What Civilians Themselves Say about Targeting and their Participation in Conflict
Article by Nicolette Boehland, Harvard Law Fellow at CIVIC.
Article originally published by Just Security.
“What I think is that there is no line at all … Civilians can turn into fighters at any time. Anybody can change from a fighter to a civilian, all in one day, all in one moment.”
I remember pausing when I heard this assertion. It was July 2012, and I was sitting across from Walid, a 27-year-old insurance salesman from the suburbs of Tripoli, Libya. Over several cups of tea at Casa Café, he told me of his experience of the conflict in 2011. In the first few months, he started posting on Facebook and tweeting about supplies and protests, quickly assuming the role of an informal spokesperson for Libyan civilians. Walid’s story included his eventual arrest and torture, his stint as a recruiter for the rebels, and finally his efforts to distribute anti-Qaddafi fliers in his neighborhood. Near the end of the interview, as we were discussing his understanding of the concept of the civilian, he responded with the unforgettable line above. Walid, the seventeenth Libyan I had interviewed, convinced me then that the research I had undertaken for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) on civilian involvement in war was worthwhile. His experiences were simply too rich and his views too nuanced to be ignored.
After this interview, we conducted 233 more with people like Walid who have lived through conflict in Libya, as well as in Bosnia, Gaza, and Somalia. The results of this research are released in an 84-page report titled The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict.
The study centers on the concept of civilian immunity, which at its essence is the idea that certain people should be protected from harm during war. As many readers of Just Security know, this concept was enshrined in the principle of distinction, according to which civilians must be protected from direct attack during war. This principle is arguably the cornerstone of international humanitarian law, yet still, civilian immunity is not absolute. The Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions set out the important limitation that civilians are immune from being targeted “unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.”
Military commanders, government officials, lawyers, humanitarians, and academics have engaged in a heated debate over how this phrase should be understood and applied. In their debates — primarily focused on definitions, legal obligations, and criteria for targeting — they have argued about key questions such as which activities should qualify as direct participation and when a civilian should lose and regain legal immunity from direct attack. In all these debates, we found the views of one important group was missing: ordinary people who had lived through war. CIVIC therefore set out to gather and analyze their perspectives in this study.