• 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

Libya after Khadafy is littered with massive amounts of abandoned deadly weapons

Nicolette Boehland, currently in Libya as a CIVIC fellow, blogs for the Boston Globe on the use of weapons in Libya.  She is part of a team from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic that authored Explosive Situation: Qaddafi’s Abandoned Weapons and the Threat to Civilians in partnership with CIVIC and Center for American Progress.

Read her blog for the Boston Globe here!

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.

GUEST BLOG: Afghanistan: A Soldier’s Perspective

By Major Dennis Sugrue

It is an unfortunate reality of war that innocent civilians are harmed.  As a US Army Soldier, I recognize the importance of protecting civilians, especially during combat operations.  Despite our care, civilian casualties and property damage do occur.  I recall the great initiative that we took in Afghanistan to make amends and offer closure to harmed civilians and their families.

From 2006-2007, I deployed to northern Kunar Province, Afghanistan. This is a mountainous and exceptionally remote area.  It is accessible by a single road closed periodically due to rain storms.  Rain was infrequent, but came in torrents when it arrived.  As part of my duties, I interacted with Afghan civilians who had been injured or lost property due to military actions.  Victims would arrive at the gate of our base and, in most cases, I would meet with them.  I would listen to their claims, often over tea, and try to determine validity.  I would walk valid claims to our pay officer and often make monetary compensation in that same meeting.  In these sessions, I also tried to learn about their lives and offer them a glimpse into American life by exchanging stories.

To help these victims, the Army offered compensation or solatia payments. Compensation usually takes the form of monetary payment and medical treatment.  Monetary compensations for damaged property, lost livelihoods, or personal injury are somewhat common in Afghanistan.  These payments are consistent with cultural norms and important to economic stability, but they can fall short of “making things better.”  It was my experience that civilians injured in a warzone often want something far simpler and more valuable – closure.  They seek a human connection offering condolence.  A sincere apology does more to offer closure than any payment possibly could.  Solatia activities should have the ultimate goal to provide a sense of closure for the civilians who suffer losses in combat zones.

GUEST BLOG: Marla, CIVIC, and the idea that wouldn’t die

By Catherine Philp

Nine years ago in the bright Kabul spring, I met a young woman called Marla Ruzicka. She was hard to miss, with her wild blonde hair and animal pyjamas peeking out from the hem of her long kameez.

She was harder still to miss the morning she marched to the gates of the American Embassy with astonished, emboldened Afghan families by her side, to demand compensation and apologies for their loved ones lost in American military action. Continue reading

GUEST BLOG: A View of War Victims From Gardez, Afghanistan

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

I’ve been in Gardez the last week — a small provincial capitol about
two hours south of Kabul. Security is slightly better than this time
last year, when the community was still reeling from nightly
airstrikes in districts just outside of the city. But reports of
targeting and assassination by the Taliban, raids on homes by
international forces and the Afghan army, and sporadic gunfire
exchanges between one or more of the warring parties or criminals are
still common.

Even more concerning, the limited access of many aid workers and the
change in the conflict dynamics means that now as much as ever,
victims of conflict have no way to get help. The Afghan Civilian
Assistance Program is still up and running, and with new staff and
funding authorized they are working hard to reach as many civilians as
possible. But in 2009, the vast majority of civilian deaths have been
due to insurgent attacks, in particular insurgent attacks on Afghan
security forces or government officials. Attacks due to these causes
are not eligible for either ACAP assistance or the limited solatia and
condolence funds that General McChrystal and other US military
officials have been urging troops to use.

Al Qaeda recently announced that it would offer “condolences” for
innocent victims in Afghanistan and other locales. But when you speak
to locals here in Gardez they find the idea that Al Qaeda, the Taliban
or other insurgent groups would give them assistance to be laughable.

GUEST BLOG: Off target in Kunduz (Foreign Policy)

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

In the two months since Gen. Stanley McChrystal assumed ISAF command, we have seen a serious shift in thinking about civilian casualties and Afghan community concerns. This is most clearly embodied in the July Tactical Directive‘s much stricter guidelines on airstrikes and other uses of force that could risk civilian losses. The latest NATO airstrike in Kunduz — now believed to have killed as many as 125 people, at least two dozen of them civilians — raises questions of whether that thinking has gone far enough.

The first concern is whether enough was done to ensure that the new restrictions would be meaningfully implemented. The Tactical Directive, and accompanying guidance and statements by McChrystal, makes clear that all precautions should be taken to ensure an absolute minimum risk to nearby civilians before an airstrike can be ordered. Yet, the Washington Post reports that a single local intelligence source gave the OK that there were no civilians present at the site of the recent airstrike — information that now appears to be off the mark.

One would hope that the new seriousness about civilian casualties would lead commanders to double-check sources regarding potential civilian harm. In this case, though, the only other evidence the ISAF commander relied on was aerial footage showing thermal images of those at the scene: “numerous black dots… but without enough detail to confirm whether they were carrying weapons.”

Despite this minimal scrutiny of whether civilians were at the scene or not, the Post notes that this latest strike may not have technically violated the Tactical Directive because it only requires more than one source civilians for airstrikes in residential areas and this strike happened in an open area.

Black dots on a screen and one source claiming those dots are Taliban could describe many of the worst bombing mistakes that have happened in the last eight years. Afghan officials and investigators have repeatedly argued that many civilian casualty incidents have been based on poor information or faulty tips. Given this history, not setting a higher bar for due diligence before commanders can call in an airstrike seems a gaping hole in implementing the new tactical strategy.

The second concern is not so much about how to implement what’s in the Tactical Directive, but how to deal with the concerns left out of it. While the July Tactical Directive made leaps forward in addressing Afghan complaints about limiting airstrikes and offensive night raids (notwithstanding implementation concerns), it was curiously silent on equally loud cries for greater accountability.

For most of the last 8 years, incidents of civilian loss have been met with denials. Afghan families have been unable to get basic questions answered about what happened to their loved ones and why. To my knowledge, no serious disciplinary action has been taken with regard to any of the major incidents of civilian casualties; for example, not after 47 civilians were killed in a July 2008 strike on a wedding party in Nangarhar, nor following the death of approximately 80 civilians in Azizabad, Herat, in August 2008. U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston noted that ISAF has no means of tracking the results of disparate national investigation and disciplinary procedures, much less for communicating any results to the affected communities.

This lack of transparency or accountability to those directly harmed by ISAF actions has created a commonly held Afghan perception that international forces kill Afghans with impunity, a view that only exacerbates local anger and resentment at international forces. In a particularly striking exchange, one tribal leader told me “We Afghans are like clay pigeons to U.S. forces. They shoot us for fun and then congratulate themselves. Nothing happens to them.”

Afghan community leaders and aid workers repeatedly ask me why ISAF didn’t check with local sources if they wanted to find out if a target was a Talib or not. They also ask why those who are misleading ISAF with false information are allowed to continue doing so without any seeming punishment or dismissal.

Following this week’s incident, General McChrystal has apologized publicly (including through translated statements via Afghan media), and made notable efforts to treat the reports of civilian deaths seriously and investigate them personally. The mood has clearly changed within ISAF regarding civilian casualties, but for that to have an impact on the ground more will clearly have to be done to implement the letter and the spirit of the Tactical Directive.

The investigation on the latest incident is still ongoing. The findings may indeed show that this latest strike did not violate international humanitarian law, nor even the latest Tactical Directive. But for the many Afghans who have seen the deaths of their loved ones and the destruction of their communities swept under the rug over the last eight years, much more has to be done to demonstrate accountability to Afghan concerns.

Erica Gaston is a human rights lawyer based in Kabul, Afghanistan, consulting on civilian casualties issues for the Open Society Institute.

http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/blog/10642


GUEST BLOG: ISAF’s New Afghanistan Cointerinsurgency Strategy: Attacking Medical Clinics??

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

Last Wednesday evening at 2pm, international forces raided a clinic in Wardak province run by one of the largest NGOs in Afghanistan, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA). They forced entry into several rooms, tied up local staff and some family members of the patients, and ordered even bed-ridden patients out of their wards. International forces also reportedly ordered the clinic staff to report any patient suspected to be Taliban in the future.

Much of the international media coverage this week has focused on the latest NATO airstrike in Kunduz, which appears to have killed as many as 125 people, several dozen of whom were likely civilians. Some have framed the Kunduz strike as a test of Gen. McChrystal’s new population-focused counterinsurgency strategy. While concerning, the predominant focus on the Kunduz strike has eclipsed the far more serious chink in ISAF’s new population-friendly makeover that is illustrated by this raid on the SCA clinic.

For starters, this raises serious concerns under international law. The Geneva Conventions establish clear protections for hospitals and medical clinics (Article 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention). These provisions have also risen to the level of customary international law, applicable even in a non-international armed conflict like Afghanistan.

While hospitals or clinics can lose their protected status, simply providing services to combatants — the purported reason for this raid — isn’t sufficient. (Another recent attack on a clinic in Paktika might more arguably be an example of how a clinic loses its protected status because militants were firing from the clinic.) That militants might be receiving medical treatment, and are easier to capture in such circumstances is not a good enough justification for targeting a medical clinic. Of course combatants are easier to capture when unarmed, wounded or ill, and surrounded by defenseless civilians. Protection of medical facilities was made an explicit rule under the laws of war for the very reason that attacking the enemy under these circumstances would otherwise be so tactically tempting, with the result of no medical services ever being provided in a conflict.

Even beyond the legalese though, this raid was simply out of line with the new strategy and counterinsurgency goals. In July, McChrystal issued strict restrictions on air strikes and nighttime raids because these incidents were causing such offense and resentment among the Afghan population that they were undermining overall tactical success. Nighttime raids, though often resulting in fewer deaths or injuries, can be equally or more insulting to Afghan communities and have generated enormous blowback for international forces.

With this new counterinsurgency framework in mind, this raid on SCA facilities is exactly the type of incident that international forces should have been focused on preventing. Wardak province, just west of the capital, Kabul, is one of the most volatile provinces in Afghanistan. Significant troops and resources have been deployed there in recent months to stabilize the situation, with little success. Travel through any part of the province generally requires body armor and armed escorts. There is little to no government presence, and only a handful of NGOs still operate in Wardak, even fewer with target-able assets like a medical clinic. Taliban have attacked medical clinics and staff across Afghanistan, particularly those affiliated with Western NGOs.

SCA staff are now threatening to leave, and if the clinic is closed, it would put the thousands of civilians served by that clinic in dire straits, and seriously undermine ISAF and Afghan government efforts to bring more public services to the province. Talk about a destabilizing effect. Rather than protecting the population, as McChrystal has argued the standard should be, in this incident international forces jeopardized the health of thousands, and alienated the surrounding community.

Perhaps even more worrying is that despite the likely fallout from this incident, ISAF does not even seem to be aware there is a problem. Unlike the headline-grabbing Kunduz strike, which sparked immediate apologies and pressure from ISAF’s very top to investigate and set things right, this incident passed without notice until SCA issued its own press release Monday. And when SCA did speak out, the military rejected out of hand most of SCA’s concerns.

Civilian protection should be about more than making good when high civilian casualty numbers hit the press. It should take into account all the ways that military activities impact civilian health, dignity, and well-being. This issue should be at the top of McChrystal’s desk in terms of what’s going wrong in implementing its counterinsurgency strategy. That it hasn’t been already raises huge flags as to how successful this new strategy will be.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erica-gaston/isafs-new-afghanistan-coi_b_279218.html