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Be still and know nothing

Police in the DRC

Police in the DRC

Here’s a piece of news to make you wince: according to a new survey, most people in the UK are unaware of major world conflict zones other than Iraq and Afghanistan – countries where British troops are engaged in war.

Or maybe that just made you shrug. This bleak survey, carried out for the British Red Cross, has the kind of numbing conclusions you may have been expecting: we are, it emerges, a nation of terminally self-interested, myopic numbskulls; we are not enlightened, cosmopolitan or internationalist.

The British Public

  • 69% identified Iraq
  • 65% identified Afghanistan
  • Less than 1% identified either the conflicts in Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • More than 60% thought that the Iraq war had resulted in the greatest loss of civilian life

Source: The Red Cross

A University, though, ought to be an enlightened city upon a hill – an institution of fierce intellectualism and hard work, internationalism, and of the uncompromising duty to seek truth. Right?

It was in this spirit of expectation that The Badger took to Library Square for a less-than-rigorously-scientific poll of its own, to see how our fair Sussex measures up to the general British public.

First: the Red Cross survey. As part of their “Civilians and Conflict” month, they have undertaken this survey to establish just how aware British people are of conflict around the world.

When respondents were asked to identify countries currently experiencing conflict, 69% and 65% of those questioned could identify Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. Less than 1%, however, could name Sudan or Somalia. 18% were unable to identify 5 countries in the world in conflict. More than 60% mistakenly believed that Iraq and Afghanistan had seen the greatest civilian death tolls over the past 10 years.

Less than 1% identified the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an estimated 5.4 million people have died in the past 10 years due to a war from 1998-2002 and persistent subsequent eruptions of violence.

Sussex students

  • 93% identified Iraq
  • 75% identified Afghanistan
  • 43% identified Sudan
  • 11% identified the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 50% thought that the Iraq war had resulted in the greatest loss of civilian life

David Peppiatt, Head of Humanitarian Policy at the British Red Cross, said that “reports often focus on numbers dead or political ramifications, but behind every headline there are real people struggling to live against a background of violence. The impact of war on civilians is devastating – murder, sexual violence, displacement, disease, separation of families, lack of access to clean water and food – these are the punishments inflicted on ordinary people living in the aftermath of forgotten wars.”

Indeed, the numbers ably reflect just those conflicts that have figured prominently in the national media recently: Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by Russia and Zimbabwe, whilst neglecting the other “forgotten” wars.

But what about US? Regrettably, it seems that we Sussex students have not fully grasped the meaning of our university’s solemn injunction: “Be Still and Know”. In fact, our survey shows that we know just about as little as everyone else.

Almost everyone – 93% and 75% – named Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. 43% could name Sudan (a considerable improvement on the national average), and 11% could name the Democratic Republic of the Congo – more than ten times the national average.

100% of those The Badger asked responded, correctly, that more civilians than combatants have died in war in the last ten years. It is estimated that in the wars of the 1990s, the ratio of military to civilian deaths was 1:8.

But a staggering 46% of us – more than double the national average – couldn’t name 5 countries currently experiencing conflict.

Moreover, 50% thought that the Iraq war had caused the greatest loss of civilian life over the past 10 years. The Iraq Body Count web site, which records civilian deaths in Iraq since the invasion in 2003, says the Iraq war and occupation has led to 88,263-96,350 violent civilian deaths. No-one could name the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an estimated 5.4 million civilians have died since 1998.

Sussex students, as it happens, appear no more aware of global conflict than the British population at large – our knowledge is equally shaped by the crude hand of the national media. We remain, as the rest of the British people, primarily aware of those wars that Britain is waging overseas. As Mr Peppiat noted, “clearly people’s focus is on Iraq and Afghanistan where British forces are involved. But at the same time as these conflicts are unfolding, there are millions of people around the world whose lives are being torn apart in other, neglected conflict zones.””

The British Red Cross’ “Civilians and Conflict” month is a media campaign to raise awareness of how civilians are affected by conflict. Visit www.redcross.org.uk for more information.

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