President Obama just released Executive Order -- United States Policy on Pre- and Post-Strike Measures to Address Civilian Casualties in U.S. Operations Involving the Use of Force, and it’s hugely important to civilians caught in conflicts around the world—this is what we at CIVIC have been working toward for the last decade. And though there is still work to do, it is worth taking a minute to talk about what this all means.
First, what is an executive order?
An executive order is a legally binding order signed by the President of the United States, acting in his capacity as the head of the government—basically, the President telling government agencies what they are legally required to do. Every President since George Washington has issued executive orders (even if they weren’t originally titled as such); the first official EO ever ordered was on October 20th, 1862 by Abraham Lincoln. (It established a provision court in Louisiana during the Civil War.) President Clinton issued 364 and President Bush 291, while President Obama has now issued 235, covering a range of topics from ensuring lawful interrogations to enhancing coordination of national efforts in the Arctic.
Why is preventing civilian harm important?
In short, with this executive order, President Obama is recognizing the ethical and strategic importance of protecting civilians in conflicts around the world, and of doing a better job of recognizing when they are harmed. Protecting civilians can ultimately lead to long-term stability, a better reputation for the United States, and, most importantly, an example other states can follow.
Ok, so how does this order accomplish that?
The president’s previous guidance defined how and when the US could use force outside of areas of “active hostilities.” But this order is much broader. It says that any time the United States uses force, protection should be at the forefront of war planners’ minds. Though this standard has been in practice in operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, this executive order very clearly commits the US to protecting civilians before, during, and after current and future conflicts. The executive order enshrines in policy the lessons learned by the US in conflicts over the last decade. For example, the order requires tracking civilian casualties and sets up a permanent system for recognizing and addressing harm to civilians. And not only must US forces follow these standards, but this order requires that partner militaries do as well. That’s hugely important given the increase in conflicts involving multiple nations and coalitions.
Who is likely to be affected by this?
Hopefully, civilians around the world affected by conflict, not just those unfortunate few affected by US operations. Along with this executive order covering civilian harm, the president also released the number of civilians harmed by airstrikes outside active areas of hostilities. Though the number is questionably small—just 116, according to the report—that the administration released numbers at all is a significant step, accounting of civilian harm up to this point has been elusive. The president has also promised to do a better job of tracking and accounting for civilian deaths in the future, moving towards recognizing all civilians killed or injured during conflict, not just those in limited theaters of operations.
President Obama should be praised for issuing these orders, and CIVIC will work towards ensuring his guidance is properly implemented.
In an historic move on Friday, President Barack Obama issued an executive order which puts civilian protection at the heart of US foreign and military policy for the first time. Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) is grateful to the president for this demonstration of American leadership when it comes to protecting civilians at risk from conflict.
International humanitarian law requires that warring parties to conflict protect civilian lives and property, but this executive order goes above and beyond what is currently required. After more than a decade of work on this, we've compiled a collection of CIVIC statements, reports, and explainers on this page to help you make sense of what this may mean for US foreign policy moving forward.
- Executive Order -- United States Policy on Pre- and Post-Strike Measures to Address Civilian Casualties in U.S. Operations Involving the Use of Force
- Executive Order Explainer
- CIVIC on Executive Order: ‘Swift Implementation Needed’
- CIVIC on Drone Strike Casualties: ‘The numbers simply don’t add up’
- As Pentagon Reshapes Fighting Force, Civilian Casualties Need to be Considered
- Changing of the Guard: Civilian Protection for an Evolving Military
- Amends and Post Harm Assistance
- Tracking Civilian Harm
There is still much to do, however; this order is just a starting point. That's why CIVIC stands ready to lend our expertise to assist the government as they swiftly implement this order.
Photo by Ed Kashi/VII
By Kyle Dietrich
On June 17, the Nigerian Air Force announced it was escalating its air campaign against Boko Haram militants in northeastern Nigeria. But the new phase of its counter-insurgency operations, called ‘Operation Gama-Aiki’ (“Finish the Job” in Hausa), could be deeply problematic, raising the likelihood of increased civilian casualties, decreased trust between the government and the people, and practically handing militants more ammunition against the government.
Nigeria has conducted hundreds of air strikes against potential Boko Haram militants since President Muhammadu Buhari took office a year ago. While these air strikes and regional military operations have been successful at dislodging militants from the Sambisa Forest and other insurgent strongholds, reports show that because the Nigerian military often lacks precision-guided weapons, air strikes cause significant civilian harm and often create more distrust and fuel radicalization.
According to one report, 92 percent of all civilian deaths and injuries were thanks to explosive weapons used in populated areas, with 28 percent attributable to air-launched weaponry. In 2015, Nigeria was the fourth most harmful conflict (after Syria, Iraq, and Yemen) for civilians because of explosive weapons, which includes aircraft launched bombs and rockets.
Although there is a general lack of public reporting from remote areas where Boko Haram operates, we know insurgents often live among local populations, forcibly marry women and recruit men to fight, and use civilians including abducted persons as human shields. The likelihood of civilian harm as a result of an air strike remains high, as we saw in 2015 when an air strike accidentally killed more than 35 people at a funeral gathering in a Niger border town.
To address allegations and counter widespread local distrust of the military’s air operations, Nigerian military leaders must ensure that ongoing operations avoid harming civilian men, women, and children and do more to protect them from Boko Haram.
To do this, the Nigerian Air Force needs to develop stronger local intelligence, robust pre-strike assessments, and rapid post-strike battle damage assessment capabilities. If, despite all precautionary measures, the military harms civilians, it should appropriately address such harm by making amends in the form of public apologies, monetary payments, or other assistance to victims or their families. CIVIC is currently calling on the Nigerian military to create a civilian harm tracking capability, which would bolster the military’s capacity to prevent and respond to allegations of civilian harm caused by their operations.
All this is no easy feat, but one concrete step the Nigerian Air Force could take immediately would be to avoid using cluster bombs or similar munitions. (Nigeria is a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions but has not ratified the treaty.) Not only are cluster bombs a dangerous and imprecise weapon of war, but there are reports that Boko Haram uses the military’s unexploded ordnance, including cluster bomblets, in IEDs against civilian and military targets.
Ultimately, air strikes against Boko Haram are a blunt instrument against an often-unseen enemy, when what the current phase of the conflict requires is a surgical approach. Air operations need to be balanced with longer-term military and non-military approaches that stabilize communities and restore security.
It should be a strategic imperative for Nigeria to do more than avoid causing harm to civilians; the government and security forces should re-focus their mission on improving the physical protection of civilians from Boko Haram. By preventing accidental harm and protecting civilians from violence, the Nigerian military will be better placed to break the cycle of violence and rebuild trust and damaged relations between affected communities and security forces.
Kyle Dietrich is the Senior Program Manager for Africa and Peacekeeping.
Civilians cross between rebel and government held neighborhoods in Bustan Al Qasr, Aleppo, Syria, on March 26, 2013. Often targeted by government snipers, the civilians must run between certain areas of the crossing. Many civilians were found dead, floating down river, after having been caught at this crossing going in to government territory. Photo via Nicole Tung
By Christopher Allbritton
Center for Civilians in Conflict
In Hiroshima on May 27, President Obama laid a wreath at the Peace Memorial there and, recalling the horrors of nuclear conflict and the devastating toll on that city’s civilians, called for a “moral revolution” in how the world thinks about war.
“We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again,” he said.
He’s right, of course. And in the seven decades that have passed since that August day in 1945, the world has established institutions that have helped avert an even worse global conflagration than World War II.
But one could look at the news these days and wonder if the United Nations and other regional alliances have accomplished much beyond that. True, we avoided World War III, but there are a number of conflicts at the regional and national level that rightly should trouble world leaders’ sleep.
Perhaps as many as 400,000 dead in the Syrian civil war alone. In Yemen, at least 8,100 civilians have been hurt or killed since 2015. And in Afghanistan, the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimated the number of civilian deaths at more than 26,000, with more than 29,900 wounded.
Yet, despite the headlines of Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Gaza, Pakistan, Iraq, Mali, and other countries absent from the headlines, the overall level of conflict around the world has declined since World War II. For instance, from 2008 to 2014, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the number of armed conflicts around the globe declined from 63 to 42.
But—and this is a big “but”—the number of conflict fatalities rose from 56,000 to 180,000 over the same period. It’s even higher now given the conflict in Syria and Iraq. And mind you, that’s just fatalities; the impact of armed conflict isn’t measured merely by the number of people killed. There are hundreds of thousands injured and maimed, millions driven from their homes and uncounted multitudes harmed by the general breakdown in society and security. These include victims of sexual violence, psychological trauma, lack of schools, and loss of economic opportunities. According to the World Bank, “More than 1.5 billion people live in places affected by conflict and extreme violence.”
1.5 billion people.
Read that number again. That’s more than 20 percent of the entire human population. More than one in five men, women and children in 2016 are somehow harmed by conflict.
Those numbers, of course, include soldiers as well as civilians, and it’s difficult to estimate what the breakdown is. Some studies have stated that 90 percent of those harmed in conflict are civilians. Others say it’s lower. Whatever the percentage is, we here at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) consider it unconscionable.
In an ideal world, perhaps the one President Obama wants us to imagine, there would be no war. No civilians (or anyone) would be forced to flee their homes like 11.4 million displaced Syrians have been forced to. But that world doesn’t exist. And while sophisticated weapons like Predator drones and GPS-guided bombs are often the subjects of protests, those killed by small arms and homemade explosive devices are still just as dead.
“We see around the world today how even the crudest rifles and barrel bombs can serve up violence on a terrible scale,” Obama said. “We must change our mind-set about war itself.”
We here at CIVIC couldn’t agree more, Mr. President, and we’re grateful to hear our organization’s governing philosophy expressed so eloquently by a world leader with the power to do something to help civilians caught in the crossfire. We believe preventing harm to civilian men, women, and children, protecting them, and making amends when they are harmed should be at the center of not only US war planning, but everyone. We hope Obama’s words go beyond just rhetoric, and we at CIVIC will advocate for civilians until concern for them is so central to conflict that there is less likelihood of going to war in the first place.
Christopher Allbritton, CIVIC's communications manager, is a former conflict journalist for TIME, Reuters and others.
It’s been 11 years on Saturday since we lost Marla, our founder and, still, pole star for the Center for Civilians in Conflict. She was killed on April 16, 2005, when a suicide car bomber, driving next to her vehicle on the road between Baghdad and the international airport, detonated his bomb. She and her Iraqi colleague Faiz Ali Salim were killed, while the presumed target, a convoy she happened to be driving near, escaped. She was 28 years old.
Wrong place, wrong time, most would say. But for Marla, being in Iraq and Afghanistan as the U.S. mounted two wars that would eventually leave uncounted thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians dead, she was very much in the place she wanted and needed to be. For it was her self-appointed mission to help civilians harmed by conflict—for them to be compensated, to be recognized. She was tireless in her work, which was to get compensation for victims of war from the U.S. military. She confronted, cajoled, and — more often than not — convinced generals, diplomats, and politicians that civilians were worthy of remembrance and that the U.S. had a responsibility to the families of those killed or injured by American munitions.
She was my friend, and once, when I went with her to visit a Baghdad family that had lost a daughter in a U.S. bombing, I saw firsthand the effect she had on the people around her. The men hovered around for her protection and gazed at her adoringly. The women of the family swept her up in warm embraces, almost causing her to disappear in the flurry of abayas. The children sat at her feet or played with her blonde hair. She was beloved.
Violence and conflict continue around the world. Moreover, the need for Marla's work—to make warring parties more responsible to civilians before, during, and after armed conflict—also continues. We here at the Center for Civilians in Conflict have a three-year growth plan laid out and intend to use our pragmatic approach to protect more civilians, as long as is necessary.
On this 11th anniversary of her tragic death, all our thoughts are with her family and the families of the victims of armed conflict.
Photo © J.B. Russell
On December 3-4 2015, the European University Institute and the Global Policy Initiative of Columbia University convened a workshop of around thirty scholars, practitioners, and high-level UN officials to discuss “Protection, Peacekeeping, and the Individualization of War.” CIVIC was invited to share its experiences and perspectives on the “Micro-level Dilemmas of Protection in Peacekeeping.” CIVIC’s Senior Program Manager for Africa and Peacekeeping, Kyle Dietrich, gave an overview of CIVIC’s growing work across Africa and answered three overarching questions aimed at improving civilian protection in peacekeeping. Below are his remarks as prepared.
1. Question: What is CIVIC? What does CIVIC do to advance the protection of civilians in armed conflict?
CIVIC works to operationalize the physical protection of civilians by strengthening the policies, practices, tools, and training of armed actors, including peacekeepers. We believe this begins by building a ‘protection mindset’ across all groups directly or indirectly involved in a conflict. We conduct extensive field research to better understand the experiences and perspectives of civilians and armed actors living through armed conflict. We conduct high-level advocacy, convene and mobilize civil society groups to improve self-protection, and foster the necessary political incentive for officials to improve protections afforded to civilians. We work with armed actors to help them lessen harm that results from their own operations. We call this work civilian harm mitigation, which includes prevention, monitoring and capacity building, and post-harm assistance to civilians accidentally or incidentally harmed by military operations.
We examine structural patterns of harm, institutional impediments to protection, and help armed actors understand why protecting civilians and mitigating incidental harm is in their strategic interest and possible. As we look at protection and peacekeeping today, we see a big gap between the normative framework and aspirational language in peacekeeping resolutions and the reality on the ground. There is a great need for analysis on how peace operations affect micro-level protection dynamics.
2. Question: How do peacekeeping strategies support, or undermine, the micro-level protection strategies of individuals?
The simple presence of UN peacekeepers in a conflict changes the protection calculus for vulnerable communities. For example, in South Sudan, we see civilians going to UN bases in order to have the protection of peacekeepers. This has become central to civilians’ self-protection strategies.
For much of the recent conflict, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was primarily a physically static provider of protection, although there are some encouraging signs of more dynamic protection efforts. Civilians in South Sudan perceive the UN mission as having no mandate outside of camps and no mandate (or willingness) to project force, use weapons, or proactively protect civilians beyond the camps.
Peacekeeping protection efforts have often prioritized the protection of UN staff, assets, and bases. Peacekeepers should do more to protect civilians in their communities. To be sure, POC (Protection of Civilians) sites in South Sudan are an important development to monitor. Without the UN’s presence and protection, there would likely be greater displacement to other parts of South Sudan and refugee flows across international borders into Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The UN-run POC sites help civilians stay in their regions despite the presence of active conflict.
Despite ongoing reform efforts, including many outlined in the HIPPO report (High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations), our recent research from several countries across Africa (DRC, CAR, Mali, and South Sudan) finds that peacekeepers are primarily reactive, rarely proactive, and are often unable to implement important community engagement strategies to help local communities increase their own self-protection. Deeper community engagement by peacekeepers will be key to understanding and finding ways of strengthening micro-level protection strategies. Further thought must also be given to troop deployment as well, shifting away from large static bases to more highly skilled, technical, agile and rapidly responding forces, particularly in places such as Mali and the DRC. The Secretary General and DPKO have begun to recognize these challenges and promised needed reforms.
3. Question: How does the pursuit of protection of civilians by peacekeepers influence the tactical and strategic aims of warring parties, and their actual conduct of hostilities?
Obviously warring parties don’t all have the same goals and these goals often evolve throughout the life of a conflict. In theory, the pursuit of POC by peacekeepers should influence the state party to the conflict to better abide by its legal obligations, to protect civilians, and act as a deterrent between warring parties. But when we look at contexts like South Sudan and DRC, we see that parties to a conflict continue to commit abuses despite the UN’s presence.
When we look at armed non-state groups, the pursuit of POC by peacekeepers could create an opportunity to increase legitimacy for groups wanting to abide by some standards and gain credibility. However, other armed groups openly oppose and target peacekeepers, such as in Mali.
Despite many robust mandates calling for peacekeepers to use, “all necessary means up to and including the use of deadly force aimed at preventing or responding to threats of physical violence against civilians,” many warring parties in countries where we have undertaken research don’t appear to respect or fear UN capabilities. Warring parties and civilians are largely aware of how the UN has operated in other conflict zones. Armed groups in places such as Mali, DRC, and Cote d’Ivoire test the waters to see what can they get away with before the UN responds. In South Sudan, state security forces (SPLA) quickly learned that they could deter peacekeepers from moving by land, water, and air, thus limiting the UN’s ability to proactively protect civilians. Several times armed actors have attacked UN barges and helicopters without peacekeepers responding with force.
Similarly, in Cote d’Ivoire, youth militia often set up ad-hoc checkpoints, or simply lay down in the street, in order to deter UN patrols, including armored vehicles. The UN has in many places become timid and warring parties know what they can get away with and how to manipulate them.
Civilians and armed groups also know which Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) are more passive in their pursuit to protect civilians. In today’s information age, warring parties know far more about the limits, vulnerabilities, and patterns of peacekeeper behavior than we think.
While peacekeepers fall short, it is important to note that significant progress has been made in how peacekeeping missions are oriented toward protection. Twenty years ago protection was an emerging concept. Ten years ago POC was often the responsibility of a single protection advisor in a large peacekeeping mission. Today is it prioritized across peacekeeping missions and mandates. The gap that warring parties exploit is that POC is not effectively implemented and there are few, if any, incentives for peacekeepers to proactively protect civilians from physical harm. There are many incentives to avoiding the use of force and almost no consequences for failing to protect civilians.
Protection is facilitated by more robust human rights monitoring by the UN and groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Human rights documentation has played an important role in influencing the tactics of warring parties. But again, these groups don’t stop committing abuses. They just get better at intimidating communities, controlling the media, hiding mass atrocities, and using tactics like mass graves to conceal their abuses. Our research finds that abusive high level military and armed group leaders often know human rights and humanitarian law principles and can talk the talk, thus allowing them to mislead enough people. But these principles are not institutionalized in their chain of command and trainings and therefore abuses persist.
4. Question: What strategies should be adopted by peacekeepers at the micro-level to enhance protection?
For over a decade, CIVIC has intervened in over a dozen countries to help armed actors better understand the impact of their operations on local communities. While the UN does not want to be perceived as a party to a conflict, it must create tools to make it more effective at protecting civilians, mitigating operational harm, and understanding the impact of its presence and operations on local populations. Although they rarely use it, Chapter VII-mandated peacekeeping missions have the capacity to use force.
In order to enable the use of force to proactively protect civilians, peacekeeping missions should adopt several standing policies and practices. For example, there is currently no standing policy on post-harm assistance in the UN. If a UN vehicle accidently hits a civilian there is a third party liability mechanism and compensation is available to victims. But if peacekeepers accidentally harm civilians during the lawful conduct of their operations, there is no mechanism for the UN to acknowledge harm caused and amend the damage or injury in a culturally appropriate way. By harm, we mean displacement, injury, destruction of property or livelihood, and death.
Similarly, as peacekeepers are called on to confront armed groups either offensively, such as in DRC, or to proactively protect civilians from warring parties, incidental harm is possible and should be monitored. A civilian harm tracking mechanism would help peacekeepers better understand the impact of their operations on civilians, and help commanders make tactical adjustments to ensure harm is avoided. CIVIC has helped to develop similar mechanisms to track civilian harm and assist victims with the African Union in Somalia (AMISOM) and NATO (ISAF) in Afghanistan. These tools should be considered as peacekeepers become increasingly involved as a party to a conflict. In fact, such a mechanism was recommended for all offensive peacekeeping operations in a 2013 UNSG report on protection of civilians “as a means of understanding the impact of military operations on civilians and identifying changes in military tactics required to reduce harm to civilians.”
This tool would strengthen planning and response measures and better enable peacekeepers to physically intervene between perpetrators and civilians to mitigate violence. Other measures that peacekeepers should expand to improve micro-level protection include long duration patrols, robust checkpoints in contested areas, temporary and forward operating bases, and deeper community engagement through community liaison assistants and civilian harm mitigation advisors. These innovations will help the UN and peacekeepers better understand their operating environments, the needs of people, and how they can increase protection.
Community engagement will help local populations understand the roles and responsibilities of peacekeepers and help peacekeepers better understand the experiences and expectations of those they are supposed to protect. Where civilians’ expectations are greater than the protection and assistance provided, communities lose confidence in the UN. Without mutual trust and shared ownership of protection, peacekeepers often disengage from protection activities and tension between peacekeepers and communities increases. When civilians rely on peacekeepers for protection and peacekeepers fall short of local expectations, civilians also become more vulnerable.
Peacekeepers have a responsibility for not only protecting civilians from violence but to finding ways of strengthening local self-protection mechanisms. In order to fulfill their protection mandates, peacekeepers need to be empowered to use force when it is necessary to protect civilians, and they need to know that the UN, their commanding officers, and their national capitals will have their backs if accidental harm is caused when operating within their rules of engagement.
For additional information or to schedule a media interview:
Marla B. Keenan, Managing Director
+1 202 765 3005