• 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

What We Should All Want to Know about a Military Intervention for Syria

On the blog for Article 3 Advisors, CIVIC’s Sarah Holewinski looks at military intervention in Syria and the questions all strategists should be asking: “If military intervention becomes the only way to protect civilians from this regime, there are a few things I want Turkey, the US, NATO, or any other military volunteer to be asking and answering before they utter the word Tomahawk.”

Read the full blog here.

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.

Responding to harm in Somalia

Southern Somalia is a hell for civilians living there, and that was true even before the famine that hit the country this summer.

Mogadishu, 2011

Mogadishu, 2011. Photo by Sarah Holewinski

When I was in Mogadishu a few months ago, I saw bombed out buildings in every direction, families huddled in ill-equipped hospitals, and — in one case — a group of kids startled by an Al-Shabaab mortar blast not 100 feet from where they were standing. This is the reality of war, but it doesn’t have to be.

CIVIC and its partners have worked with the African Union toward better civilian protection. And today, we released a report on civilian harm in Somalia that details pragmatic solutions for responding to civilian losses.

The author of the report, Nikolaus Grubeck, spent time in Mogadishu, its outskirts, and the displaced persons camps near the Kenyan border interviewing civilians impacted by the conflict. We hope these insights from Somali civilians and our analysis of what can be done for them will help convince the parties to the conflict to be better and do more for the people caught between them.

-Sarah

HUFFINGTON POST: Driving Afghanistan: The Winding Road to an Afghan Takeover

By Sarah Holewinski

I wouldn’t drive a car without working brakes. And I need a wheel to steer, and a speedometer to tell me when I’m not following the speed limit.

Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will assume responsibility for the security and stability of their own country by 2014. But as a big moving vehicle ramping up to a high speed, it’s missing some of the major controls it needs to protect its own population and not cause even more harm. Continue reading

AFGHANISTAN: U.S. Too Quick To Justify Afghan Deaths (The Huffington Post)

By Sarah Holewinski, Executive Director of CIVIC

Conclusions from the US investigation into the May 4th airstrikes in Afghanistan are leaking out. It appears that US personnel made mistakes–resulting in civilian deaths–by not sticking to their own stringent guidelines on the use of force. After eight years in Afghanistan, American forces finally have good rules in place to minimize civilian deaths, but didn’t stick to them when they counted the most, in the heat of battle.

So why are US officials still blaming the Taliban? Lt. Commander Christine Sidenstricker said in Kabul today, “The fact remains that civilians were killed because the Taliban deliberately caused it to happen. They forced civilians to remain in places they were attacking from.”

Let’s break this down to the nuts and bolts: Taliban tactics are egregious. They put civilians in harm’s way. They are violating international laws and everyone knows it. This makes the US military’s job a whole lot harder.

But regardless of what the other side does in war, the US military has responsibilities to avoid civilians and obey its targeting restrictions.

If you want to talk strategy instead of international law, avoiding civilian deaths is smart. Everyone knows that too. That’s why the US military put in place rigorous rules of engagement that ushered in several months of far fewer airstrike casualties. In Farah Province on May 4th, those rules could have saved lives. In one case, a plane given the OK to attack the Taliban didn’t confirm its target before dropping bombs. That might have given the Taliban time to flee and civilians time to enter the target zone. In another, buildings housing militants were struck, but the “imminent threat” required to green light for bombing wasn’t there.

The new US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, told the Senate this week: “In addition to the tragic loss of life, I am acutely aware of the negative repercussions resulting from civilian casualties.” He’s got it right: civilian deaths breed anger. But so do immediate denials of civilian harm in incidents like Farah. US Commanders need to understand this quickly. President Obama and Secretary Clinton appropriately expressed their regret for the Afghans burying their dead, but other US officials accused villagers and the Afghan Government of exaggerating the numbers killed.

And now to continue to downplay the US role even after the results of this investigation are made public, they’re literally adding insult to injury.

ISRAEL/GAZA: Will Israel Help Gaza’s Victims? (The Huffington Post)

By Sarah Holewinski, Executive Director of CIVIC

Ask any civilian who has lost a loved one, a limb, or a home in war and they’re likely to tell you they never received anything for their suffering. I’ve always found it shocking that international law doesn’t generally require warring parties to help the people they’ve harmed.

Take for example the family of 60-year old Fayiz Ad-Daya. He was killed along with twenty of his relatives on January 6, 2009, when an Israeli warplane roared over Gaza attempting to bomb a house nearby that allegedly contained a weapons cache. Fayiz’s family was killed instead, with victims ranging in age from four (granddaughter Kawkab) to sixty (Fayiz himself). An Israeli military official admitted it made a mistake in hitting the wrong house and said this “is bound to happen during intensive fighting.”

The Al-Daya family thus joins a long list of millions of civilians destroyed in war. Like so many before them, the surviving members will likely never receive a formal apology or compensation for their losses.

When a similar mistake was made by the US military in Afghanistan back in 2001, they didn’t pay any compensation either to a woman widowed by a missile intended for three miles east. Eight graves are lined up near her home, representing her husband and children. I’ve heard so many stories like this. And then a few years later, the US learned it had to do things differently: a compensation system now exists for “mistakes” and unintended casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The system doesn’t work perfectly, but making amends to these civilians is the decent thing to do. It is befitting a nation like the US that prides itself on abiding by international laws that obligate respect for civilians (as Israel has claimed it does too).

Plenty of people have a bone to pick with Israel over this winter’s war with Hamas. And by bone I mean serious allegations linking Israeli Defense Forces to war crimes and violations of international laws governing armed conflict. All of the details have to be sorted out — the investigations, witness accounts, military records, photos and media reports. In the meantime, the UN estimates that three-quarters of the population still needs some form of aid. They’re talking about the basic stuff like food, water, shelter and healthcare.

So while the investigators press on and the applicable laws are figured out, here’s an idea: help these people.

Billions have been pledged from donor countries to help Gazans, but Israel has blocked all but a trickle from reaching across the closed borders. Hamas has played a role in the devastation too and Gazans are now being punished broadly (if not intentionally by Israel than certainly by default) for the acts of a few. Israel’s reticence comes from not wanting aid to go to people who will turn around and support Hamas; but who do they think they’re turning Gaza’s children toward by blocking life-saving aid?

If all that seems too daunting, start with the Al-Daya family.

Grave concern for civilians in Afghanistan

Posted By: Sarah

Afghans are dying from bombs, missiles, explosive devices, police fire, beheadings, domestic violence… and the list goes on.

The situation for them is becoming untenable. This, after many decades of war has ripped through their land. Over and over we’ve heard calls from President Karzai to stop the needless violence. In the streets, Afghans have protested the deaths of their loved ones. And today, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (or ACBAR) released a wake-up call for ALL the warring parties. The brief report begins:

“We, the 100 national and international NGO members of ACBAR, express our grave concern about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the serious impact on civilians.”

It’s a strong declaration on behalf of so many Afghans that cannot speak for themselves. Now it’s up to the warring parties to listen. According to ACBAR’s report, there has been a surge of civilian casualties caused by all groups (the Taliban, international and national forces, militants). Areas that were stable are now unraveling. 260 civilians were killed or injured last month — that’s more than any other month in the entire six years of this conflict. Schools and health facilities are closing, development projects are shutting down, and families are leaving their homes causing massive displacement. Humanitarians are being threatened or attacked… just this year nineteen NGO staff have been killed. We check on our own in Kabul every day, but are increasingly wary of what’s happening.

So what to do?

Continue reading