On May 21, 2019, CIVIC’s MENA Program Director Sahr Muhammedally kicked off the United Nation’s Protection of Civilians Week at a discussion on “”Prioritizing the Protection of Civilians: Policy, Practice, and Priorities for the Future of the Protection of Civilians Agenda on the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary.”
Thank you Ambassador Lauber.
My organization works directly with armed actors and civilians in conflict to develop and implement solutions to prevent, mitigate, and respond to civilian harm.
My remarks reflect my own experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. I will share some of the challenges and gaps that I’ve witnessed in translating decisions by the Security Council and other actors to ensure civilians are protected, but also to share that when protection of civilians is prioritized in operations progress can be made to reduce civilian harm.
Today’s conflicts are fought in urbanized areas and having a devastating toll on civilians, disabling critical infrastructure, as well as disrupting livelihoods, education, health systems, creating conditions for severe food insecurity, the spread of deadly disease, and mass displacement. Others suffer from mental harm.
In today’s battlefields we see parties to armed conflict not upholding their obligations under IHL, which remains the single greatest challenge to ensuring civilians are protected in conflict, but also the complexity of current conflicts where:
- Armed actors and civilians are intermingling;
- Individuals changing from fighters at night to civilians by day;
- Asymmetric warfare;
- Blurring of lines between international and non-international armed conflicts and counterterrorism challenges;
- Medical facilities and personnel attacked;
- Instrumentalization of humanitarian aid; and
- Impact of explosive weapons with wide area effect in populated areas.
In such complex environments, all sources of law and policy are needed to protect civilians such as IHL, human rights Law, national and regional legal frameworks, policy guidance, as well as tactics and techniques to operationalize ways to minimize civilian harm.
Harm to civilians can be prevented if armed actors prioritize civilian protection as a key element of their operational planning, allocate resources to train and equip forces appropriately, issue guidance to take constant care to spare the civilian population and minimize civilian harm.
The challenges are immense, but this can be done.
While some armed actors engage in indiscriminate attacks, some governments are trying to learn how to minimize civilian harm such as Afghanistan, which in 2017 enacted a national policy on civilian casualty mitigation and prevention and committing its forces to learn ways to reduce civilian harm and avoid use of heavy weapons in populated areas and in 2019 appointed a deputy national security advisor committed to civilian casualty reduction. NATO passed a POC policy in 2016 and currently working on a POC handbook to guide its operations. In 2019, Ukraine created a civilian casualty mitigation team.
In Iraq, we saw civilian and military leadership emphasizing POC in the fight against ISIS and in my visits to areas of fighting, I observed some good practices to protect civilians in Mosul. But there were also gaps in soldiers’ understanding on how to mitigate civilian harm given population density and ISIS tactics of embedding with civilians. A colonel who fought in Mosul told me, “We were told to reduce civilian casualties, but we have not been told how to achieve that.”
States must devote resources on how to protect civilians through operational planning for particular terrain rural or urban taking into account civilian presence and enemy tactics that heighten risk to civilians, learn what the foreseeable impact is on civilians and infrastructure and accordingly use appropriate weapons to minimize harm, have accurate and updated locations of medical facilities to avoid them, scenario based trainings, and tools to track, analyze causes of harm for mitigation measures.
States that have pioneered new tactics and techniques to mitigate civilian harm should share them with others, especially in partnered operations, or when training and equipping other armed actors. As trend towards partnered operations continues, all states should calibrate their support to ensure civilians are better protected.
Minimizing civilian harm during operations is not only responsibility of state actors. In CIVIC’s work, we have also seen that non-state armed groups are influenced not only by their command structure, but communities and spiritual leaders. It is thus important to influence these critical actors to leverage their influence on non-state armed groups on the importance of civilian protection and adherence to IHL from a religious lens.
There will be an event tomorrow dedicated to POC through UN peacekeeping that CIVIC is co-hosting, so I won’t speak in detail to that, but it’s clear there are also challenges facing UN peacekeeping operations in protecting civilians.
Today, we also see development of new frontlines in cyberspace, autonomous weapons, and remote controlled technologies. States need to ensure that use of these emerging technologies are guided by key IHL principles of distinction, proportionality, humanity and explore what new guidance and tactics are needed to protect civilians in these new future frontlines.
Upholding human dignity in the midst of war is as important now as it was collectively recognized after the Second World war when the Geneva Conventions were ratified 70 years ago.
The 20th the anniversary year of the UN protection of civilians agenda is a clear opportunity to examine what more can be done and for member states to commit to learning and sharing on ways to mitigate civilian harm.