By Ananya Vidyarthi
It took a decade of advocacy and practical progress on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan to get to President Obama’s executive order on the protection of civilians, which was released on July 1. The effort included numerous players including non-governmental organizations and military and government officials—all concerned about the lack of standing civilian harm mitigation policies within the US government. This work led to the first policy to “address civilian casualties in US operations involving the use of force”.
We are proud to say that the work of Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) played a key advocacy role in this process. “It became clear the US government didn’t have a cohesive policy around mitigating civilian harm in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Marla Keenan, director of programs at CIVIC. “We've been building this case and advocating to everyone who would listen for the better part of 10 years.”
In the early days, CIVIC primarily focused on “condolence payments”—money paid out by the US military to victims and their families after harm occurred—and we issued several reports calling on the US military to standardize the way they handled these. But by 2007, it was clear that the US was waging a counterinsurgency battle in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This was a defining moment for CIVIC’s advocacy, as it marked the recognition by the US military that the war effort required avoiding and acknowledging any harm caused to civilians as a result of operations. This realization was accompanied by reports in the media and by Afghan president Hamid Karzai about civilian casualties. Uniformed officials in the Department of Defense who had served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan were particularly open to the ideas CIVIC was pushing; they had been there and seen the damage harm to civilians and failing to appropriately respond had caused to the mission.
In 2008 and 2009, as our work expanded in Afghanistan, we widened our focus beyond what happened after civilians were harmed. We developed research, recommendations, and advocacy around how to work with the military to prevent that harm in the first place. As part of that effort, CIVIC launched the “Making Amends” campaign, published detailed reports about civilian harm as a result of American drone warfare, trained American troops on civilian harm mitigation strategies, and contributed to the military’s first ever Civilian Casualty Mitigation Manual (now part of the Protection of Civilians Manual.)
We also advocated for the creation of a central information hub in Kabul to track and analyze civilian harm, and in late 2008, the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell was launched. (It would later become the more robust Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team.) This was important to allow commanders a better understanding of how civilians were being harmed so that they could change the most dangerous tactics. In Washington, we also began calling for an office at the Department of Defense that would serve as a central point of contact and employ an advisor on civilian harm mitigation tasked with gathering best practices and disseminating them across battle theaters. The advisor would also be charged with working to establish standard operating procedures on protection.
In 2010 and 2011, we worked hard to build strong relationships within the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) command structure in Kabul and continuously fed our recommendations into their work. We built these relationships by recognizing the challenges commanders faced in the conflicts, demonstrating our expertise, and by focusing on advocating for both the ethical and legal imperatives to avoid civilian harm. We also promoted the strategic value to mission success of protecting civilians.
At the same time, ISAF was making progress developing better approaches to avoiding civilian harm. Several commanders of ISAF issued key tactical directives that decreased civilian harm, while NATO played an important role by issuing Civilian Casualty Guidelines on appropriate responses to civilian harm.
“I believe it was the strength of our relationships that really made this work possible,” Keenan said. “Over the course of 10 years we build a strong network, winning over one person at a time. This meant that no matter where our contacts went—in government or in the human rights community or to other international organizations such as NATO or the UN—they continued to be champions for civilians.”
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, we continued to push for a standing policy on civilian protection. We and our allies understood that while there were incredible positive steps made in recent conflicts, we also realized the hard lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan must be institutionalized—they would be applicable in future operations regardless of the type of conflict.
Our research and advocacy won us a seat at the table as the administration began to talk about formalizing these learned lessons in an executive order. In the run-up to the release, CIVIC engaged in closed-door meetings with the National Security Council and the White House to urge for one overarching policy on investigating civilian harm, both before and after operations, and for making amends when it does happen. On July 1, it was finally released.
“We are so proud to have been part of this effort,” said Keenan, “Members of CIVIC and other nongovernmental organizations as well as champions in the military and government have pushed hard for this for more than a decade.”
The Executive Order is a huge step forward, but there is still more to do. For example, the order includes provisions for a new working group that includes the Department of Defense and other agencies to implement the order, and moving ahead, we hope the government and military will accept help from NGOs like CIVIC to come up with blueprints for amends programs and investigations to guide planning in all future conflicts.
While it is important to acknowledge the historical nature of this Executive Order, CIVIC will continue its advocacy work toward quick and effective implementation. “This is fantastic progress,” Keenan said, “It is squarely in line with our American values and it provides a strong foundation for the protection for civilians in the conflicts of today and the future.”
By Kyle Dietrich, Center for Civilians in Conflict
Since mid-2015, CIVIC’s Africa program has grown from one person in Washington to five people based in the US, Nigeria, and East Africa. And we are poised to continue growing. This growth is a direct result of both the sheer volume and complexity of conflicts across the continent and widespread recognition of CIVIC’s value in offering new solutions to how wars are fought and won. How? By putting the well-being of civilians at the center of our thinking, policies, and operations.
Over the past 13 years, CIVIC has developed an effective approach to improving the protection of civilians in armed conflicts around the world, engaging both in high-level policy development and in operational capacity building. Most of CIVIC’s legacy work has focused outside of Africa on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The legacy of that work is long and lasting, with countless examples available here.
Our Africa work, while new, has continued in this tradition by prioritizing field research, cross-cutting advocacy, forming local partnerships, and providing technical assistance to strengthen the protection of civilians by governments, militaries, peacekeepers, and by communities themselves. Over the past few years, we have engaged in Somalia, Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan, Ghana, Chad, Nigeria, and Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Today, CIVIC’s Africa program has three main tracks:
- Strengthening the protection of civilians by UN peacekeepers currently operating in DRC and South Sudan by focusing on high-level policy reform, peacekeeper training and performance, and community engagement;
- Helping Nigeria and its neighbors end the conflict against Boko Haram by improving civilian protection and civil-military relations, and by preventing civilian harm that results from military operations; and,
- Working with the African Union in Somalia (AMISOM) to support the mission’s capacity to prevent and respond to incidents of civilian harm and to better protect civilians from al Shabaab.
As a result of this growth, CIVIC has influenced thinking, policies, and operations in numerous countries across the continent, as well as in halls of power in New York, Washington, Brussels, London, and Addis Ababa. Looking ahead, we are excited to expand our work in the hope that someday soon we will struggle to find places in which our work is needed.
Photo by Kyle Dietrich, Center for Civilians in Conflict
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.