Headed to Afghanistan!

Posted By: Erica Hi all! I will be arriving in Kabul on Feb. 3 to begin my work as CIVIC’s jack-of-all-trades in Afghanistan -- researcher, advocate, on-the-ground point-person, and of course, blogger. You can read more about me and my background here. I think it is most important for this first post to give you a sense of my personal motivation for joining CIVIC and my own personal exposure to the conflict in Afghanistan. I was in Afghanistan in January 2007, doing field research for my law school thesis on private security contractors. Walking down the streets or talking to local Afghans I encountered, I was struck by their warmth and openness – qualities that (quite frankly) an American does not always encounter overseas. This sort of attitude led many of the aid workers, journalists, military and governmental officials that I met to be optimistic that Afghanistan was a place that could be “won.” Yet at the same time, there was a sense of opportunities squandered, that after six years of involvement, the security situation was slowly getting worse and the Afghan civilians who had originally welcomed foreign aid and involvement were starting to change their minds. During the short three weeks I was there it was not hard to see why. My roommate’s translator was mistakenly attacked in his family home by a foreign paramilitary unit – he and his family were booby-trapped to an explosive device, and all his possessions were stolen before the commanding officer found an identity card that established the mistaken identity. On another day, we heard that a mother and her child were accidentally killed in a NATO operation in one of the Northern provinces. Almost every Afghan I met had a story to tell about a loved one lost, homes destroyed, towns abandoned, and opportunities lost – often, though not always, as a direct result of U.S. and NATO operations. As a law student I knew that some of these incidents, perhaps even a majority would have been “permissible” or “justifiable” under the laws of war, but the losses were never justifiable in the eyes of those civilians harmed, and they would never be forgotten. Perhaps with this background, you can understand why I feel so passionately about my upcoming project with CIVIC. CIVIC’s work responds to the moral and strategic imperative of responding to these not-so-hidden costs of war, and it does so by trying to change the fundamental framework of the laws of war that makes these costs permissible. It advocates the standard that warring parties take responsibility for these most tragic costs of war, the type of devastation I witnessed daily in my last visit to Afghanistan. I am particularly excited to be joining CIVIC’s work at this critical time for their initiatives in Afghanistan. In the past few months, the United States and its NATO partners in Afghanistan have been debating how to turn things around in Afghanistan. Several NATO countries involved in Afghanistan have begun publicly questioning the level and the form of their continued involvement. There is a pervasive sense that the old approach is not working, in large part because it was not sensitive enough to the concerns of Afghan communities. This second look at the larger goals in Afghanistan may provide important opportunities for the work of CIVIC and for the Afghan civilians it is intended to benefit. I am in Cairo now, but in my next post, before I leave for Afghanistan, I’ll tell you a bit more about what I hope to do in Afghanistan, and why it is so important for CIVIC’s work to have someone on the ground during this crucial period.

A bit of background

Posted By: Marla B Afghanistan is increasing contentious and bloody battlefields from Kabul to Kandahar call attention war’s devastating impact on civilians. We believe the US and its allies have a chance to do what their military manuals say they should do: win the hearts and minds of the Afghan population with humanity and compassion. Last year we urged the US State Department to champion and NATO to create a fund for war victims. They have done so, but the effort remains under-funded and certainly doesn’t get help to all the Afghans who need it. With civilians increasingly angered by US and NATO troops, it’s time US and NATO forces stepped up to the plate. It’s time they create a program worthy of the losses suffered by civilians caught in the crossfire of this war. Behind the scenes, we’ve been educating the NATO Secretary-General, European countries, the US military and ambassadors alike on appropriate measures for war victims. But we knew we needed an on-the-ground presence to make things happen. We are please to introduce Erica – the newest member of CIVIC’s team. She’ll be based in Afghanistan starting next week. Erica will coordinate CIVIC’s policy recommendations on the ground to make sure the warring parties help the civilians they harm. She will go “into the field” to gather the stories of war victims themselves to make CIVIC’s case for aid back in Washington, in Brussels and in Kabul. We are excited to have Erica working for war victims where it matters most!

Great news!

Posted By: Marla B As you know, CIVIC has a long history working in Afghanistan to get help to war victims. However, because of the rising cost of security it's been hard to maintain an ‘on the ground’ presence there.This past fall, Harvard offered to CIVIC a fully-funded advocate to live in Afghanistan. Due to unforeseen complications on Harvard’s end, the fellowship will not start until June, placing the entire project in jeopardy unless we were able to secure extra funding (and fast!) to pay for it. Well… we found out yesterday we received a small grant that will allow us to take on this important initiative. In fact, this effort in Afghanistan to make sure war victims have the help they need is so important that we want you to be able to read about the progress in real time! We’ve set up this blog so you can see the work we do here at CIVIC as it is happening. You will be able to read how we work on the ground, here in Washington and on our other travels! To subscribe, visit this link or add it to your feed reader: http://civicfieldreports.wordpress.com/feed Check back often to see what we are up to! Best, Marla B PS. If you would like to make a donation to support our work in Afghanistan visit: civicworldwide.org/donate

Stop Playing the Blame Game: Ex Gratia Payments in the Fog of War

I’m sitting with the father of a young boy killed by international forces in Afghanistan. His child was 8-years old. He told me his story:

Just before dawn on February 8th, helicopters carrying dozens of French and Afghan troops landed in a remote village in Kapisa province located in northeastern Afghanistan. The soldiers searched the villagers’ homes, reportedly looking for weapons caches. Several hours later, a group of young boys were out herding cattle nearby when the commander of the ground operation called in an airstrike. The boys had stopped to light a fire to keep warm from the brutal Afghan winter temperatures when the bombs struck them. All of the eight boys, who were as young as eight years old and no older than eighteen, were killed.

Abdul only broke his stoic appearance once during our interview to fight back tears. His account of the details of the incident was clinical, but Abdul’s emotions emerged when I asked about his son. “He was a very kind person…my heart is broken,” he said. Aja Mal—Abdul’s son—liked school, and aspired to study in Europe or the United States.

According to Abdul, three generals from the US-led security assistance force (ISAF) came to his village to express their condolences several days after the tragic event. The US, British, and French Generals told him and the other villagers that they didn’t intend to kill the boys, and promised to compensate those who had lost their loved ones. A week later, ISAF’s top commander, General John Allen, expressed his “sincere condolences” and affirmed that ISAF will continue to do everything possible to “ensure the safety of the Afghan population.” To date, Abdul has not received any compensation or assistance for the death of his son.

When I asked Abdul what he wants from ISAF, he was firm but fair. He is willing to accept ISAF’s condolences, provided it is followed by the financial compensation or assistance promised to him by the Generals that visited his village. “In Afghanistan, if someone comes to your home [to apologize] you do not get revenge on them,” he explained. “But we also request them to help the families of those killed…If they don’t help our families, we take it as a sign that they did this intentionally. And then people will raise their guns to fight them.”

An Afghan police officer working alongside international forces, Abdul offers an interesting perspective given reports of distrust and outright animosity between international and Afghan forces. “I told them [ISAF], you are our mentors. As long as you [make] such big mistakes, how can you train our forces to be good professionals and to help our country?” Abdul noted. Abdul echoes the sentiments of other Afghans I have spoken with, who are understandably upset with the increasing rate of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Even while the vast majority of civilian casualties are caused by insurgents, many Afghans think ISAF should be doing more to prevent civilian harm, and are more critical when international forces kill civilians – even if by mistake. While ISAF officials were quick to express their regrets in the wake of the Kapisa incident, the international force is still not certain their actions killed the boys. According to ISAF, a secret informant told coalition forces that insurgents were planning to attack the French and Afghan troops in Kapisa. Through binoculars and other “optical equipment,” the troops claim to have spotted “adult sized” men carrying weapons and moving in a tactical fashion. The French forces on the ground reportedly attacked the insurgents, which was followed by an air strike ordered by the ground commander. After the engagement, ISAF reports that the French troops found the young boys amongst other dead bodies, but are still not certain who is to blame for their deaths. It has now been three weeks since Aja Mal and the other boys were killed. Still, the families of those killed have not received anything from ISAF beyond spoken condolences. Unfortunately, the disparate narratives of the incident leave me cynical about whether Abdul or any of the other families will receive compensation from ISAF. CIVIC’s past research has found that ISAF often does not compensate individuals killed or injured in “hard cases,” where it is not clear that international forces are to blame or where ISAF is not convinced those killed were civilians. The reason is that compensation is often perceived as an admission of fault or responsibility. Yet, in these so-called “hard cases,” ISAF may gain more by simply providing timely compensation. Fact-finding is incredibly difficult in war zones, and many times investigations will not be determinative in establishing the truth. Waiting for a long drawn-out investigation to finish may anger or alienate the victims, and undermine the positive impact of any compensation eventually issued. Ex gratia (meaning “by favor” and thus not obligatory) payments need not necessarily be an admission of fault or responsibility. While questions remain over exactly what happened in the Kapisa incident, ISAF is better off making a judgment call and issuing timely compensation to the families of those killed. The ages of these young boys lead me to doubt that they were belligerents. Even if international forces were not responsible for the boys’ deaths, compensation would be an expression of good will. It could also help mitigate tensions amongst Afghans – whom have already decided that ISAF is to blame for the incident – and ensure that Abdul and the other families are compensated for their tragic loss. --Trevor Keck

Reflections on a Partnership: Advancing Assistance for Civilian Victims of War

This blog originally appeared on the blog for the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. 

SYRIA: Syrian Forces Shoot Dead 14 in Hama - Activists

REUTERS | July 6, 2011   Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad shot dead 14 people on Tuesday in the Syrian city of Hama, activists said, and France called on the United Nations to adopt a firm stance in the face of "ferocious armed repression." Tanks were still surrounding Hama, days after it witnessed some of the biggest protests against Assad's rule since a 14-week uprising erupted in March. The attacks focused on two districts north of the Orontes River, which splits the city of 650,000 people in half. Residents said the dead included two brothers, Baha and Khaled al-Nahar, who were killed at a roundabout. Troops raided towns to the northwest of Hama near the border with Turkey in Idlib province, and authorities intensified a campaign of arrests that has resulted in the detention of at least 500 people across Syria in the last few days, rights campaigners said. In the eastern provincial capital of Deir al-Zor, security forces arrested Ahmad Tuma, a former political prisoner and secretary general of the Damascus Declaration, a grouping of opposition figures founded in 2005 to unify efforts to transform the country into a democracy. "Heavily armed 'amn' (security police) came to Dr Tuma's clinic and dragged him away in front of his patients," one of Tuma's friends told Reuters by phone. Some residents of Hama, scene of a crackdown by Assad's father nearly 30 years ago, had sought to halt any military advance by blocking roads between neighborhoods with garbage containers, burning tires, wood and metal. Tuesday's raid by security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad followed the killings of at least three people when troops and security police entered Hama at dawn on Monday. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said the world could not stand by "inactive and powerless" in the face of the violence. "We are hoping that the Security Council adopt a clear and firm position and we call on all the members of the Security Council to take responsibility in light of this dramatic situation with a Syrian population subjected day after day to an unacceptable, ferocious and implacable armed repression." French MP Gerard Bapt, head of the French-Syrian Friendship Committee, told Reuters: "With the Arab League not moving and with a nation like Saudi Arabia saying nothing publicly to condemn the killings by the Syrian regime it is difficult to see international pressure rising beyond the economic." France, unlike its European partners and the United States, says Assad has lost legitimacy to rule. But a French campaign for U.N. condemnation of the crackdown has met stiff Russian and Chinese resistance. France's foreign minister Alain Juppe, who held talks in Moscow last week, said on Tuesday there were signs Russia was beginning to question its Syrian stance. He said he attempted to sway his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, but that Russia was still threatening to use a veto against the resolution. The U.S. State Department said Syria's actions belied Assad's promises to launch a national political dialogue. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Syria was "going in the wrong direction" and needed to take quick action to pull back security forces, stop violence, release political prisoners and launch political talks with the opposition. German Ambassador Peter Wittig, U.N. Security Council president for the month of July, said at the United Nations on Tuesday that discussions continued about the Council possibly issuing a resolution on Syria. "Discussions on a draft resolution that is on the table - presented by the European Council members including mine -- will continue," said Wittig. "We don't know yet the result but there will be continued discussions on that initiative." Wittig said he was hoping for support from other countries in the coming "days and weeks" for the resolution. The U.N. is also expected to start discussing on July 14 the recent decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors to report Syria's covert nuclear activities to the Security Council for possible punitive action. Asked why there has been no international intervention in Syria like there was in Libya, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said a request from the Arab League to impose a no-fly zone on Libya was a major factor behind action there. HAMA SYMBOLISM "Assad may wait to see whether large-scale protests in Hama continue. He knows that using military aggression against peaceful demonstrations in a symbolic place like Hama would lose him support even from Russia and China," Syrian activist Mohammad Abdallah told Reuters from exile in Washington. Abdallah said using tanks to attack Hama would "totally discredit" a promise made by Assad to seek dialogue with his opponents. Troops and armor were attacking villages and towns in the Jabal-al-Zawya region, north of Hama, which had been the scene of large protests against Assad's 11-year rule, he said. Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000, sent troops into Hama in 1982 to crush an Islamist-led uprising in the city where the Fighting Vanguard, the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, made its last stand. That attack killed many thousands, possibly up to 30,000, and one slogan shouted by Hama protesters in recent weeks was "Damn your soul, Hafez." Authorities have prevented most independent media from operating in Syria, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and authorities. Rights groups say Syrian security forces have shot and killed at least 1,300 civilians across the country since the protests started and arrested over 12,000. Several troops and police officers have been killed for refusing to fire at civilians. Authorities say 500 police and soldiers have been killed by gunmen, who they blame for most civilian deaths. Assad has promised a national dialogue with the opposition to discuss political reform in Syria, which has been under the iron rule of the Baath Party for nearly 50 years. Many opposition figures reject dialogue while the killings and arrests continue. (Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage and Erika Solomon, Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Louise Ireland and Robert Woodward)