The UN Secretary-General’s recent report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (POC) highlighted the continuing high levels of harm to civilians during armed conflict. As outlined in the report, civilians continue to be killed, injured, exposed to psychological trauma, sexual violence, and the impacts from damage and destruction to critical infrastructure and essential services like health and education. When explosive weapons are used in urban areas, 88% of the victims are civilians, part of upward trends in violence experienced by civilians in armed conflict.
To reverse these trends, parties to armed conflict and the actors who support them, must take decisive steps to identify, prevent, mitigate, and amend harm to civilians from the conduct of hostilities. To discuss key challenges and explore emerging practice in civilian harm mitigation (CHM)1CHM refers to all measures taken by armed actors to prevent, minimize, and address civilian harm resulting for their own presence, activities, and operations. the Permanent Missions of Afghanistan and the Netherlands to the United Nations, the American Bar Association (ABA), Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), and PAX, convened a virtual side event on 27 May 2021 as a part of the annual POC Week on the margins of the UN Security Council debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.
Speakers at the event outlined concrete examples of tools and mechanisms relevant for CHM, which, if adopted more widely, could save lives and improve compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL). First, the systematic analysis of cases and patterns of civilian harm is needed to inform efforts to prevent, mitigate, and respond to future harm. Second, to mitigate harm from actions of one’s own forces, this analysis should be done by dedicated and properly resourced mechanisms that track and analyze cases of civilian harm, identify patterns and trends, and gather lessons learned to prevent further harm. Third, in the context of security partnerships, risks assessments are crucial to tailor mitigating measures, condition support on avoiding violations, and end or restrict support when necessary.
Among the challenges highlighted were poor data collection and a lack of understanding of civilian harm, as well as inadequate efforts made to measure, understand, and address the humanitarian impacts and reverberating effects of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
Examples of CHM at the National, Regional, and International Levels:
During the discussions, speakers presented practical policies and measures that have been developed and implemented at the national, international, and regional levels to mitigate civilian harm.
The Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations, Ambassador Adela Raz, outlined key actions undertaken as a part of the country’s human rights-based approach, including: 1) developing and implementing a national policy on civilian casualty prevention and mitigation; 2) instituting accountability measures to ensure adherence to IHL and the policy among the security forces; 3) prioritizing the protection of vulnerable groups, especially children, and ensuring this is spearheaded by dedicated child protection units; 4) involving human rights officers in the military policy and planning processes; and 5) training the armed forces on the relevant laws and policies.
Mr. Simon O’Connor, a Military Advisor for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), explained the various mandates, policies, and tools that inform the UN’s efforts to mitigate harm to civilians by its own missions, and to prevent and respond to harm done by other actors. UN missions are required to analyze and mitigate potential harm to civilians from their operations by the UN Department of Peace Operations POC Policy (2019) and increasingly by UNSC-approved mission mandates with explicit CHM requirements.
Mr. O’ Conner noted that the UN is also obligated by its system-wide policy on Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP) on support to non-UN security forces to prevent enabling abuses by non-UN forces it supports, including by conducting risk assessments of likelihood, and promoting measures to mitigate those risks. Also, the Security Council has mandated the UN to to support the development and implementation of a tailored human rights compliance framework for the G5 Sahel, which includes activities across the operational cycle, such as development of rules and regulations and internal accountability mechanisms for the Force.
Colonel Jean Ouedraogo, the Chief of Operations of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, highlighted a specific tool of the compliance framework that the G5 Sahel recently launched to analyze, prevent, mitigate, and follow-up on civilian harm, called the Civilian Casualties Identification, Tracking, and Analysis Cell (CITAC, or MISAD in French). The Force has operationalized the mechanism through specific steps, including by instituting a regular daily reporting requirement on any harm to civilians among the battalions, gathering lessons, creating monitoring committees at two levels, training of trainers and raising awareness of it among the battalions, and strengthening links with the civilian population. Political will and ownership by the Force were key elements to developing and launching the tool, which was supported by partnerships with the OHCHR and CIVIC, which provide technical assistance.
Finally, Ms. Marianna Tonnutti, a Governance Advisor at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, highlighted NATO’s efforts to define and operationalize a vision for POC. NATO adopted a POC Policy in 2016 and has since translated this policy into a concept and a framework, which are explained in a recently published Protection of Civilians Allied Command Operations (ACO)Handbook. These policy developments have promoted a population-centric paradigm and analysis of potential harm, including the long-term or reverberating effects, from all actors in a conflict.
Speakers also discussed key challenges to effective CHM, especially when conflicts take place in urban environments, and in the context of partnered military operations (PMOs).2The forms of PMOs that were discussed included arms sales, training partnerships, kinetic partnerships, and intelligence partnerships.
Ms. Brittany Benowitz, Chief Counsel at the Center for Human Rights of the American Bar Association, discussed observations and recommendations from an Expert Working Group which found that PMOs serve significant functions, but also contribute to civilian harm, including by prolonging hostilities. A best practice for partners looking to support parties to armed conflict is to conduct risk assessments at the front end of partnerships and impose red lines that would end the support relationship, if crossed. Another best practice she highlighted is to analyze the supported partner’s past patterns of behavior and restrict support in high-risk instances.
Mr. Timothy French, a Senior Adviser for the International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) shared observations and recommendations from the ICRC’s recent publication Allies, Proxies, and Partners: Managing Support Relationships in Armed Conflict to Reduce the Human Cost of War. The ICRC has also observed a correlation between support relationships and civilian harm. Key mitigating measures the ICRC has identified include: 1) preparing the supporting forces to engage in PMOs by ways of training and creating appropriate tools; 2) rigorously assessing the partners capability to reach identified objectives and fulfill their IHL obligations; and 3) monitoring and evaluating performance, especially in kinetic partnerships.
Moreover, Mr. French underlined the importance of addressing the increased risks to civilians by fighting in urban environments. He stressed that training on IHL must be tailored to the requirements of urban environments and to capability assessments. Intelligence partnerships also need to consider the lack of clarity provided by traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms in urban environments and consider conditions for the use of intelligence support as well as utilizing independent sources of information to verify harm.
Speakers also discussed challenges with data. With incomplete data on conflict-related civilian harm, security actors are unable to identify and address potentially deadly or debilitating gaps in prevention, mitigation, and remediation.
To address this challenge, Mr. Alfredo Malaret Baldo, a researcher for the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) discussed UNIDIR’s development of a menu of indicators to measure the reverberating effects on civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This menu helps analyze harm to civilians through systematically looking at impact chains that help make links between immediate impacts from the use of explosive weapons and reverberating effects. For example, for hospitals the second order impacts to services such as health services, and third order impacts to civilian well-being, such as maternal mortality, also have lasting impacts on civilians well beyond the initial damage. Mr. Baldo noted analysis into reverberating effects from use of explosive weapons in populated areas should consider: 1) ensuring attribution of harm is based on observed impacts instead of existing drivers; 2) assessing location and time through establishing geographic rings and windows of time; and 3) accounting for the gendered impacts of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
Concluding Recommendations from the Speakers Included:
- All parties should respect IHL and ensure respect by others, including by taking all possible steps to mitigate against civilian casualties;
- All actors should understand the broad scope of reverberating effects and focus on the humanitarian impacts from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas;
- The dialogue and mutual knowledge of mandates between civilian and military actors should be strengthened given how important Civilian-Military Coordination is to civilian harm mitigation, especially for mitigating harm from explosive weapons in populated areas;
- The UNSC should articulate and support CHM in more concrete terms in mandate resolutions. CHM needs to be fit for purpose and include clear procedures and consistent communications with security actors to ensure concerted efforts; and
- A standing UN body should be created to evaluate harm to civilians in conflicts to better preserve information and to inform the application of measures such as sanctions more consistently.