By Federico Borello, CIVIC's Executive Director

Twenty years ago this month, on March 20, 2003, the United States launched its first airstrikes on Iraq. This marked the start of the US-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq and the long descent into the abyss for millions of Iraqis.  

This was also the start of our story.  

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) – initially known as the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict –was founded by Marla Ruzicka in 2003 in response to the devastating harm to civilians caused by US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our founder refused to view civilian casualties as mere collateral damage or an unavoidable consequence of conflict. Marla was on a mission: she wanted to change the impact war has on civilians. Marla wanted the US military to minimize harm to innocent women, men, and children, to keep a count of civilian casualties, and to provide harmed civilians and their families with amends, including compensation.  

Twenty years later, her mission’s importance has only grown.  

As CIVIC turns 20, we continue to strive for a world in which no civilian is harmed in conflict. We remain more committed than ever to supporting civilians in their quest for protection and redress, and holding accountable those who harm civilians. 

We are marking this milestone in a time of increased instability combined with a worryingly high number of armed conflicts around the world. Nuclear arsenals are growing and global arms sales are soaring. From Yemen to Ukraine, Somalia to Syria, civilians continue to bear the brunt of war and armed conflict. Unfortunately, with conflict and violence on the rise, we have many reasons to be concerned about the worsening plight of civilians. 

Last year, the world watched with horror as atrocities were committed in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, where the United Nations confirmed the killing of dozens of civilians by Russian armed forces. This is not an isolated case. Similar appalling scenes unfolded in places like Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Civilians are targeted in conflicts worldwide. The use of rape as a weapon of war, the deliberate starvation of civilian populations, torture, and enforced disappearances have become common characteristics of modern conflict. Massive displacement and the dwindling of resources available to support displaced persons mean that millions of people live in subhuman circumstances. Meanwhile, attacks on peacekeepers, aid workers, and journalists complicate the response to these atrocities. The vast majority of these crimes go unpunished. 

Not all countries and military actors target civilians deliberately. But even those that don’t routinely fail to take all necessary measures to protect civilians or provide amends when they are harmed. Countries also fail to hold their armed forces accountable for civilian harm, and don’t sufficiently take into account the protection of civilians when designing military training or when selling or transferring arms transfers to partner countries.  

At CIVIC, we don’t allow such dire situations to discourage us. We cannot stay idle while civilian lives are lost over and over again. That’s why we will continue to rise to the challenge inspired by the courage and determination of our founder as well as the countless civilians we interact with on a daily basis in our work.

As a quarter of the entire global population lives in conflict-affected areas, CIVIC has had to expand its presence around the world to respond to the increased need for civilian protection. Today, CIVIC has programs in a dozen conflict settings and employs more than 100 staff. 

While CIVIC continues to strive to ensure accountability and amends for civilian harm and advocate for the establishment of tracking systems of civilian casualties, our organization has diversified its work to adopt a comprehensive approach to preventing, mitigating, and responding to civilian harm. In recent years, engagement with military and security actors has become a key pillar of our work as we seek to champion the adoption of practices and policies that protect civilian lives. In a similar way, we support civilians as they organize themselves in local groups to identify threats to their protection and create opportunities for them to develop solutions and engage with relevant authorities as well as military actors. Another major component of our work has been to bring international attention to the protection of civilians by working collaboratively with multilateral organizations.   

While we have seen the situation deteriorate for civilians over the last two decades, we have also witnessed some positive developments and progress. For instance, we have seen the evolution of the UN Security Council’s approach towards the protection of civilians from its initial recognition as a matter of international peace and security in 1999 to its prioritization as a core task in several of the UN’s largest peacekeeping missions. It is a now a regular feature of the UNSC’s agenda, which increasingly calls for respect for international law in the conduct of hostilities, facilitating access to humanitarian assistance and medical care, preventing and responding to forced displacement, granting special protection to children affected by armed conflict, and protecting women and combatting conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV).  

In recent years, we have also witnessed and actively participated in global efforts to protect civilians in urban warfare and from the use of explosive weapons. Last November, more than 80 states endorsed the political declaration to address humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Last August in the United States, the Department of Defense launched the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP) with the aim to reduce US military harm to civilians in armed conflict and improve US responses to harm when it occurs. CIVIC was among the organizations that provided recommendations to the review team. Last year, Iraq became the first country in the Middle East to adopt a curriculum on civilian harm mitigation to be used by the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military forces, and the country’s Counter-Terrorism Service. Our expert team in Iraq developed the curriculum. 

Therefore, there are reasons to remain hopeful. However, there is still a lot of work to be done before we see a world where the protection of civilians is the top priority of all military forces and armed actors around the world. We have seen and heard many statements of good intentions to protect civilians; however, rhetoric does not save lives. Only through genuine commitment by all countries and global institutions can we change the future of civilians in armed conflict.  

While realizing our mission, one thing must remain front and center when seeking to protect civilians: involving the civilians themselves in identifying threats and designing solutions. They are not only victims of conflict; they are also agents of their own protection.  

At CIVIC, the protection of civilians is also a personal story. Many of our colleagues and their families have suffered from armed conflict that was never of their making. While the ultimate responsibility rests with states and armed actors, we will continue to call for everyone to do their part in the shared responsibility of protecting civilians. We will overcome the tough days and celebrate the small wins that set us all up for bigger achievements.  

As we continue to write our story, we wouldn’t have reached this new chapter without the enduring support of our dedicated staff, friends, and supporters. Each of us at CIVIC are also grateful to our donors and partners for believing in our mission and supporting us. 

We know that the road ahead is long, but we are committed to remaining steadily on it.  

That’s why later this year, we are launching a global awareness campaign to celebrate the stories of civilians, applaud their courage, and invite everyone to recommit to better protect women, men, and children in conflict. The campaign #NotCollateralDamage aims to remind the world of its collective obligation to protect civilians in conflict and war, and make sure that no one is exempted from it.  

Thank you.

Federico Borello has served as the Executive Director of Center for Civilians in Conflict since 2014. Twitter: FBorelloCIVIC

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