Remembering Marla, 11 Years later

Photo © J.B. RussellIt’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

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Commentary: Protection, Peacekeeping, and the Individualization of War

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

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In Remembrance of Our Founder

When Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) was founded as Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict in 2003, it was as a one-woman mission to get recognition for the victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Marla Ruzicka believed that the US government should not walk away from the unintended victims of their military operations and set out to ensure that our government didn’t just turn their backs on those they had harmed.

Marla wanted to humanize what the military called "collateral damage." She wanted to show that civilian casualties reported in the media every day were not just numbers, but individuals with friends and families who lives deserved to be recognized and dignified. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, she undertook the dangerous work of documenting thousands of victims of American military operations, ensuring that their stories reached the outside world. She wanted to recognize each victim and recorded their name and their story.

On April 16th, 2005, Marla too became a victim of armed conflict. She and her longtime colleague and translator Faiz Ali Salim were killed in a suicide car bombing on airport road in Baghdad.

In a moving speech about Marla on the Senate floor made days after her death, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. said, “I don’t think I have ever met, and I probably will never meet again, someone so young who gave so much of herself to so many people and who made such a difference doing it.”

Just like the families of victims around the world, Marla’s friends and family struggled to make sense of her loss. Marla lives on in the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program (ACAP) and in the Iraqi War Victims fund that now bears her name, and in the work CIVIC does everyday to ensure that no civilian caught in conflict is ignored or overlooked.

As violence and conflict continue to proliferate around the world, so too does the need for the work Marla started— to make warring parties more responsible to civilians before, during, and after armed conflict. With the growth we have laid out for the next three years, CIVIC’s work, our unique voice, and innovative approach will reach more conflicts, honoring Marla’s extraordinary legacy by protecting more civilians.

On this, the 10th anniversary of Marla’s passing, our thoughts are with her family and all families that are victims of armed conflict.

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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 CIVIC'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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