Obama’s Executive Order on Civilian Protection: A Timeline

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.”