Welcome to our blog, where we share our latest stories, analysis, and information from conflicts around the world.

Civilian Harm Persists Despite Robust UN Mandate in Eastern DRC

By Kyle Dietrich, Senior Program Manager for Africa and Peacekeeping Programs at the Center for Civilians in Conflict

In an unprecedented statement, the United Nations Security Council has called for the “swift neutralization of the FDLR” rebel group in eastern DRC through joint operations by the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) and the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC). While the ongoing threat posed by the FDLR and other rebels is real, the risk of incidental harm to civilians during joint combat operations and the prospect of retaliatory FDLR attacks against civilians are very worrisome. 

The FDLR (a group of roughly 1500 rebels, many of whom are Rwandan Hutus) is widely dispersed across the Kivus and have, in many places, integrated into local communities, making an offensive operation challenging for peacekeepers and risky for civilians. UN operations are designed to be conducted in partnership with the FARDC, who have in their own right been responsible for numerous crimes and abuses against civilians in recent years. To complicate matters, MONUSCO’s leadership and the Congolese government have not seen eye-to-eye on which rebel groups to target, further delaying the full implementation of the UN’s robust mandate.

In authorizing an offensive mandate for MONUSCO, UNSC Resolution 2098 created the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which is specifically equipped for “targeted offensive operations” with the responsibility of “neutralizing armed groups and of contributing to reducing the threat posed by armed groups to state authority and civilian security in eastern DRC.” The mandate further calls on the FIB to “mitigate the risk to civilians before, during, and after any military operation.” This guidance is laudable, but we must ask how the FIB will proactively protect civilians in their campaign to disarm and “neutralize” armed groups, how joint operations with the FARDC will be conducted, and how these will be done in a way that takes measures to mitigate and respond to civilian harm during operations.

Despite some success under its new offensive mandate, including the defeat of M23 rebels in November 2013, MONUSCO peacekeepers have been unable to fully implement their mandate or to effectively prevent attacks against civilians in the country’s remote eastern regions (highlighted by their recent non-engagement against the ADF in Beni, North Kivu). The new push to defeat the largest armed group in the region, the FDLR, comes after most of that group’s members failed to voluntarily disarm by the latest deadline of January 2, 2015. 

While a broader strategy including non-military measures is needed to end the cycles of violence in eastern DRC, armed confrontation with rebel groups has been authorized for MONUSCO to restore peace and security. If offensive operations are conducted, FIB and FARDC forces should, in accordance with the guidance of the UN Secretary General, make every effort to prevent and, where necessary, swiftly recognize, investigate, and respond to any incidental civilian harm caused as a result of their operations. While international law obligates parties to a conflict to provide compensation for violations, MONUSCO and FARDC should also standardize a process to assist civilians that are harmed incidentally in order to strengthen accountability and prevent the further escalation of violence.

One tool that can assist MONUSCO is a “civilian casualty tracking cell”. This cell—consisting of hardware, software, and specialized human resources—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.” A civilian casualty tracking cell would help MONUSCO identify with reliable data the issues of civilian harm attributable to the FARDC and MONUSCO, and to engage all parties at a tactical level to reduce civilian harm. 

For decades, the Congolese have suffered violent attacks by armed groups and state forces and have looked to the UN and the international community for help. With its increased political backing and offensive mandate, MONUSCO, the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, has been given the challenge to change the tide to proactively protect civilians. While primary responsibility for safeguarding civilians rests with the Congolese government and military, the world is watching to see whether the UN, with its unprecedented offensive mandate, is up to the task to protect Congolese civilians from both armed groups and its own actions. 

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The UN and Casualty Recording: Good Practice and the Need for Action

A new report from Oxford Research Group

Read the full report here. This new report from our colleagues at ORG looks closely at how the United Nations records civilian casualty provides valuable analysis, including a case study on Afghanistan.

According to ORG's website:

This report from the Every Casualty programme explores the current state of casualty recording practice and the use of information about casualties within the UN.

It concludes that when the UN systematically records the direct civilian casualties of violent conflict, and acts effectively on this information, this can help save civilian lives. However, casualty recording is not currently a widespread practice within the UN system.

The report recommends that the advancement of casualty-recording practice by the UN in conflict-affected countries should be pursued, as this would have clear benefits to the work of a range of UN entities, and so to the people that they serve.

This report looks at experiences of, and attitudes towards, casualty recording from the perspectives of UN staff based in New York and Geneva that we interviewed. It includes a case study of UN civilian casualty recording by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s Human Rights unit. Finally, the report discusses challenges to UN casualty recording, and how these might be met.

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Infographics: Monetary Payments for Civilian Harm

How much is a life worth? While it's impossible to put a price on life, there is an important conversation to be had around the various levels of payment offered to victims of violence in response to their losses. This report—the product of collaboration between the Amsterdam International Law Clinic at the University of Amsterdam and Center for Civilians in Conflict—maps various programs and their implementation in settings of armed conflict and in response to serious crimes and terrorist attacks. The report’s aim is not to “set a price” on civilian losses, but to evaluate the consistency of current practice in providing monetary payments (both the amounts and the methodology used by the entity offering the payment).

Infographics: Monetary Payments for Civilian Harm

This set of infographics from the Center's Jaime Hawthorne & Caroline Kavit helps compare different monetary payments for civilian harm in international and national practice.

See them here!

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War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

The Center's executive director Sarah Holewinski recently contributed civilian harm experiences for the exhibit War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,  currently on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Caroline Kavit, the author of this post, is a photographer and writer who has recently joined the Center as communications intern. 


Photography shapes the way we perceive warfare. For the majority of people who are far removed from the front line, images serve as a surrogate for reality. Sometimes, a single image is so powerful that it comes to define a conflict, like Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut's photograph of a naked girl running from a napalm strike during the Vietnam War or “Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima,” by Joe Rosenthal. A new exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art seeks to shift the photographic history of war away from these "greatest hits" toward an anthology-like approach that encompasses the progression of conflict from instigation to aftermath. 

Bringing together more than 200 photographs of conflict that span 6 continents and 165 years, "War/Photography" is an unprecedented examination and deconstruction of the relationship between wars and the images that portray them. The expansive subject matter has been broken up into chapters that represent the different phases of an armed conflict—recruitment, training, combat, daily routines, homecoming, aftermath, remembrance, and more. Each section is preceded by text, which has the dual-purpose of providing information and punctuating the tone of the exhibit. The writing (which included input from Center for Civilians in Conflict) is measured and meant to allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions about the morality of war and photography's place in it, but the sheer size of the exhibit sends a message about the ubiquitous nature of armed conflicts and the suffering that follows in their wake. 

As a photographer, I read the story on the walls as one of the evolution of the medium from daguerreotype to digital. Photographers have been attracted to the same subject matter throughout the history of conflict, because while the way we fight war has changed the human suffering has remained constant.  With the development of new technologies, photographers have been able to shoot from new points of view in hopes of bringing the viewer closer to the daily realities of armed conflicts. Walking through the exhibit, it is hard not to constantly compare the images despite vast differences in the place and time they were taken.  I found myself mentally coupling photographs based on aesthetics, finding similarities in composition between an image taken in the Crimean War and an image from WWII. However, as I moved through the exhibit I began to see another narrative.

The date photographs were taken ranged from 1846 to spring 2012, but a line of seemingly inevitable sorrow can be traced through all of them. The artistic merit of the images was slowly pushed to the background, and I began connecting the grief. The same scenes of destruction and suffering appeared to take place over and over again throughout the history of warfare. The similarity seen in the almost complete destruction depicted in "Bombardment of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 1st, 1974" by Christine Spengler and "Dresden After Allied Raids, Germany, 1945" by Richard Peter was striking.

These images made decades apart by different photographic processes in different conflicts depict almost identical scenes of heartbreak. I began to see the exhibit as a visual representation of lessons not learned. Civilian harm is inevitable in any conflict, but there are ways to minimize it. This exhibit uniquely visualizes just what is at stake if we do not change the way fighting forces operate and call for the integration of civilian protection into the core of every mission. 

"War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath" is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from June 29th to September 29th, 2013 and at the Brooklyn Museum from November 8th, 2013 to February 2nd, 2014

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Mali’s Legendary Musicians Silenced by the Conflict: Super Onze

The Center’s Director of Country Operations Michael Shaikh was recently in northern Mali to talk to the Malian and French forces, international officials, and civilians. The following is an account of the impact the Malian crisis has on the country’s famous musical traditions. Photo below of a Malian musician and second photo of Super Onze by Tom Martinez.

“The army is here providing security so we can sleep and be safe - but without music I don’t think people will ever be happy again.”

Yehia Mballah Samake, Super Onze band member, Gao, April 27, 2013


Music is a major part of the Malian way of life and for the country’s many musicians, the only way. The members of Super Onze one of northern Mali’s best-known bands, do not live off a monthly paycheck but get their income from the weddings and festivals where they are invited to play. But the band hails from the North’s biggest city, Gao, and ever since hardline Islamists entered their city early last year, there have been no such celebrations.

Implementing an extreme interpretation of Islamic law as they entered northern Mali, the al Qaeda-affiliated Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO in French) outlawed one of the biggest pillars of Malian identity – its vibrant music scene – forcing many musicians to flee the North and/or country in fear of their lives.

“When MUJAO entered the city, the message was clear: anyone who plays music would be slaughtered,” explains Yehia Mballah Samake, Super Onze’s lead n’goni player (a three-string predecessor of the modern guitar). “They went and looted instruments; they destroyed the band members’ guitars. They made announcements on the radio that anyone playing music would be killed.”

Having no means of escape, many of the band members of Super Onze stayed in Gao and stopped playing.

“The biggest problem with occupation was that we couldn’t do the daily things that made us happy,” says Samake. “And making music is what makes us happy. Taking an instrument is like taking the weapons of a soldier. It felt like someone was denying us our own existence - this is what we live off.”

Samake now has to rely on donations from supporters to provide for his family – contributions that are minimal compared to what he used to make playing music, but which he accepts, because people give it out of respect for what he used to do. For the love of his music. 

MUJAO’s occupation of the North ended in January of this year when French forces intervened to prevent the militants from overrunning the entire country. But since then, a state of emergency has prevented large gatherings like the ones where Super Onze used to play.

“In the past we never had a wedding celebration without music, but Malians are respecting the state of emergency,” says Samake. “What worries us is that we are not making money; we’re not performing now. We’re not happy; we just sit and watch each other all day long.”

And Mali’s musicians are not the only ones feeling the void:

“There are people who will go crazy without music, not just us, the listeners too. The fact that there was no music affected everyone. People – Malians – need music to stay happy. There was no activity,” he says. “When they put a stop to the music, people became furious and angry and bitter and sad.”

Asaalya, Samake’s father and founder of Super Onze, weighs in:

“It was partly because of the fact that there was no music, that people became more rebellious and fought the invaders.”

While we are talking, the band members begin playing their instruments. A big lady spontaneously walks into the courtyard and begins dancing and humming to the music: 

“This is beautiful. It feels good; it’s good for your health,” she says. “It gives a beat to our walk. When you are dressed well, and you hear this, it changes how you walk. Music, meat and tea, that is all you need in life - If it weren’t for MUJAO we would be dancing like this all day long.”

But despite the ousting of MUJAO and other militants from Gao, the once so lively music scene has been silenced for over a year now. Gao is a multiethnic city, where Tamasheq (also known as Tuareg), Fulani, Songhai, and Arab people have coexisted for generations. But since the crisis, relations between lighter and darker-skinned Malians have strained, as Tamasheq Arabs and others fear reprisals simply because they share the skin same color and ethnicity with the rebels. Ethnic-based retaliation ranging from killings to sexual violence to looting continues to threaten Mali’s social fabric.

“Mali is at war, and it needs to be healed,” says Samake. “The MUJAO were about everything but Islam, they don’t know Islam. When they came, we were denied our freedom to talk. Otherwise we would have told them why we play music. When we play music, we aren’t stealing; we aren’t killing; we are living our lives.”

Without music, a return to peace will be incomplete, he warns. “If there is no music people will never find joy. The army is here providing security so we can sleep and be safe, but without music I don’t think people will ever be happy again.”

Looking at the woman contently lost in the rare occurrence of music, Samake’s spirits are lifted: “Seeing her dance like this, it makes me think of the past when I would play music and not one person, but the whole audience would join in. So the fact that she comes in and sees people gathering and listening to music – that makes me feel whole.

“Once the ban is lifted, I am sure people will start shaking it again.”


You can listen to Super Onze’s music here:

Also see the Center’s Board Member, TIME’s Aryn Baker’s article about the Mali’s silenced musicians here.


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A Check on Lethal Aid to Syria

This blog by Sahr MuhammedAlly originally appeared in the Huffington Post

This week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Syria Transition Support Act, authorizing arming and training vetted Syrian rebels. Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom and France are similarly pressing the European Union to lift the arms embargo for Syria. Donor governments, however, need to ensure this "lethal" aid does not pose more risk than reward for Syrian civilians.

Civilians in Syria are already in the line of fire, killed and maimed by rockets, heavy artillery, mortars, scud missiles, and cluster bombs. Syria is awash with weapons. Introducing more -- whether small arms or sophisticated anti-aircraft platforms -- without robust civilian protection training, accountability for unlawful conduct, and disarmament planning can become lethal for Syrians. Donor nations can, however, lessen the risk by considering the following:

Provide training on civilian protection.
Instructing on the laws of war is important, but training the opposition on practical ways to protect civilians means showing, not just telling, fighters how to avoid civilians using battlefield scenarios and real life vignettes. The US military learned in Afghanistan how detrimental civilian harm can be to a mission and now regularly give these kinds of trainings to their forces. Trainings could be easily adapted for the Syrian armed opposition. In fact, many rebel fighters I spoke to in Syria in April expressed a strong interest in acquiring tactical lessons to avoid harming civilians.

This will be a challenge. Syria's rebel fighters belong to dozens of brigades, each with different leadership and ideologies, and varying knowledge of civilian protection, military tactics, weapons use, and targeting standards. There's a willingness on the part of some Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters to better avoid harming civilians. The ones I talked with said they warn civilians to leave an area before an attack, for example. This is positive, but is an ad hoc practice that's not the formal policy and mindset needed across the force. Donor governments considering increasing lethal aid must also provide the Syrian Military Council (SMC) -- which is trying to coordinate the FSA -- with technical assistance to help strengthen the chain of command, and ensure protection trainings flow from the top commanders to the newest fighter.

Create accountability.
According to the proposed Syria Transition Support Act, the US government should encourage brigades to commit to a code of conduct respecting the laws of armed conflict, rule of law, and refrain from sectarian violence. This is positive, but more is needed from the FSA. Before any weapons are provided, rebel groups need to establish clear lines of accountability for unlawful conduct by its fighters. Opposition fighters told me some fighters' weapons have been taken away as a form of discipline in some brigades. But some rebel forces have been involved in looting, ill treatment of detainees, summary executions, and recent mutilation of a corpse. Taking away someone's weapon is woefully inadequate punishment for unlawful conduct. Rebel forces need to understand that their credibility is at stake, as years of impunity prompted Syrians to rise in the first place.

Track and respond to civilian harm.
Zero civilian harm is unrealistic, even with the most advanced precision weaponry or best civilian protection training. Opposition fighters need a practical tool to assess the impact of their operations on the civilian population -- in sum, to track and respond to the civilian harm they may cause. To start, this could be a rudimentary database at a brigade's headquarters containing details of any possible civilian casualties that can be radioed in from the battlefield. Nations offering lethal aid can help create these databases so rebel can begin to understand how their operations are effecting civilians. The information can also be crosschecked with Syrian civil society casualty documentation, in particular to identify recipients in need of assistance during and after the conflict.

Vet end-users and track weapons.
Once a fighter is given an M16, there is no guarantee where it will end up or for what purpose it will be used. Vetting end-users is essential to identify who is receiving weapons, especially as outside groups with different ideologies continue to enter the battlefield. While tracking weapons is almost impossible once they're handed over, donor nations should try. That means assist the SMC in creating a tracking system to at least attempt to monitor weapons. There is evidence this is done in some brigades. Fighters told me that their brigade commander records names of fighters, the type, and serial number of their weapon. It is unclear whether this is replicated in all the brigades, but it might be possible to replicate the practice widely and it's a worthy effort.

Secure stockpiles and plan for future disarmament now.
Libya should be a cautionary tale. There were no proper plans in place to disarm the militias or control the proliferation of weapons to other conflicts. If advanced weapons are provided, donor nations should work concurrently with the political and armed opposition on plans to secure loose weapons, stockpiles, unexploded ordinance, and small arms when the conflict ends. Donors along with the opposition should think about a disarmament program now, complete with incentives, like job training and public works projects, to turn in weapons when the war is over.

Before the US or any other nation supplies more weapons to Syria, they must take some precautions to ensure that this aid does not do more harm to civilians. The Syrian people, who have suffered for so long, deserve that careful consideration.

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