Anders Fogh Rassmussen recently wrote: “The European Union regularly argues that its foreign policy is based on values, not just on short-term interests. If this is the case, we should stand up for these values.”1Hong Kong showed China is a threat to democracy. Now Europe must defend Taiwan, The Guardian, July 16, 2019, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/16/hong-kong-china-democracy-europe-taiwan-beijing-eu

Faced with increasing tensions at the edges of Europe, in areas such as Ukraine or the Sahel, the European Union and a number of European Governments have initiated a significant ramp-up of their security and defense capacities. As the EU quickly embarks on these reforms, they take additional steps toward increased capacity, integration, and consistency in security and defense, but considerations on the protection of civilians are largely absent.

European leaders must keep Rasmussen’s statement at the forefront of their thinking while developing new policy instruments and tools. What additional risks may be incurred by civilians as a result of these new developments? How does the EU plan to mitigate these risks? Experience from over 15 years of counter-terrorism operations have shown that highly securitized, short-term views at complex conflict environments that disregard civilians’ protection may add to conflict drivers, instead of contributing to durable peace and stability. In that sense, the protection of civilians is not only a legal, moral, and human imperative, but also a strategic need.

The EU should therefore clarify how it will uphold the protection of civilians, and avoid doing more harm than good in its operations. Defending its values and interests is a necessity for the EU today, and that cannot happen without a solid, proven, and collaborative approach to the protection of civilians.

One of these new policy instruments under creation is the European Peace Facility (EPF), proposed by Chief Federica Mogherini in June 2018. The EPF was introduced as a new off-budget fund – a fund outside the Union’s multi-annual budget – worth EUR 10.5 billion, meant to enable the financing of operational actions under the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). It will draw from the current African Peace Facility and the Athena mechanism to overcome existing gaps in capacity and limitations in funding. Overall, the EPF is meant to enable the EU to reinforce its support to military and security partners worldwide, carrying out broader assistance activities such as capacity building, provision of training, equipment, or infrastructure. In a nutshell, through a reinforced approach, the EPF will enable the EU to undertake more robust “train and equip” missions, as well as expand its financial support to partners for the acquisition of military equipment, including lethal weaponry.

The EU and European governments have a responsibility to ensure that this new instrument increases the EU’s short-term security and defense capacity while contributing to longer-term peace and stability objectives. The key to both is prioritizing civilian protection.

Prior examples of partnered operations clearly demonstrate the presence of both risks and opportunities – and should inform the EPF’s next steps. Big military powers such as the US, UK, France, and other assisting countries have increasingly worked in the past 10 years “by, with, and through” partners. To meet shared security objectives, they operate with other governments, local forces, or non-state armed actors through security partnerships and cooperation. As set forth below, with proper planning, such operations have the potential to prevent, minimize, or halt the violence caused by other actors against civilians (known as protection from other actors, or PFOA), as well as mitigate harm potentially caused by the partnership itself (known as civilian harm mitigation, or CHM). However, for this to happen, solid safeguards must be put in place at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. In a number of instance, these safeguards are insufficient and not appropriate. Coordination and oversight between partners must apply to all areas of security force assistance measures, including the funding and sale of lethal weaponry.

Gaps and Risks: General Statements about IHL, or Clear Plans to Prioritize and Operationalize POC

Numerous examples from Somalia, Iraq, Sahel, and Yemen document the ways in which failures to plan for the protection of civilians when providing security force assistance or engaging in partnered operations have real implications for civilians’ safety and security in conflict environments.2See, e.g., No Such Thing as a Quick Fix, Emily Knowleds and Abigail Watson, Oxford Research Group, July 2018, addressing limits to the UK security force assistance and the gap between the political aspirations and actual outcomes of such approaches, available at: https://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/no-such-thing-as-a-quick-fix-the-aspiration-capabilities-gap-in-british-remote-warfare

At the strategic level, governments usually do not explicitly articulate their expectations before entering into a partnership and, as a result, goals and priorities about protecting civilians may be misaligned.3The Protection of Civilians in Partnered Operation, CIVIC, CSIS, and Interaction, October 2018, available at: https://civiliansinconflict.org/publications/research/us-partnered-operations-2/ Generalized statements about the respect of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) are insufficient; to be effective, partnered goverments must explicitly clarify how the protection of civilians will be prioritized and operationalized in the partnership, how civilian harm will be mitigated, and who will be responsible to implement mitigation measures.4It is critical to establish upfront that certain activities, such as training for specific units or other types of assistance, will be discontinued if items are misused or diverted. Criticality of the partnership, business, political influence vs. civilian harm and lasting peace and stability Furthermore, they must determine in advance the situations or criteria that would trigger a withdrawal.

At the operational and tactical levels, it is often unclear how the protection of civilians will be factored into the planning, conduct, and review of operations. As a result, train and equip missions that mentor partner troops often fall short of prioritizing and operationalizing POC within military operations beyond usual calls to respect IHL. If POC is not clearly prioritized, intelligence for kinectic operations can be particularly problematic should a partner rely on assisting nations with inadequate human rights and protection standards. For instance, a partner force may use information provided by assisting nations to support operations or activities that may cause harm to civilians, and/or lead to serious IHL violations. 

Additionally, training initiatives have faced serious limitations. In a number of instances, training on POC is limited to a few theoretical modules on IHL, and can be seen as a box ticking exercise rather than a practical approach to risk reduction and mitigation. Moreover, training activities tend to be considered and presented as a stand alone solution, seen in isolation from a comprehensive approach to security sector reform, with specific attention to command and control and building the capacity of the military leadership. European Union Training Missions (EUTM), in spite of the rigor and quality of their activities, have actually not been able to avoid this pitfall. The EUTMs’ current approach fails to systematically integrate best practices on POC into operational forms of training, education, and exercises; currently partners are mostly trained on IHL provisions, and lack available adjustments in guidance, SOPs, and tools to translate protection of civilians’s requirements into practice.

Safeguards: Avoiding and Minimizing Civilian Harm – and Responding When Harm Does Occur

Protection of civilians in conflict zones is critical to the EU and EU governments’ ability to meet long-term peace and stability objectives. As they incorporate POC into partnered operations,  assessments should be undertaken and limitations should be set to avoid inadvertently undermining their own goals; safeguards are designed to avoid or minimize civilian harm resulting from their own operations and activities and appropriately respond to harm that does occur. The implementation of these strategies should account for the form and significance of the partnership, as well as each partner’s technical and political attributes.

The first safeguards the EPF should implement are rigorous conflict analysis and risks/impact assessments – both of which must be revisited regularly. The assessments should provide a thorough understanding of the capabilities of partner forces to adopt and implement CHM policies and best practices, with a specific focus on the protection of civilians. This assessment must be more than a “box ticking” exercise; it must gather concrete, actionable information.

As demonstrated in CIVIC’s approach to capabilities assessments of national security forces, a thorough assessment can reveal critical shortcomings that, if addressed, could avert preventable harm to civilians, including civilian casualties. Such assessments require a depth of data collection and analysis that often far exceeds any government-produced risk assessment reports. The assessments consistently reveal numerous capabilities gaps, including disparities in command and control, flawed recruitment processes, lack of comprehensive training on IHL (and IHRL, International Human Rights Law), and shortfalls (if not a complete absence) of oversight and accountability. Further, the assessments can highlight distinctions in capabilities from one governorate/geographical area to the other, based on economic, political, cultural, or even ethnic speficities.

CIVIC has recently created an assessment framework to support nations that provide security sector assistance; it includes more than 80 questions regarding political, strategic, legal, operational, training, accountability, civil-military, as well as economic-related considerations. This level of detail is required to understand potential partners, their approach to civilian protection, and what civilian protection risks and opportunities the partnership represents. Using such a methodology prior to entering a partnership and over the course of each partnership would enable the EU to ensure that partners’ objectives are aligned and actions supported through the EPF are consistent with and furthering long-term peace and stability objectives.

In addition to ensuring consistency before and during the partnership, the EU should explicitly set “red lines” or triggers to determine when to terminate a partnership; the EU must clearly define expectations of partner conduct, including mitigation measures, and  implement a procedure to stop support at any point should those expectations not be met and “red lines” crossed (e.g., limiting material support to partners who fail to meet standards for minimizing harm to civilians in urban areas).

At the operational and tactical levels, the EU should consider a number of practical safeguards, including but not limited to:

  • Calibrating partnership in a way that allows effective and regular oversight to take place;
  • Ensuring that the collection and sharing of intelligence will not unintentionally expose civilians to greater risks;
  • Supporting partners in developing protocols for attribution, investigation, and remedy for civilian harm;
  • Ensuring partners have templates and procedures in place to document incidents of civilian harm;
  • Developing scenario-based exercises and applied training; and
  • Injecting a POC focus into tactical trainings, such as counter-terrorism tactical training modules in environments where it is relevant.

In these efforts, the EU can build from the excellent “Concept on Protection of Civilians (PoC) in EU-led Military Operations” produced by EEAS in 2015 with the support of ECHO.5“Concept on Protection of Civilians (PoC) in EU-led Military Operations,” CSDP/PSDC 114, March 2015, available at http://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-6730-2015-INIT/en/pdf This concept document clearly outlines how POC needs to be “addressed through the whole spectrum of military activities: education, training, planning, conducting operations, reviewing, and lessons learned, including CIMIC procedures.” Now four years later, the EU should consider revisiting and strengthening the concept document to address the potential additional risks arising from EPF-funded activities.  

Funding Lethal Weaponry: Responsibly Managing Risks to Civilians – and to the EU’s Reputations

The current EPF proposal puts the EU in a position to fund military equipment, including lethal weaponry. Recent debates around arms deals with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the context of the conflict in Yemen confirm how challenging it can be for singular European governments to be diligent about basic human rights and IHL considerations in their bilateral arms transfer deals. Experts agree that without sufficient CHM measures, such deals expose civilian populations to increased harm and potential human rights violations, and governments to legal, moral, political, and reputational risks.

Whether the EU will do better than singular European Governments is unknown. Among the questions at issue is whether the EU will have sufficient oversight, control, and accountability mechanisms – as well as political muscle – to ensure that POC is considered at each stage of an arms deal (i.e., before, during, and after). How will 27 or 28 entitles around the table avoid the same pittfalls as France, Germany, or the UK faced alone?

Should the EU decide to fund lethal weaponry, it must ensure that reinforced risk assessments are performed for high-risk deals (i.e., high risk items, partners, and/or geographical areas), including pre-sale assessments that must be regularly revisited throughout the life of the deal. It is also essential that deals be accompanied by customized technical assistance focused on appropriate and lawful use of specific items, as well as regular monitoring to make sure that the partner adheres to these standards.

With all of these factors in mind, CIVIC urges the EU to consistently apply CHM and POC standards across all EPF-funded activities. Mitigating civilian harm in partnered military operations goes far beyond basic IHL trainings and requires considering a wide array of strategic, operational, political, and legal issues in order to translate them into practice.  

As Konrad Adenauer, a pioneer of European unification once wrote: “The history of the world is also the sum of what might have been avoided.” EPF is positioned to prioritize civilian protection and those with the power to do so should choose wisely now rather than regret needless and avoidable harm later. The EU and EU governments should learn from recent history that civilian protection must be a priority in their partnered operations around the world. EPF has the potential to mitigate harm efficiently – and has a responsibility to do so.

This article was co-authored by Beatrice Godefroy and Daniel Chinitz


[1] Hong Kong showed China is a threat to democracy. Now Europe must defend Taiwan, The Guardian, July 16, 2019, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/16/hong-kong-china-democracy-europe-taiwan-beijing-eu

[2] See, e.g., No Such Thing as a Quick Fix, Emily Knowleds and Abigail Watson, Oxford Research Group, July 2018, addressing limits to the UK security force assistance and the gap between the political aspirations and actual outcomes of such approaches, available at: https://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/no-such-thing-as-a-quick-fix-the-aspiration-capabilities-gap-in-british-remote-warfare

[3] The Protection of Civilians in Partnered Operation, CIVIC, CSIS, and Interaction, October 2018, available at: https://civiliansinconflict.org/publications/research/us-partnered-operations-2/

[4] It is critical to establish upfront that certain activities, such as training for specific units or other types of assistance, will be discontinued if items are misused or diverted. Criticality of the partnership, business, political influence vs. civilian harm and lasting peace and stability

[5] “Concept on Protection of Civilians (PoC) in EU-led Military Operations,” CSDP/PSDC 114, March 2015, available at http://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-6730-2015-INIT/en/pdf

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