Tracking Civilian Harm

Center for Civilians in Conflict believes militaries and other armed groups must understand the impact of their operations on the civilian population. For a decade, we have advocated with individual militaries and coalitions to properly track, investigate, and analyze civilian harm.

Civilian harm tracking is a multi-layered internal process by which a particular military can gather data on civilian harm caused by its operations. This process involves formal reporting chains among troops, full investigations following possible incidents of civilian harm, and a centralized, professionally staffed information system or “cell” to house and analyze incoming data. Such data can be used:

  • As input into military planning and decision making with the goal of better situational awareness and minimizing civilian harm;
  • To factually respond to allegations of civilian casualties;
  • To create ongoing tactical guidance on minimizing civilian harm;
  • To properly address losses with the civilians themselves.

There are strong ethical and strategic reasons for tracking civilian harm. There may also be legal reasons for doing so. Ethically, many militaries and other armed groups—such as the states within NATO and the African Union—have stated their concern for civilians caught in the crossfire. Ensuring those harmed are properly noted, lessons are learned from their suffering and operations improve, and that families receive amends for losses are ethical obligations.

From a strategic standpoint, mission success can hinge on minimizing civilian harm and/or responding to the civilian harm that is caused. This is true in counterinsurgency operations (COIN), broad-based counterterrorism operations, foreign military interventions, and peacekeeping operations conducted in parallel with a political process to end a conflict. Military actors must understand where, when, and how their operations have harmed civilians in order to improve and respond properly to such harm.

Legally, the Laws of Armed Conflict (or international humanitarian law) require proportionality and distinction in combat operations to ensure civilian harm is minimized. While “tracking civilian harm” is not a formal requirement, we argue that a military actor must fully understand what harm has occurred as a result of a particular operation. This requires matching post-operation data with estimates of probable civilian harm assessed pre-operation.

“Civilian harm tracking” is an emerging practice in armed conflict, though most militaries and armed groups maintain only ad hoc measures of tracking civilian harm. New examples of more robust efforts include the civilian harm tracking cell created by international forces in Afghanistan in 2008. CIVIC has also been working with African Union Mission in Somalia forces (AMISOM) since 2011 to create a similar structure in Mogadishu. The United Nations noted civilian harm tracking in an official mandate for the first time in 2012, and again in 2013, with regard to AMISOM.  In Mali, we are pressing for the UN peacekeeping mission mandate to include civilian harm tracking.

CIVIC has worked on civilian harm tracking in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, and Somalia.


Reports and Briefs

Backgrounder: Tracking Civilian Harm

Center for Civilians in Conflict's overview of the emerging best practice of tracking civilian harm.



A Case Study in Civilian Casualty tracking




Civilian Harm in Somalia: Creating an Appropriate Response

Part of the Countries in Conflict Series, November 2011



Protect Vulnerable Minorities and Assist Civilians Harmed in Libya

Part of the Countries in Conflict Series, November 2011





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