These days are difficult ones for proponents of human rights. Even so, it still seems possible to make headway in some places on issues of concern to human rights advocates. These include the issue on which Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) focuses: the protection of civilians against harm in armed conflicts.
One factor making it possible for CIVIC to be effective is that some military leaders have come to agree that minimizing civilian casualties can confer a strategic advantage. This is not a new idea. Since ancient times, some commanders have recognized and sought the prestige of mercy. Still others have also recognized that if one side took care to limit harm to the other side’s people, it increased the chances that opponents would do the same. Since the nineteenth century, this reciprocity has played an important part in the codification of international humanitarian law.
Today, the strategic advantage of minimizing harm to civilians should be especially apparent: contemporary wars are not fought on restricted battlefields; they take place in large territories populated by civilians. And in the face of widespread civilian hostility exacerbated by harming civilians, it is difficult for any military force to prevail.
However, the main reason to minimize harm to civilians is not to confer military advantage—rather, it is to save innocent lives. That is why CIVIC exists. Persuading military leaders where it is in their self interest to minimize civilian harm is how we advance our mission.
Of course, there are still many military commanders and political leaders who think they can prevail by spreading terror, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. In the short run, these tactics may seem to succeed. Yet, such regimes never regain legitimacy at home or abroad, and they entrench the permanent hostility of a large portion of the Syrian population. At some point, the disadvantages of such behavior may come back to haunt President Assad’s government and its military allies.
The conduct of the war in Syria shows how much remains to be done to achieve the goals of CIVIC. We are making headway in some places, but we have a very long way to go. With your help and support, we will move forward. And for that we are eternally grateful.
With gratitude and respect,