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Like so many modern conflicts, the hallmark of the latest war in Georgia is that civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting.

At the outset of this war, the Georgian military used indiscriminate and disproportionate force resulting in civilian deaths in South Ossetia. The Russian military has since used indiscriminate force in attacks in South Ossetia and in the Gori district, and has apparently targeted convoys of civilians, killing and wounding them as they have attempted to flee the conflict zones.

In parts of Georgia currently under Russian control, ongoing looting, arson attacks, and abductions by militia are terrorising the civilian population, forcing them to flee their homes and preventing displaced people from returning home.

Now that the shooting war is over, there is an urgent need for the deployment of an international security mission to help protect civilians and create a safe environment for the displaced to return home.

Protection of civilians is not only a good in itself, but can also help to prevent recurring attacks that could reignite a conflict in which – as the recent heated rhetoric in Washington, Moscow and European capitals indicates – there is much more at stake than the future of a couple of Russian backed separatist enclaves in Georgia.

A civilian protection mission in Georgia is a job well suited for the European Union. Led by France, EU diplomats and politicians have already shown initiative by brokering a ceasefire. They should now follow that up by immediately starting work on the swift deployment of a civilian protection mission that may well help that ceasefire stick.

In the past half decade the EU has deployed almost 20 missions under its European security and defence policy (ESDP). These have included full-blown military operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bosnia, border-monitoring operations in Moldova and on the Gaza/Egypt border, ceasefire monitoring in Aceh in Indonesia, "security sector reform" missions in the Balkans, West Bank, Iraq and Afghanistan, and a civilian protection mission in Chad. In 2004, Brussels even despatched a civilian ESDP mission to Georgia to help the Georgian government to strengthen the rule of law.

An ESDP mission has three obvious advantages in the current crisis in Georgia. First, it is easier and faster to deploy than a UN mission: time is of the essence in the current crisis. Second, it is not threatening and therefore stands a chance of being accepted by the Russians. In this context it should be made clear that any European deployment would have limited aims: it would most definitely not aim to take over from the existing peacekeeping arrangements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia but would assist Russia to withdraw in an orderly manner from those areas it agreed to withdraw from under the latest ceasefire agreement. Third, the EU is now reasonably experienced in the areas of "soft security" – border monitoring, policing and police training, civilian protection, strengthening rule of law – that an ESDP mission is likely to have to deal with in Georgia.

Remove the cold war rhetoric from the equation and it is quite possible that the Russian government, having made its point to Georgia and to the world, actually now has a political interest in withdrawing from the areas of Georgia its forces have occupied over the past couple of weeks. But Georgian security capacities have been squashed and there are real questions about how to manage such a withdrawal without jeopardising the safety of civilians, and how to allow the swift and safe return of those who have been displaced to their homes.

A limited ESDP civilian protection mission would address those questions, boost the confidence of civilian populations on both sides of the conflict, and help the Russians to honour their agreement to withdraw.

But the EU needs to move fast at a number of levels to make it happen. It needs to work round the clock diplomatically to persuade the Russians that such a mission is in Russia's interests as well as Georgia's and the EU's. It needs to design a concept of operations for what will be one of the EU's most ambitious, high profile and multifaceted ESDP mission thus far. And it needs to pull together the military, police and logistical personnel required for such a force.

If it worked, an ESDP mission in Georgia mandated to protect civilians would be a huge feather in the EU's cap, a validation of its "soft power" approach to foreign affairs and conflict management, as well as a service to the thousands of civilians who have already suffered so terribly in this conflict and who badly need the EU's protection.

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