually impossible" to determine whether the weapons' use complies with the rules of war that require targeting of a proper military installation and minimizing damage to civilians.

Arbour was introduced at the event by Frank Giustra, the West Vancouver mining tycoon whose philanthropic alliance with ex-U.S. president Bill Clinton led to major investments in Kazakh uranium mines. The head table included Ret.-Gen. Wesley Clark, an ICG trustee who commanded NATO's European forces and mounted an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party nomination in 2004.

Vancouver-based reporter Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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