Speech delivered by Marla Keenan to the Wilton Park Conference on “Protecting Civilians in Conflict: Working with Partner Militaries”

Delivered October 30, 2017

Good afternoon.

I’d like to start by thanking Wilton Park and Open Society Foundations for holding this conference. It’s an important topic and an honor to be with each of you this afternoon. The fact that we are discussing this issue is an important step and a real indicator of each of your institution’s commitment to better protecting civilians.

My organization, Center for Civilians in Conflict, works to improve civilian protection around the world. We do this by working directly with international organizations, governments, and their security forces, and in some cases armed non-state actors. We help them better understand their capabilities, identify gaps, and develop and implement policies and practice to prevent and appropriately respond to civilian harm.

I’m going to take a couple of the questions from the program and focus on those.

First, how do definitional problems impact civilian protection in practice?

For any security force to effectively operationalize civilian protection, it needs, first, a clear, organization-wide definition. This allows all actors to adopt a shared strategic understanding of the concept of protection. Ideally, the definition would be enshrined in a protection policy which lays out the core concepts and approaches the institution takes—and importantly who is responsible for implementation—to protect civilians in the midst of conflict whether at home or abroad.

Protection, of course, is an incredibly broad concept. To be effective, protection actors must understand protection needs and match their unique capabilities to those needs. For security forces, this most often means a focus on physical protection. It is where a military intervention can have the most utility through measured use of force and the protection of civilians from other actors including those who may seek to harm them as a strategy.

A military force alone—even one with the most advanced capabilities—cannot undertake all protection activities. The actors involved in providing protection during armed conflict necessarily include international and humanitarian organizations, intervention forces, local governments, and civilians themselves. Security forces should look at these actors as your partners as you undertake protection of civilians activities in your operations.

For the sake of my discussion today I’m going to focus specifically on protection of civilians from physical violence.

What structures and behaviors need to be in place to progress efforts to strengthen civilian protection before, during and after conflicts?

To begin digging in here, let me introduce The Protection Ladder. Developed by CIVIC, it is an illustrative tool for military planners and leaders to explain the legal obligations and additional operational layers involved in civilian protection. It is meant to help conceptualize and operationalize these various layers. Capabilities must be established at each rung to achieve the full range of civilian protection. The skills learned on each provide a foundation for the other rungs. As with any ladder, the greater the number of rungs, the stronger the structure and the greater its reach—in this case, protective capacity.

The foundational rung of protection is the application of national law and international human rights law. These laws are the basis for civilians receiving protection from their government and other actors both in times of peace and conflict.

International humanitarian law (IHL) prevents parties from directly targeting civilians (distinction) and from causing excessive incidental civilian damage while attacking military targets (proportionality). It also calls on parties to conflict to take all feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians. Militaries who adhere to IHL cause less civilian harm during their combat operations. However, in today’s conflicts, many armed actors (government and their militaries and armed non-state actors) either fail to consistently adhere to IHL or choose not to adhere at all.

Civilian Harm Mitigation is the protection of civilians from the effects of one’s own operations. It takes place at all points in the lifecycle of a conflict — in the development of policy and practice, in pre-deployment planning and training, during active operations, and after operations have ceased. As we all know too well, despite the best efforts of a given military operation, and even when the principles of IHL are rigorously applied, harm to civilians may nevertheless occur as a direct consequence of the use of force. This ‘incidental harm’—often referred to as ‘collateral damage’—while not illegal, must be minimized, investigated, and appropriately addressed by the military force.

Protection of civilians from the actions of others requires advanced skills and capabilities in threats based analysis and a deep understanding how the adversary is harming civilians. Protective measures can take many different shapes from “presence as a deterrence” to “the use of lethal force to neutralize an armed actor from harming the civilians they are targeting.”

What are the common challenges faced by NATO and EU militaries, their international partners, and UN peacekeeping forces?

From CIVIC’s point of view, there are some key opportunities to bolster the effectiveness of civilian protection across organizations and countries.

Strategic Level

All countries and institutions who value protection should ensure that their security forces have clear protection guidance. This should come in the form of policies, doctrine, and standard operating procedures. Protection considerations must also play a key role in the planning phase and there must be clear strategic guidance on the importance and the practical application of POC to mission success.

What we see in our work with government and security actors is that protection is often a “geriace-to-have” and not a “must-have”—that is to say, it is rarely a key strategic focus (outside of peacekeeping). This, in my opinion, is fundamentally wrong-minded. Particularly in the types of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism engagements we are seeing today. To illustrate, I would point you to a recent Brookings Institute publication in Cipher Brief titled Civilian Deaths in City Fights Embolden Insurgencies if you’d like to learn more about the strategic dangers of ignoring civilian harm.

Operational Level

There should also be an emphasis on the creation of tools needed and a plan in place to ensure appropriate harm response including investigations, accountability, community, and media engagement and of course, when protection fails, the ability to appropriately recognize and make amends for harm caused.

Transparency and accountability are key here. All incidents of civilian harm—even when reported from outside the force—should be quickly and transparently investigated. Yet in our work, we have found a lack of ability to investigate, track, and understand the impact of operations on the civilian populations. It’s why our work often starts with in-depth research with civilians about their experiences and perceptions of the security actors as there is often little real understanding from the security actors themselves as to how they are perceived, how they are harming, or how they are failing to protect civilians.

In this vein, there are practical tools that can help to better protect civilians—for example, Civilian Harm Tracking. This is the systematic gathering and analysis of data on operations and alleged civilian harm that can help to identify root causes of harm and to advise revisions in policy and practice. Closely linked to investigations, tracking & analysis can help build a better-informed leadership focus leading to smarter protection strategy.

Tactical Level

Countries who provide training and those who receive it should prioritize teaching and learning tactics to better protect civilians. The best policies in the world mean nothing if the individual soldiers operating in communities do not know how to effectively implement. Protection training often comes in the form of classroom-based IHL and human rights training leaving soldiers with little ability to understand how to apply the rules in the complicated landscape of conflict. But there are more effective ways to train on protection including by weaving protection through all training modules (whether weapon usage, tactical driving, etc) and through creating conflict-specific scenario-based training that walks soldiers through decision-making on civilian protection before they are faced with tough decisions in real life. This type of training is not a “one size fits” all approach.  It requires a keen understanding of the environment in which the forces are operating and the threats they and civilians face. The investment of time and resources up front would be well worth it in the longer term.

How widespread and effective are initiatives to prevent civilian harm?

In CIVIC’s 15 years of work on this issues we have seen a great deal of progress including from some organizations and countries represented here today: NATO last year adopted a comprehensive civilian protection policy and is in the process of implementation; Afghanistan, just recently adopted its own Protection Policy and has built capacity to track and analyze civilian harm;  Ukraine is working to create the capability to better protect civilians through the development of a civilian harm tracking capability as well; Nigeria has drafted a protection policy now being moved through the process of sign off, and the AU has worked to implement a civilian casualty tracking cell and recently adopted an SOP on post harm assistance and amends. I want to stress… these initiatives do not happen overnight. They take years of sustained work. Governments providing assistance to partner militaries should first adopt these measures themselves and then work with their partners to do so as well.

In closing, in my 12 years working on this issue I have no doubt—none at all—that the hard work done by coalitions and governments who have adopted these practices has saved civilian lives.

But to stop here risks leaving the job unfinished. There is far more work to be done, in far more countries, and with far more security actors, to protect far more civilians. I believe we are standing at the beginning of an incredible opportunity—one that if gotten right could change the way civilians experience conflict in the future.

I want to thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today.