Making Amends to Civilians as a Crucial Measure in the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Open Letter from Center for Civilians in Conflict (then CIVIC) and Human Rights Watch

October 30, 2009

Re: Making Amends to Civilians as a Crucial Measure in the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Your Excellencies:

As the Security Council prepares for the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict debates in November, we wish to call your attention to an important practice emerging in conflict zones for the benefit of civilians.  It is one we hope you will consider discussing in the upcoming debates and including in your resolution.

Our organizations serve on the Steering Committee of the Making Amends Campaign – a coalition effort to focus attention on a gap in the protection and dignity afforded civilians in conflict. While civilian losses caused by a violation of the Laws of Armed Conflict create a channel for redress (usually in the form of reparations after liability is determined), countless civilians harmed ‘lawfully’ or those simply caught in the crossfire of armed conflict are usually left to pick up the pieces of their lives with no recognition
or help from the warring parties themselves.  This global problem constitutes a gap in protection which, in our view, is incompatible with international law’s emphasis on human dignity.

The principle we promote is simple: when warring parties harm civilians during lawful combat operations, those parties should recognize the losses and offer help in whatever way is most appropriate given the cultural circumstances and conditions on the ground. We call this practice “making amends.” Amends are a measure of compassion and humanity that may take the form of monetary payments, rebuilding, livelihood assistance programs, community aid or other dignifying gestures such as apologies.

The logic of making amends has rapidly gained traction among warring parties.  As but one example, most states contributing combat troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan have offered cash payments, medical assistance, livelihood assistance, and rebuilding efforts to make amends for unintentional and lawful harm suffered by civilians during their combat operations. Not long ago, making amends would have been considered an exceptional measure of compassion; in recent years, the practice has been either considered or implemented in conflict zones around the world. This month, the Commander of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) offered US$7,600 to local traders for the camels his troops accidentally killed in Mogadishu. This is precisely the type of behavior that all parties to conflict should seek to replicate.

Please note that making amends is a dignifying gesture, an act of compassion and humanity. It is not in any way an expansion of parties’ legal liability for harm caused in conflict.  Making amends neither nullifies nor substantiates any legal claim against the warring party and should not preclude any legal proceedings related to civilian harm as a result of acts contrary to international or domestic law. Most importantly, making amends is never a license to harm or an excuse for causing civilian suffering. On the contrary, making amends has the potential to stop cycles of violence, help stabilize insecure communities, and, for warring parties, internalize the human costs of combat operations, thus yielding better protection measures for the future.

For these reasons, the Security Council’s Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict mandate is an ideal place to applaud the many parties that make amends and call for others to follow suit. We urge your government to proclaim in its statement at the upcoming Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Open Debate that parties to armed conflict should make amends. We also urge your delegation to support any similar language proposed in the draft resolution.

Resolution 1674, the most recent on civilian protection, reaffirms that “parties to armed conflict bear the primary responsibility to take all feasible steps to ensure the protection of affected civilians.” Secretary-General Ban also stated: “[T]he protection of civilians is a human, political and legal imperative that recognizes the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. It is a cause that unites us all in the responsibility to protect civilians from abuse, to mitigate the impact of warfare and to alleviate their suffering.”  We urge you to pay special attention to Mr. Ban’s last point, because for all of the Council’s excellent work on protecting civilians in armed conflict, we hope it recognizes that the job of protection does not end when the targeting decision has been made, nor when the bullet has left the barrel.

No warring party can ever restore the lives shattered by their actions, but war need not be totally unforgiving. We hope you will consider furthering the practice of making amends by calling the Security Council’s attention to this innovative and pragmatic remedy.


Ken Roth
Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

Sarah Holewinski
Executive Director, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC)



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