By Alex Liffiton, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)
On July 1, 2016, President Obama issued an Executive Order (EO) on Pre- and Post-Strike Policies on Civilian Casualties in United States operations using force. Eight days later the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) released their Policy for the Protection of Civilians. The details are similar but there are some key differences. Most importantly though, perhaps, is the strategic emphasis these policies place on civilian protection in conflict and counterterrorism operations.
Both the EO and NATO policy guidelines argue that these new directives are being enacted not only to satisfy legal obligations, but also because of moral obligations that the US and NATO feel are imperative. They both stress the importance of integrating civilian protection into the use of force so there is an overarching context in which to judge all future actions. Both documents argue this integration is central to the successful completion of the missions that they carry out. Both have made it a directive to learn and implement best practices of experience and allies, to inform the strategic process of planning a campaign. Unsurprisingly, they also both vow to take all feasible measures to avoid civilian harm—a key tenant of international humanitarian law. If the US or NATO does incidentally harm civilians, the policy and EO require the armed forces to make these losses public. Additionally, both stress that they’re not creating a new legal framework that supersedes the Geneva Conventions.
Perhaps the major difference between the two policy directives is that NATO’s guidelines do not have any language about post-harm amends or payments to civilians. At CIVIC we have found that post-harm amends are critical to appropriately addressing civilian harm and ensuring mission success, and we believe NATO should adopt such a policy as soon as possible. Also, the EO requires the US Director of National Intelligence to compile and release an annual list of casualties, but NATO’s policy does not call for a systematic accounting. Instead, NATO “will make every effort to communicate known civilian casualties” to the relevant authorities, media and local population. Finally, the EO specifies that US armed forces will develop weapons and intelligence practices that will reduce civilian harm. NATO’s guidelines do not have this level of detail in their orders.
For more than a decade, civilian protection as a central component of military and political planning of operations has been a major goal for our organization. CIVIC welcomes both the EO and NATO policy guidelines, but notes that the real proof will come in how effectively the policies are implemented.
CIVIC provides assistance in implementing these types of directives to ensure civilians are protected. With a long track record of helping civilians in conflict by working with various governments and militaries, CIVIC ensures civilian protection is considered at all levels of planning and not just as an afterthought.