Last month, the UN Secretary General presented the annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict in 2022 to the UN Security Council, as the incumbent of the position has done since 1999. Given the daily news coverage of the past year, drawing some general conclusions about what the report says could have been done on the basis of intuition. Even so, the statistics and trends it contains present a clear and startling picture worthy of note – and deep reflection. The report cites 16,988 civilian deaths across 12 armed conflicts – a 53 per cent increase compared with 2021 – which almost certainly underestimates the true figure. The report also emphasizes the impact conflict has had on acute malnutrition and food insecurity, and refers to a number of other troubling trends in some detail, including the destruction of critical infrastructure, deliberate attacks on health care facilities, and the contribution of armed conflict to the displacement of 100 million people. That the report, which only covers the period to December 2022, does not even address harm from the recent outbreak of conflict in Sudan suggests a similarly bleak outlook for 2023.
As with years past, the 2022 report reminds just how hard it is to protect civilians in war, even when the UN Security Council takes annual stock of efforts to do so. Stories and figures from the conflicts of the last quarter century testify to that reality. But it seems as though the challenge has grown even harder as the traditional means we have come to rely upon to protect civilians become less reliable. Warring parties have always demonstrated variable commitment to abide by their obligations under the laws of armed conflict, but more seem openly ambivalent about justifying their conduct within them. Some have demonstrated a pattern of conduct that betrays an intent to target civilians, while others have openly flouted their obligations with contempt, in some cases even directly perpetrating attacks on civilians. Other countries have demonstrated a relatively callous ambivalence about the impact of their military operations and those of their allies beneath the full-throated defense of their lawfulness. Together, these phenomena seem to have eroded confidence in the protective effect of international humanitarian law among civilians, communities, and civil society.
As the Secretary General said in his remarks, “law overlooked is law undermined”.
Meanwhile, the very term “accountability” has become politicized and stigmatized and trampled into a form most civilians and communities barely recognize, as armed groups remain largely unanswerable for the harm they cause and even as accountability is recognized as a foundational component of legitimate governance.
War occurs today in an era aptly described as “an age of impunity” by IRC President David Miliband.
Much like years prior, the challenge of protection is made more complex by the proliferation and presence of armed non-state actors who are now present in almost every conflict. Further complicating matters, governments have also conceded a larger number of roles traditionally reserved for the military to private military and security companies, which by one estimate exceed 1200 in number. Outsourcing military functions is not new, but the trend has become much more pervasive. In the most benign circumstances, private contractors augment the state’s capacity to project force or to train foreign forces; in other cases, they do so to evade attribution and, by extension, accountability, which allows for commission of, and complicity in, abuse. Although states cannot evade their obligations under the law by using private contractors in military functions, the use of PMSCs can create an additional barrier to detecting and accounting for harm.
Next, the protection of civilians – not only from the proximate, but also the second-order effects of conflict – can be aided by the protective presence and the response provided by local and international humanitarian organizations. But in more places, governments and non–state armed groups impede access to civilians and communities, limiting the ability of international organizations and even the UN to deter attacks on civilians, and making it harder to pressure parties to abide by their obligations under international law. In a related trend, the space available for local and international civil society organizations to play the many critical roles they play in protection – from advocacy to litigation to peacebuilding to providing essential services – is shrinking. More governments have placed visible and invisible constraints on civil society, often on the pretext of counterterrorism. By coincidence or not, limited scale violence has descended into armed conflict, which in turn is lasting longer – on average 30 years – in many of the very places where civil society is unable to exercise internationally protected rights to free expression, assembly, and association. Finally, civilians have long been forced to make decisions amid confusing and contradictory messages and, at best, murky information. But deliberate efforts to misinform communities and civilians (so-called disinformation), using highly deceptive means and a broad array of public and private channels and outlets, can lead to disastrous outcomes for civilians who are making life and death decisions on the basis of this very information.
In spite of the challenges (and because of them), finding ways to protect civilians from the effects of armed conflict has never been more urgent and relevant. The prospect of another large-scale, high intensity conflict involving one or more great powers and new technologies, with the potential to affect millions, looms large. Novel complications, such as access and use of new technologies have further added to the age-old ambiguities that make preserving the distinctive status of civilians challenging. Many experts estimate that we can expect more conflict in more places resulting from the catalytic effects of climate change on displacement, food and water scarcity, and competition. Conflict between countries over water is far from a remote possibility. Yet with all of the complications of protecting civilians – both the new and the familiar – we can draw on our experience and observations for lessons about how best to protect civilians in the future, which provides hope that doing so is possible.
One of the most important lessons we might draw from conflicts as varied in context and character from Sudan to Ukraine to Yemen, is that when traditional mechanisms of protection break down, communities and civilians everywhere find ways to protect themselves. The challenge, therefore, is finding safe and ethical ways to support them beforehand and when the time comes. In Ukraine, CIVIC is providing support to communities for self-protection through a new local facility which provides grants for everything from shelters to community planning.
While community-based approaches to unarmed protection are not a panacea and do nothing to relieve primary duty-bearers of their obligations to protect, we should invest much more in safe, flexible, and rapid forms of support to communities and local civil society organizations.
Moreover, we have learned from the efforts of organizations like Nonviolent Peaceforce and the Alliance for Peacebuilding about the value of local prevention and peacebuilding to protection. The central emphasis placed on trust and community can be critical to ensuring that external sources of support have a local outlet for providing life-saving resources directly to communities and civilians when the need arises, using community strategies and needs as a starting point. We should invest in prevention and peacebuilding.
We have also learned about the value of providing accurate news and information to civilians. Through their Caboligado observatory, ACLED, Zitamar News, and MediaFax not only conduct real time conflict monitoring and analysis, but ensure that the analysis benefits those who need it by providing a repository of accurate news information to communities and civilians. Similar efforts deserve resourcing and support. Organizations like Airwars conduct detailed forensic analysis and monitoring of events that could help with accountability, while the Every Casualty Worldwide network of local casualty recorders preserves a record of those killed and missing to ensure they are not forgotten. We should invest much more in curating and providing accurate information about conflict.
Much attention may be rightly placed on the most problematic private military and security companies and the most egregious cases of abuse. Yet we have learned from the work and reporting of the UN Working Group on mercenaries and organizations like DCAF and its local partners that many countries beside lack basic regulatory and policy safeguards. We should invest in working with governments, the private sector, and civil society to strengthen controls on private military and security companies (PMSC) while time allows.
And we have learned from examples in the United States and the Netherlands that governments can be motivated – by experience, civil society, internal champions, and public pressure – to improve upon their own records through policy and practice. We should invest in pushing for a higher standard of protection with all governments that express a desire to adopt one – and even those who don’t – and encourage governments to both share information on lessons learned and to apply constructive pressure on their partners to elevate their efforts.
Protecting civilians from the effects of war has never been easy – and seems to be getting harder – which is why, perhaps, the ultimate goal should be to prevent war altogether.
When our best efforts to do so fail, we should be clear eyed about the limitations we face in constraining violence by those with the power to use it. Yet we should not hesitate to apply what we have learned to being more responsive, more effective, and more unified in protecting civilians in the wars of today and tomorrow.