• 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

Stop Playing the Blame Game: Ex Gratia Payments in the Fog of War

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.

I’m sitting with the father of a young boy killed in a firefight in Afghanistan. His child was eight years old. He told me his story:

Just before dawn on February 8th, helicopters carrying dozens of French and Afghan troops landed in a remote village in Kapisa province located in northeastern Afghanistan. The soldiers searched the villagers’ homes, reportedly looking for weapons caches. Several hours later, a group of young boys were out herding cattle nearby when the commander of the ground operation called in an airstrike. The boys had stopped to light a fire to keep warm from the brutal Afghan winter temperatures when the bombs struck them. All of the eight boys, who were as young as eight years old and no older than eighteen, were killed.

Abdul only broke his stoic appearance once during our interview to fight back tears. His account of the details of the incident was clinical, but Abdul’s emotions emerged when I asked about his son. “He was a very kind person…my heart is broken,” he said. Aja Mal—Abdul’s son—liked school, and aspired to study in Europe or the United States.

According to Abdul, three generals from the US-led security assistance force (ISAF) came to his village to express their condolences several days after the tragic event. The US, British, and French Generals told him and the other villagers that they didn’t intend to kill the boys, and promised to compensate those who had lost their loved ones. A week later, ISAF’s top commander, General John Allen, expressed his “sincere condolences” and affirmed that ISAF will continue to do everything possible to “ensure the safety of the Afghan population.” To date, Abdul has not received any compensation or assistance for the death of his son.

When I asked Abdul what he wants from ISAF, he was firm but fair. He is willing to accept ISAF’s condolences, provided it is followed by the financial compensation or assistance promised to him by the Generals that visited his village. “In Afghanistan, if someone comes to your home [to apologize] you do not get revenge on them,” he explained. “But we also request them to help the families of those killed…If they don’t help our families, we take it as a sign that they did this intentionally. And then people will raise their guns to fight them.”

An Afghan police officer working alongside international forces, Abdul offers an interesting perspective given reports of distrust and outright animosity between international and Afghan forces. “I told them [ISAF], you are our mentors. As long as you [make] such big mistakes, how can you train our forces to be good professionals and to help our country?” Abdul noted.

Abdul echoes the sentiments of other Afghans I have spoken with, who are understandably upset with the increasing rate of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Even while the vast majority of civilian casualties are caused by insurgents, many Afghans think ISAF should be doing more to prevent civilian harm, and are more critical when international forces kill civilians – even if by mistake.

While ISAF officials were quick to express their regrets in the wake of the Kapisa incident, the international force is still not certain their actions killed the boys. According to ISAF, a secret informant told coalition forces that insurgents were planning to attack the French and Afghan troops in Kapisa. Through binoculars and other “optical equipment,” the troops claim to have spotted “adult sized” men carrying weapons and moving in a tactical fashion. The French forces on the ground reportedly attacked the insurgents, which was followed by an air strike ordered by the ground commander. After the engagement, ISAF reports that the French troops found the young boys amongst other dead bodies, but are still not certain who is to blame for their deaths.

It has now been three weeks since Aja Mal and the other boys were killed. Still, the families of those killed have not received anything from ISAF beyond spoken condolences. Unfortunately, the disparate narratives of the incident leave me cynical about whether Abdul or any of the other families will receive compensation from ISAF. CIVIC’s past research has found that ISAF often does not compensate individuals killed or injured in “hard cases,” where it is not clear that international forces are to blame or where ISAF is not convinced those killed were civilians. The reason is that compensation is often perceived as an admission of fault or responsibility.

Yet, in these so-called “hard cases,” ISAF may gain more by simply providing timely compensation. Fact-finding is incredibly difficult in war zones, and many times investigations will not be determinative in establishing the truth. Waiting for a long drawn-out investigation to finish may anger or alienate the victims, and undermine the positive impact of any compensation eventually issued.

Ex gratia (meaning “by favor” and thus not obligatory) payments need not necessarily be an admission of fault or responsibility. While questions remain over exactly what happened in the Kapisa incident, ISAF is better off making a judgment call and issuing timely compensation to the families of those killed. The ages of these young boys lead me to doubt that they were belligerents. Even if international forces were not responsible for the boys’ deaths, compensation would be an expression of good will. It could also help mitigate tensions amongst Afghans – whom have already decided that ISAF is to blame for the incident – and ensure that Abdul and the other families are compensated for their tragic loss.

–Trevor Keck

photo courtesy of Erica Gaston/OSI

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Reflections on a Partnership: Advancing Assistance for Civilian Victims of War

This post by Bonnie Docherty originally appeared on the blog for the  International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School.

The International Human Rights Clinic’s newest publication—on the legal foundations for “making amends”—has its origins in a friendship formed 10 years ago on the dusty streets of Kabul.

Marla Ruzicka, founder of CIVIC, talks to civilians in Kabul in 2002. The Clinic has worked with CIVIC on several projects over the years.

In early 2002, just out of Harvard Law School, I traveled to Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch to investigate civilian casualties from the U.S. air campaign. There I met Marla Ruzicka, an idealistic young activist who seemed to know every civilian victim in the capital city.  She served as our guide, taking us to mud house after mud house to interview the families of survivors, each of whom she treated with compassion and respect.

Marla would go on to found the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a nongovernmental organization dedicated to advocating for civilian victims of war. In my capacity as a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, I continued to work with Marla at home and in Iraq, until she was killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad in 2005.

In the year that followed, I joined the Clinic at Harvard, and Sarah Holewinski took the helm at CIVIC, upholding and expanding its mission admirably. We initiated a partnership shortly thereafter. While I had previously investigated why civilians are killed during war, this work allowed me to deal with what can be done to help victims afterward.

CIVIC pioneered the concept of “making amends,” which calls on warring parties to recognize and provide assistance to civilian victims for harm caused by their lawful conduct. In the Clinic’s first project with the organization, a team of students contributed to designing and drafting the organization’s “Making Amends Guiding Principles.”

Since then, the Clinic-CIVIC collaboration has generated a series of projects and helped inspire several of our students to pursue careers in the field of international humanitarian law. To date, 10 clinical students have done work produced with CIVIC or related to its mandate.

The publication released today—“Legal Foundations for ‘Making Amends’ to Civilians Harmed by Armed Conflict”—builds on CIVIC’s idea and exemplifies the Clinic’s legal advocacy. Because making amends fills a gap in international law, there is no direct precedent for it; in this paper, however, we argue that individual elements of the concept are grounded in established practice and precepts. Clinical students Andrew Childers, J.D. ’11, and Anna Lamut, J.D. ’10, researched and co-wrote the paper.

Rebecca Agule, J.D. ’10, interviews a woman whose husband was executed by Nepalese government forces during the country’s 10-year armed conflict.

In addition to legal advocacy, the Clinic has done fieldwork in association with CIVIC. In 2010, I led a team of three students on a fact-finding mission to Nepal to investigate the needs of civilian victims of the country’s decade-long armed conflict and how those needs are—or are not—being addressed.

We interviewed dozens of individuals who had experienced or witnessed horrific events. A man described how Maoist rebels broke his legs over a log and beat him to the point his mother thought he was dead. A woman told us in tears how government forces inexplicably executed her husband, a state-employed postman, and left him on the side of the road. This trip made us better appreciate Marla’s close, on-the-ground engagement with victims of war.

This semester, as CIVIC expands its mandate to encompass more areas of civilian protection, we are drawing on the Clinic’s specialization in international humanitarian law to support it. We have launched a project in conjunction with CIVIC and the Center for American Progress related to the dangers of abandoned weapons caches in Libya.

Beyond these joint endeavors, CIVIC has served as a professional stepping stone for former clinical students. Funded by Harvard fellowships, Erica Gaston, J.D. ’07, spent a post-graduate year working for the organization in Afghanistan, and Chris Rogers, J.D. ’09, did the same in Pakistan. Both have continued their work in that region at the Open Society Foundations. Other clinical students have pursued short-term contracts with CIVIC.

Our projects on making amends have been challenging for and beneficial to both CIVIC and clinical students. For me, they have inspired personal reflection.

I often think of the days with Marla in Afghanistan and Iraq. I remember the warmth she showed the people of Kabul and the zest for life she exhibited when salsa dancing in war-torn Baghdad. Most important, I reflect on how one woman’s vision aided countless civilians, spawned a highly effective and growing organization, and produced a partnership that motivated the next generation of humanitarian activists.