Yemen’s Conflict Kills 13 Civilians Every Day

By Bénédicte Aboul-Nasr

Up to 13 civilians a day are being killed in Yemen, according to a recent report from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The report documents allegations of abuses and violations of international humanitarian law against Yemen’s civilians in that country’s civil conflict; deplores the use of cluster bombs, banned since 2008; and highlights attacks on hospitals, schools, and places of worship—places protected under the law of armed conflict for their role as potential shelters for civilians.

The report was released on Aug. 25, and details the impact of the fighting between Shiite Houthi rebels and the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, which is aided by a Saudi-led coalition.

“OHCHR has documented substantial allegations concerning possible violations of international humanitarian law,” the report states. “In several of the documented attacks, OHCHR was unable to identify the presence of possible military objectives.”

One of the core principles under international humanitarian law is the distinction between military and civilians which prohibits parties to a conflict from deliberately targeting civilians. Such violations include attacks in residential areas, markets, and celebrations including weddings, which resulted in vast civilian harm.

The report is published amidst growing criticism of the conflict and of the motives of actors in the field, including the coalition. Observers and NGOs have repeatedly accused the parties of carrying out deliberate attacks on civilians and protected facilities; under these circumstances, Médecins Sans Frontières decided to evacuate six of the 11 hospitals it was operating in Northern Yemen on Aug. 19.

At least 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the conflict started in 2015, according to the UN, a major increase from the report’s figures, and more than 3.15 million people have been displaced. The single largest cause of casualties according to the OHCHR has been coalition airstrikes, but landmines used by Houthi rebels and their allies have also killed civilians and hindered the return of displaced persons. There have also been reports that Houthis are recruiting children and women to fight.

UN observers are concerned that such brutality will increase sectarian divides, allowing a stronger presence of armed groups including al Qaeda and the Islamic State within the country and exacerbating tensions. In turn, this would complicate the peace process significantly and risk further destabilizing the region.

In light of such abuses, governments and parties to the conflict, whether directly or indirectly involved, must remember their responsibilities to adhere to international humanitarian law, and work to deescalate the violence. Moreover, coalition allies such as the US can ensure that its support to the coalition is conditional upon steps taken by the coalition to minimize civilian harm. (Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are trying to prevent a $1 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia from going through).

The consequences of the conflict have been dramatic, particularly on children and women, and without limits on the support provided and a change in the way the warring parties are fighting, the alternative may well be a lost generation.

Photo by Ibrahem Qasim (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

What is Aleppo? This is Aleppo.

By Kevin Gustafson

This week Muslims around the world marked Eid al-Adha, a holy day in which sacrifice and charity are celebrated. As Syrian Muslims observed the occasion, the implementation of a new ceasefire agreement gave additional reasons to give thanks. While the agreement appears to be largely holding, though there have been reports of some violations and caution remains the norm, a lull in fighting will surely bring some reprieve to those still living in Syria’s great ancient city and a focal point in the war: Aleppo.

Before the ceasefire, Aleppo—the city and its people—bore much of the brunt of the civil war. In one instance in late August, barrel bombs fell from helicopters circling Bab al-Nayrab, just a mile and a half south of the Aleppo Citadel, one of the world’s oldest castles, now nearly ruined by years of fighting in Northern Syria. The bombs hit a family home killing several family members including 11 children. Footage of two brothers who survived the attack soon surfaced on several media outlets.

This heartbreaking video shows the true human cost of the war. But such videos are not in short supply. Each day in Aleppo brings forth another human tragedy amid the rubble of the once grand city.

Before the war started in 2011, Aleppo was home to almost 2.2 million people and the most populous city in Syria. With a history stretching back nearly 7,000 years, the ancient trading post on the Silk Road has been the center of economic activity in the area for centuries, even gaining a mention in the pages of Shakespeare. A crossroads of many of Syria’s ethnic and religious minority groups, Aleppo had been a place where the reach of the Ba’ath regime seldom touched.

However, as the Assad regime sought to tighten its power, the government began systematically denying ethnic groups like Kurds, Turks, Assyrians, Armenians, and Circassians certain rights—namely citizenship and language rights—other religious minority groups, such as Assad’s own Alawite sect, otherwise enjoyed in Syria. Once war broke out, multi-ethnic and economically active Aleppo became a strategic prize for regime forces.

Since then, Aleppo has remained under near constant threat of attack by government forces, ISIS, and other jihadist groups. Kurdish and other rebel groups have also attempted to take it. The once dense and vibrant city is now cut in half between government and rebel forces, and filled only with the sound of gunfire and aerial bombardment. Less than 50,000 people remain amidst the besieged ruins.

Although Aleppo has been attacked by all groups fighting in the war, Assad’s air force and his Russian allies tip the balance in the government’s favor. But they have been criticized for the lack of distinction between military objectives and civilians. Indeed, schools and hospitals, especially protected under international humanitarian law, have routinely been hit. As CIVIC has noted, many of these necessary functions have gone underground (literally). Even events meant to be celebrations, like weddings, are liable to be attacked. The city stands, like Syrian society, in ruins.

Together, all this violence in Aleppo can lead to “victim fatigue” and cause the public to forget the human cost of war. This must not happen.

It’s true, the numbers are hard to grasp. Nearly half a million people have been killed in the war and millions more are internally displaced or outside Syria. But it’s the faces, like that of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh—numbed and silent after being pulled, still bleeding, from the rubble of his home in Aleppo—and the video of the brothers from Bab al-Nayrab that should shock the public.

Also shocking: the difficulty of delivering necessary aid to those still in the city. Aid groups have either been denied permission through checkpoints, or found the situation too dangerous given the potential for rather indiscriminate attack from the air.

A durable cease-fire, the delivery of aid, as well as a re-commitment of all fighting forces to protecting war’s civilians, are central to easing the struggle faced by those remaining in Aleppo. Otherwise, it will be the faces of civilian children like Daqneesh and the Bab al-Nayrab brothers the world will remember when it thinks of Syria and Aleppo, instead of the vibrant city of days past.

Photo by Nicole Tung

NATO’s Civilian Protection Policy Has Some Work to Do

By Alex Liffiton, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

On July 1, 2016, President Obama issued an Executive Order (EO) on Pre- and Post-Strike Policies on Civilian Casualties in United States operations using force. Eight days later the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) released their Policy for the Protection of Civilians. The details are similar but there are some key differences. Most importantly though, perhaps, is the strategic emphasis these policies place on civilian protection in conflict and counterterrorism operations.

Both the EO and NATO policy guidelines argue that these new directives are being enacted not only to satisfy legal obligations, but also because of moral obligations that the US and NATO feel are imperative. They both stress the importance of integrating civilian protection into the use of force so there is an overarching context in which to judge all future actions. Both documents argue this integration is central to the successful completion of the missions that they carry out. Both have made it a directive to learn and implement best practices of experience and allies, to inform the strategic process of planning a campaign. Unsurprisingly, they also both vow to take all feasible measures to avoid civilian harm—a key tenant of international humanitarian law. If the US or NATO does incidentally harm civilians, the policy and EO require the armed forces to make these losses public. Additionally, both stress that they’re not creating a new legal framework that supersedes the Geneva Conventions.  

Perhaps the major difference between the two policy directives is that NATO’s guidelines do not have any language about post-harm amends or payments to civilians. At CIVIC we have found that post-harm amends are critical to appropriately addressing civilian harm and ensuring mission success, and we believe NATO should adopt such a policy as soon as possible. Also, the EO requires the US Director of National Intelligence to compile and release an annual list of casualties, but NATO’s policy does not call for a systematic accounting. Instead, NATO “will make every effort to communicate known civilian casualties” to the relevant authorities, media and local population. Finally, the EO specifies that US armed forces will develop weapons and intelligence practices that will reduce civilian harm. NATO’s guidelines do not have this level of detail in their orders.

For more than a decade, civilian protection as a central component of military and political planning of operations has been a major goal for our organization. CIVIC welcomes both the EO and NATO policy guidelines, but notes that the real proof will come in how effectively the policies are implemented. 

CIVIC provides assistance in implementing these types of directives to ensure civilians are protected. With a long track record of helping civilians in conflict by working with various governments and militaries, CIVIC ensures civilian protection is considered at all levels of planning and not just as an afterthought.

Photo Illustration by Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC); original photo U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II

Final Agreement on Peace in Colombia, But True Peace Still A Long Way Off

Photo courtesy of Camilo Rueda López, Some Rights Reserved

By Kevin Gustafson, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Colombia’s half-century-long conflict is rapidly coming to close. On Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), released the final text of a peace agreement four years in the making, and President Juan Manuel Santos has called for a referendum on the agreement for Oct. 2. Colombia’s war-weary population will be voting on a 297-page document that covers a wide range of issues, including rural land reform, participation of FARC in the political process, the group’s disarmament, and, perhaps most importantly, the creation of a truth commission as part of a transitional justice program. And while the end of any conflict is worthy of praise, the Colombian agreement has some serious—although not insurmountable—hurdles to a lasting peace in the Andean nation.

Colombia’s conflict is the longest-running guerilla war in the Americas. It left more than 220,000 people (more than 80 percent of them civilians) and some 5 million people displaced, the second largest number in the world. In all, some 8 million people were directly affected by the war, according to government statistics.

How the state addresses the needs of those people will, in large part, determine the success of the agreement, and Santos has his work cut out for him. One of the biggest concerns some Colombians—and nongovernmental organization such as Human Rights Watch—point to is a lack of justice for victims of serious violations of international humanitarian law. In short, many worry that the deal will result in amnesty for alleged kidnappers, narcotraffickers, and war criminals.

Enrique Celis believes his brother-in-law, a Colombian soldier, was kidnapped by FARC in the 1990s. He told The New York Times that despite the group’s insistence that they have released their captives, he believes his relative is still in FARC’s hands somewhere.

“The FARC have been untruthful in the whole process,” Celis was quoted as saying. “This deal doesn’t get a real justice or reparations for the victims.” He says he will vote against the referendum in October.

(FARC wasn’t the only group committing grave offenses; army units and government-backed paramilitary militias are also implicated. Between 2002 and 2008, up to 3,000 civilians were lured to the countryside, summarily executed and claimed as guerillas by the government-affiliated fighters in order to boost body counts and receive bounties and promotions.)

The agreement suggests ill-defined alternative sentences (“sanctions”) for those who admit their involvement in war crimes at the truth commission. But in January 2016, Colombia’s Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez wrote to the International Criminal Court, which has an ongoing investigation in Colombia, expressing concerns that “the agreement does not comply with international justice standards” because those who had committed violations may not face domestic imprisonment. As Human Rights Watch points out in its analysis:

The agreement states categorically that perpetrators who confess to atrocities will be exempt not only from prison or jail, but also from any “equivalent” form of detention. They will instead be subject to “sanctions” that have a “restorative and reparative function” – as opposed to a punitive one – and entail carrying out “projects” to assist victims of the conflict.

This lack of prosecution could violate Colombia’s obligations under international law, while the ICC’s investigation may mean some of the leaders of both parties to the conflict could face prosecution in The Hague. That could put Santos’ government in the uncomfortable position of shielding alleged perpetrators—who most Colombians would like to see hanged—from international justice while creating a political nightmare for his Partido Social de Unidad Nacional.

Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, acknowledged the agreement’s limitations in his statement on the release of the agreement. “The accord we’ve achieved isn’t a perfect accord.” However, he went on to defend the agreement as the best possible given the situation. “Many Colombians would want punishment for the FARC,” he said, “the violence of the other cannot justify one’s own violence.” Indeed, the truth commission’s name, the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition, attempts to make it clear that its main focus is restorative, rather than retributive justice. “Non-repetition” of human rights violations, de la Calle wrote, “is something that we demand of the FARC with firmness. But this should also be a great national commitment.”

Iván Márquez, FARC’s chief negotiator, echoed much of this sentiment in his statement. Márquez acknowledged that in war, especially one lasting 50 years, “errors are committed and the population is involuntarily affected.” And, he added, “We hope to dispel, definitively, the risk that weapons may again be used against citizens.”

The agreement, though in its final form, remains unsigned. While the FARC is likely to approve the agreement at its upcoming 10th Conference, Santos is expected to have to campaign heavily for its passage in the referendum as well as push for its ratification in Congress. Former President Álvaro Uribe, Santos’ predecessor, mentor and now political opponent, opposes the agreement and controls a large opposition bloc in Congress.

Assuming the referendum passes muster with both FARC and the Colombian voters, and Congress ratifies the agreement and passes the appropriate legislation, only then will the agreement be officially signed. Then, members of FARC will be have 180 days to disarm under UN supervision. Soon thereafter, the Truth Commission will begin its work.

This agreement is a significant step forward for peace in Colombia. But the history of La Violencia suggests that observers not hold their breath until each step in the process is complete. And even then, large swaths of the country are still under control of drug cartels and other armed groups. The Colombian government’s anti-narcotic operations continue to pose risks to civilian men, women, and children.

Until the state can control all of its territory, infuse respect for civilians throughout state security forces, and deliver meaningful justice through a mechanism acceptable to all victims of 52 years of civil conflict, this week’s peace agreement will remain unfinished. 

The Coming Climate Wars

A woman walks behind the remains of a house in the village of Mehmood Kot in Punjab that was destroyed by Pakistan's floods in 2010. Photo by Christopher Allbritton

By Ananya Vidyarthi

Aug. 8 marked Earth Overshoot Day—the annual point when humanity exhausts its budgeted resources for the year. Back in 1974, we hit Overshoot Day on Dec. 24, but since then, it’s been steadily creeping forward in the calendar, and by 2005, it was occurring in August, reflecting higher rates of consumption, as well as a significant growth in the world’s population. And decreasing resources, coupled with climate change, could mean the world is entering a new period of conflict.

CIVIC is concerned about this because droughts, floods, and extreme temperatures can threaten civilians in conflict as much as bombs and bullets. And if you thought Overshoot Day comes early now, climate change is also expected to lead to a decrease in food production, population displacement, and outbreaks of disease. Increases in extreme weather and climate change in conflict areas are expected to further impact civilians already living in incredibly difficult conditions.

Of course, climate change and environmental conditions do not directly cause war. But as Ashley Moran, State Fragility Initiative Director at Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law in Austin, Texas, found, climatic events can make the outbreak of conflict more likely, make existing conflicts last longer, and reduce the chances of preventing conflict by increasing competition for scarce resources and exacerbating ethnic, religious, regional, and racial divides.

We see an example of this in Syria. A drought intensified by climate change has been identified as a contributing factor to the 2011 uprising and subsequent civil war there that has seen up to 400,000 people killed and millions driven from their homes. Decades of poor governance and unsustainable agricultural policies may have been at the root of the unrest, but it took migration into cities because of the lack of prosperity in farming for grumblings to boil into street protests. And Syria isn’t unique; the Middle East and North Africa—the world’s largest food importing region—imports 25–50 percent of its food every year. A global rise in food prices and shortages brought on by droughts around the world arguably contributed to the Arab Spring as a whole.

In other regions, the scarcity of resources has caused tensions between nations, like those between India and Pakistan over the Indus River Basin. And in Darfur, the UN has listed climate change in the form of a decades-long decline in rainfall brought on by rising ocean temperatures as a factor in the conflict there. Somalia, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso are likewise threatened.

Rising sea levels and disruptions in food production increase the likelihood of population displacement and food scarcity that will eventually intrude on the space and resources of other populations. If climate change is not adequately addressed, climate refugees unaccounted for, and scarcity of resources unacknowledged, these environmental conditions make the outbreak of conflict more likely and continue to harm international stability.

CIVIC’s mission is to improve protection for civilians caught in conflicts around the world. An early August Overshoot Day and the reality of climate change is a sobering reminder that our work could—sadly—be more necessary than ever in the decades to come. In addition to supporting CIVIC, please consider supporting these organizations as well:

Peshmerga: ‘We must uphold our values and protect civilians in defeating Daesh’

Photo by Center for Civilians in Conflict

By Sahr Muhammedally, Senior Program Manager for MENA & South Asia

KIRKUK, Iraq—Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish Peshmerga, the U.S.-led coalition, and other pro-government forces are all stepping up their planning here in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and Daesh in Arabic. But defeating ISIS also means prioritizing civilian protection before retaking populated areas. Protecting civilians and their property better is key to building a stable Iraq.

ISIS seized large swaths of Iraqi territory in 2014, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with a population of 1.5 million. But since then, it has lost more than half the territory it seized and there are plans underway to retake Mosul before the end of the year.

Since 2015, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) has been visiting Iraqi villages and towns retaken from ISIS. We have spoken to civilians fleeing military operations, met with military commanders and humanitarian groups, and are monitoring the challenges of protecting civilians during military operations. We have identified several areas of concerns, but we’ve also highlighted opportunities for improving ways security forces can better protect civilians and their property. We’ve followed up on our research by talking with parties to the conflict about tactics, and making recommendations for improvement.

The Kurdish government recognizes some of the challenges in retaking areas from ISIS. In May 2016, President Masoud Barzani issued Presidential Decree No. 3 ordering all forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law regarding the protection of civilians and their property. The ICRC began international humanitarian law trainings to the Peshmerga forces.

In August 2016, the Ministry of Peshmerga approved CIVIC’s proposal to train the Peshmerga in civilian protection. We began these trainings with the Peshmerga commanders in charge of units likely to be involved in the liberation of Mosul and the surrounding villages shortly after. Our training module, Protecting People and Communities During Operations, reflects the legal, ethical, and strategic reasons to protect civilians and their property. We discuss community engagement and how to address challenges in distinguishing between civilians and combatants. We also discuss why it’s important to assess the impact of operations on civilians and how to conduct those post-operation assessments. Finally, we stress the importance of acknowledging civilian harm when it does occur. (CIVIC eventually plans to begin similar dialogue on civilian protection with Iraqi Security Forces.)

The Peshmerga care about their reputation and are proud of their history. They are committed to defending their homeland—but they also know the eyes of the world are upon them.

“We know civilians are watching us,” a Peshmerga commander told me today. “We know the international community is watching us. We must uphold our values and protect civilians in defeating Daesh.”

CIVIC has provided the Peshmerga with ideas on how to protect civilians and their property better, and how to engage with civilians fleeing violence. And attending a CIVIC civilian protection training session and an ICRC one on international humanitarian law are important first steps. But Peshmerga commanders have to take the next step to ensure that their commitment to protect civilians is translated into action.

“We have suffered injustice under Saddam,” one commander told me during the trainings. “Our homes destroyed and people killed. We cannot let that happen to others.”