• About CIVIC

    CIVIC is a Washington-based non-profit organization that believes the civilians injured and the families of those killed should be recognized and helped by the warring parties involved.

    On this blog, you will find stories from our travels around the world as we meet with civilians and military, aid organizations and government in our quest to get war victims the help they need.

  • Countries

  • Contributors

    Sarah, Executive Director

    Marla B, Managing Director

    Kristele, Field Director

    Liz, Chief Communications Officer

    Trevor, CIVIC's fellow based in Afghanistan

    Chris, CIVIC's fellow based in Pakistan

    Jon, CIVIC's US military consultant

  • Media Content

In Libya, a legacy up for debate

By Sarah Holewinski

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Gaddafi is gone and NATO’s command center in Naples is closed, but on the legacy of the intervention in Libya, the debate has just begun. Allegations of civilians harmed are haunting NATO as nations opposed to the intervention—namely Russia, China and South Africa—point fingers about civilian casualties and sling phrases like “human right abuses” and “impunity” across the United Nations chamber like more precision guided munitions. The US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice took to Twitter, calling Russia’s actions “a cheap stunt.” Her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, publicly wondered if Rice’s Stanford education shouldn’t make her more eloquent.

In this dispute, the Libyan civilians who died—and the ones who lived—are an afterthought to their political utility. And for Russia, China and South Africa they serve as needed ammunition against a bigger target: the very decision to go into Libya.

Various human rights groups—including Human Rights Watch and my own—have presented evidence of civilian harm to NATO and called on the Alliance to conduct an investigation. The logic goes that NATO has an obligation to carry through on its UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians, beyond the official end of combat operations, by addressing unintended civilian losses. The best way to do that is by conducting investigations. Unfortunately, NATO has reacted defensively—at one point hyperbolically claiming that there were no “confirmed” civilian casualties whatsoever.  This may be true only because NATO refuses to investigate, and thus, confirm them.

In a military operation of this magnitude, civilian harm was a likelihood the UN must have grappled with when authorizing the mandate. It’s also a reality NATO is familiar with. NATO forces in Afghanistan conduct reviews and investigations of civilian casualties increasingly frequently, thanks to pressure to learn from mistakes. Surely those lessons learned could have been shared between theaters; the reason they weren’t remains a mystery.

Regardless, calls for NATO to investigate civilian harm don’t mean the same thing as accusing NATO of overstepping its mandate or violating international law, as Russia, China and South Africa are claiming. Evidence suggests a relatively small number of casualties when compared to similar air operations in the past, and thus far there is no documented evidence of legal violations committed by NATO.

Any nation has the right to ask the UN to review a mandated operation, but to do so here seems redundant since the UN Human Rights Committee already established a Commission of Inquiry to impartially analyze the conduct of all sides, not just NATO. Making one-sided allegations before that investigation is complete is wrong and risks crippling what should be a real process of accountability for any civilian harm caused by any party.

Civilians don’t deserve to be used as political cover to push a non-interventionist agenda. During and after the NATO intervention, we talked to Libyan survivors across the country—some who were able to escape to safer areas, some who lost family members to Gaddafi and others who were harmed by rebel and NATO operations. The overwhelming majority praised the Alliance for ridding their country of Gaddafi, regardless of the losses they suffered.  But they also wanted recognition for what they’d been through. That’s what they deserve.

In denying any civilian harm and refusing to investigate credible evidence to the contrary, NATO risks tarnishing a historic mandate, one that saved a lot of lives. And they’ve given their political enemies exactly the fodder they were looking for.

For its part, NATO still has a chance to set all this right. The Alliance can start by examining the evidence of civilian harm. It should immediately send an expert team to Libya to match targeting protocols with outcomes, assess damaged property and remaining munitions, interview civilian survivors and, when appropriate, make amends to Libyans with provable losses.  A lessons-learned review must include data from Libyan soil— whether the death toll was one or one hundred. Looking to the future, which is in NATO’s best interest to do, an office for civilian harm mitigation should be created in Brussels, to ensure military and civilian leaders pay attention to and plan for civilian casualties before the first plane ever leaves the base.

Civilian harm should never be ignored, but neither should it be politicized in a way that diverts attention from real recognition for civilian survivors. They deserve fewer accusations, less lip service to accountability, and more humble, honest efforts to piece together the ways a military intervention has, good or bad, affected the people it was meant to help.

A Tale of Two Narratives in Afghanistan

Trevor Keck is CIVIC’s field fellow, based in Kabul, Afghanistan.  He is assessing Afghan National Security Force preparedness to protect civilians after NATO and its allies withdraw.

“Transition” is the word on the tip of everyone’s lips in Afghanistan these days—a catchphrase I’ve heard employed more than any other since arriving in Kabul about two weeks ago.  Why “Transition?” Because in less than three years time, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are expected to assume responsibility for securing the country and protecting the population.  To prepare for the security transition, US and international military forces have concentrated their efforts on securing southern Afghanistan—the so-called “heartland” of the insurgency—whilst intensifying efforts to train and equip the ANSF.

The message from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—the U.S. led security force in Afghanistan—is that security is improving as a result of these efforts.  Last spring, a Pentagon report concluded that President Obama’s strategy had produced “tangible progress” in Afghanistan. More recently, David Rodriguez, former Commander of ISAF Joint Command, wrote “there are indisputable gains everywhere we have focused our efforts.” Talk of progress and security gains has been pervasive in my early Kabul meetings.

But that message stands in stark contrast to what I’m hearing from international and humanitarian organizations.  In its mid-year report released in July 2011, the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan reported that “civilians experienced a downward spiral of protection” during the first half of 2011 with civilian casualties higher than at any other time since 2001. Indeed, nearly 1,500 civilians were killed during the first half of 2011, an increase of 15% from the same period during 2010.  More recently, the U.N. confirmed significant civilian casualties last month largely due to the twin suicide attacks in Kabul and Mazar al Sharif.

ISAF’s rosy assessment of the situation in Afghanistan is also at odds with the most recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which noted that “security gains” have been undercut by “corruption, incompetent governance and Taliban fighters operating from neighboring Pakistan.” The NIE also suggests that the Afghan government “may not be able to survive as the U.S. steadily pulls out its troops and reduces military and civilian assistance.”

To be clear, the Taliban and other armed groups are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan  – roughly 80%, according to the U.N.  Despite pledges to avoid killing civilians, armed groups have continued to resort to indiscriminate tactics, including improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks, which combined are responsible for nearly 50% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, according to the U.N. For the past two years, armed groups have also increasingly resorted to assassinations, targeting public officials and others who cooperate with ISAF and the Afghan government.

Meanwhile, as civilian casualties caused by armed groups have spiked over the past few years, the number of civilians killed or injured by international military forces has gradually declined, largely due to the policies ISAF has put in place to mitigate civilian harm.  That being said, Afghans want and expect ISAF and the ANSF to improve efforts to protect them from all acts of violence, regardless of which warring party is ultimately responsible.

Afghans I have met since arriving are very worried about the future.  One former government official I spoke with voiced his concern that Afghanistan could slide back into civil war after the bulk of international military forces depart at the end of 2014.  Like many others in the country, he isn’t confident that the ANSF will be able to provide security on their own, and he’s concerned about the proliferation of weapons and armed groups.

Why such disparate narratives and assessments of the security situation?  One reason could be that ISAF is using different metrics than international and nongovernmental organizations. Counterinsurgent forces tend to examine territory held and the quantity of indigenous security forces trained and equipped to measure progress.  And as noted, ISAF has taken very concrete steps to mitigate civilian harm, resulting in fewer civilians killed or injured by international military forces.  Meanwhile, the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations are analyzing overall levels of violence and civilian casualties – which have increased over the past several years.

Another reason may be that ISAF is setting a tone for its departure.  With the U.S. elections less than a year away, the Obama Administration would like to reassure a war weary public that it has turned the Afghan war around.  While not ill – intentioned, the U.S. and its allies may simply be focused on highlighting what they have achieved, including reduced levels of civilian casualties caused by international military forces as well as reinvigorated efforts to improve the “quality” of Afghan security forces.  But the problem still remains – while ISAF has improved its own civilian casualty statistics, the number of civilians harmed or killed in Afghanistan is increasing. Indeed, if “security gains” are to be measured by fewer civilian casualties, then security is deteriorating in Afghanistan.

As international military forces prepare for withdrawal, they should be clear-eyed about the toll the war is taking on civilians and what needs to be done to better protect ordinary Afghans.  Over the next six months, I will be taking this message to ISAF on behalf of CIVIC.   More specifically, I will be assessing the efficacy of the mechanisms ISAF has put in place to mitigate civilian harm as well as urging the Afghan government to take concrete steps to better protect civilians. I hope we’ll soon be able to agree that security is improving in Afghanistan.

-Trevor

LIBYA: Life in and outside of Sirte [Part 2]

Part 2 of 2.  Part 1 is here.

By Liz Lucas

Eventually Mohammed and his family had to leave.  The school they currently call home is a welcome relief from living in fear in Sirte.  They sleep in peace, without the sounds of bullets whizzing past or planes flying overhead.

“My children get crazy when they hear the airplanes,” he explained, referring to NATO.  “It’s horrible when you hear the explosions.”

But leaving the city was not easy.  He needed to get scarce fuel for the car, which cost 400 dinars  (about $325) for 20 liters in Sirte.  There were rumors that civilians would be harmed on the way out.  And with indiscriminate fire throughout the city, there was a risk that he and his family could be killed anywhere outside their home.  But he felt there was no choice, conditions had become “miserable.”

He continued, “In Sirte we don’t have petrol, we don’t have food.  We don’t have any necessary things for life.”

The lack of supplies is a big problem for civilians remaining in the city, as is the lack of information on what’s happening.  Houses are without electricity and most information heard is propaganda.  It’s difficult to make out what is real and what is not, to have all the information available to make an informed decision.  And many of the civilians left are those that are stuck without the means or connections to get out.  In Sirte civilians are unnecessarily bearing the brunt of the conflict.

“Let me tell you something.  We don’t have anything there.  [The rebels/NATO] could wait on us to leave.  We would come out, we would need food.  So why the bombing?”  he asks us.  When we asked if he feels it’s in retaliation for being Gaddafi’s hometown (and a loyalist stronghold) he answered, “Yes, of course.”

Mohammed considers himself not to be political and feels that many in the city were like him, just ordinary civilians.  He was surprised by how well he was treated by the rebels when he left the city.  They gave his family fuel and food.  His daughter was sick and was met by a doctor at the gate and taken to a clinic.

But he doesn’t yet trust them or anyone yet.  He worries about his family’s safety.  “I just want to live in peace.  I don’t care about politics,” he said.  But he cannot return until the fighting stops, until it is safe to go home.

“I want to go back to my city.  But I don’t think I’ll find a city when I return,” he said.

LIBYA: Life in and outside of Sirte [Part 1]

Part 1 of 2, Part 2 is here

By Liz Lucas

From inside the school in Al-Wachka comes the sound of children’s voices. At first it seems like a regular school, albeit one where the rules are relaxed. I can hear footsteps running down the hall and squeals as they play games. But for these kids, these are the hallways of their temporary home.

There are over fifty people living in the classrooms, ten families that traveled together in a convoy to escape the war that has engulfed their hometown of Sirte.

They’ve escaped bombings and shootings and found shelter 100 km away from their homes.  The children are distracted, but the adults are worried.  CIVIC spoke with Mohammed*, a 39 year-old petroleum engineer about what life is like for him and his family.

“We didn’t have a plan when we left.  We just drove,” he said.  “We had to go.  There were explosions everywhere, smoke everywhere, death everywhere.”

There is no water at the school where he, his wife, and their four children are staying and minimal support for the families here displaced by the fighting.  The families left in a hurry, taking almost nothing, waiting for the fighting to be over.

“We have brought so little.  We came in one city car that had my family.  We didn’t have time to choose what to bring.  Medicine.  Clothes.  Some photographs,” said Mohammed.

Mohammed saw the fighting firsthand; witnessing cars full of bodies driven out and civilians dying around him.  His uncle was killed after his house was hit.  Mohammed’s mother died of medical complications as the war raged on. The hospital had no supplies to treat her: “There’s no oxygen, no doctors, no medicine. There’s nothing in the hospital.”

There was firing throughout the city and he says a NATO bomb killed his neighbors, a family of 7, while they were driving out.  The bombing also destroyed three schools, which may or may not have been legitimate military targets.  The fighting in general has ruined the infrastructure of the city.  Houses are damaged and he saw four children and woman killed by a rocket and their house destroyed. The situation overall is “horrible.”

*Name has been changed to protect his identity.

Read Part 2 here

LIBYA: Voices from Misrata [Part 3]

Part 3 of 3, Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here

Soad, wife and mother

I was in the bedroom with my husband.  It was night and we were asleep when a rocket hit.  I was unconscious and when I awoke I was widowed.

I was hurt in my back and I don’t know what happened next.  People came to the house and they put me in an ambulance.  I have seven children living here and two of my children were also injured by pieces of the rocket, though not badly.  My house was damaged

The bedroom is fixed now, but my back is still badly hurt and I have scars.  Thanks to God I am still alive, but there is nothing that can bring back my husband. My husband has died.  I don’t know how we will survive.

My neighbors have helped us get by but we do not have any income.  I wish to receive some compensation, some means to live.

Mostly, I want to tell the NTC, tell NATO to please protect us.  Protect the people.  We have children.  All of us here are civilians.

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