• 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.

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  • 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

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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.

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LIBYA: What happened in Zlitan? [Part I]

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Photo slideshow by Liz Lucas.  Photos taken in Zlitan, Libya on October 2, 2011, show the damage to the buildings and memorials to those killed.

Part 1 of 2

By Liz Lucas

Amidst the rubble some items nudged out: A bassinette, a teapot, cracked frames and ripped photographs.  By my foot was a piece of cracked plastic and pages of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” fluttered by.  I was standing on what once was a family’s home.

In a country that has seen substantial devastation by the war, the house in Zlitan stood out for being virtually obliterated.  This wasn’t hit with an RPG, or machine gunned.  It had been flattened by NATO bombs in August, air support reserved for strategic Gaddafi military targets.  But there were clear indications that something had gone terribly wrong in this instance. A woman’s high-heeled shoe. Shards of cracked china. A wall splattered by blood.

People in the area told us there is no military target nearby and that Zlitan is composed primarily of civilians, despite the fierce fighting there this summer.  It’s a town divided by loyalties to the rebels and to Muammer Gaddafi’s regime, but its inhabitants are mostly civilians. People we spoke to stressed that they had the right to have their own opinions without being harmed, that they were civilians in a war.

“We want to know why,” said Ali Ali Mustafah Gamez, the owner of another destroyed house, who had family come to Zlitan to escape the war.  Ali lost thirteen members of his family to the rockets and wants answers from NATO.  “We get by with patience,” he added.

In total, three houses in the neighborhood were destroyed on August 8th and emotions run high when talking about the destruction and casualties, which locals put as around 35 people dead and 85 admitted to the hospital.  The wounded are receiving medical treatment in Tunisia.

Losses are especially great due to a second rocket hitting those who came to help.  Neighbors finishing Ramadan prayers came to see what the problem was.  Many more were killed in the second strike.

COLOMBIA: Victims: Forgotten in the Colombian Conflict

Posted by: Angelica Zamora

“One dies when he’s forgotten.” This is a verse written by Colombian poet Manuel Mejía Vallejo, and today it seems to be a reality regarding the tragedy of victims in Colombia. This week, the Annual Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that armed conflict in this country – which has already stretched beyond four decades – continues to cause suffering to civilians, and that such victims are at risk of being forgotten.

According to the report, the conflict has moved to remote areas of the country. This does not mean, however, that the number of victims has decreased. Today there are 3.3 million displaced persons in Colombia, making it the state with the highest number of IDPs in the Western hemisphere and the second highest number of displaced persons in the world, after Sudan.

The ICRC report states that the displaced persons are almost “invisible” in rural areas. Inhabitants of the countryside, unable to move freely, remain unseen as well. Relatives of those who have been forced disappeared, victims of sexual violence, and those who remain hostages in the jungles have not received adequate attention. Also, ethnic and Afro-Colombian communities suffer in silence due to the actions of armed actors.

Christophe Beney, Head of Delegation in Colombia of the ICRC, said during the report’s presentation that the “most concerning” cases are extrajudicial executions of civilians committed by the army, so-called “false positives”; these victims are usually young peasants or members of marginalized urban communities who are reported as “enemy combatants killed in battle,” with the objective of demonstrating success of military actions and achieving personal benefits such as days off or promotions.

Recognition of victims remains a critical challenge in the Colombian conflict. The Colombian government frequently denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, minimizing the magnitude of forced internal and cross-border displacement. The government, consistent with this attitude, rejected the conclusions of the ICRC report.

Denying the existence of armed conflict, and the status of victims of such actions, has condemned victims to oblivion. This denial only confirms victims’ beliefs that they do not exist and victimizes, yet again, a highly vulnerable population. The provision of measures to compensate victims and recognize their suffering is a legal and ethical duty of the state. The acknowledgment of victims should be accompanied by public policies that address the complexity of the demands of different categories of victims and provide appropriate measures for their damages.

PAKISTAN: South Waziristan – Access Denied

By Chris

Fighting in South Waziristan has led to the death of many civilians, according to reports from those fleeing the area.  However, restrictions on access make it impossible to get accurate information on civilian casualties.

The restrictions prevent all aid workers and journalists from reaching South Waziristan.  As a result, no one knows how many civilians remain trapped or how many have been killed or injured. The restrictions also prevent much needed aid from flowing in.  The fighting has displaced over 100,000 so far, and more arrive each day—often on foot.

I know a number of journalists that have been stopped and detained just trying to reach Dera Ismail Khan—the town nearest to the fighting and a destination for many of the displaced.  Even the Red Cross has made a rare, public call for more access.  Working in Waziristan is dangerous, but so is knowing nothing about the situation of civilians. Information is the first step towards helping those still caught in the conflict and a more balanced approach is urgently needed.

PAKISTAN: Figuring out Pakistan

By Chris

As many of you know, CIVIC documented the stories of civilians in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ensured they received help.  Now we hope to do the same in Pakistan.

As CIVIC’s representative in Pakistan I’ll document civilian harm in the current armed conflict and advocate for assistance to the people suffering losses.

One of our partners here is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan  (HRCP, http://hrcpblog.wordpress.com/), a well-respected human rights organization with offices throughout the country.  HRCP’s activities cover a wide range of human rights issues in Pakistan, including protection of civilians in conflict.

My first goal here is to map what help currently exists for war victims—both Pakistani and international.  In the coming weeks I’ll meet with a wide range of people, from humanitarians to government officials, to learn more about what assistance is being offered and what gaps exist. We don’t want to see any civilian left without recognition and help.

PAKISTAN: Arrival and Recent Developments

Posted by Chris

Finally arrived in Pakistan last week and began work.  Let me begin by giving you a quick snapshot of the situation here.

After a relatively calm couple of months, the past two weeks have seen a marked increase in violence.  Nearly 200 people were killed in a spate of militant attacks, including many civilians.  This recent wave of attacks began with the bombing of the World Food Program office in Islamabad on 5 Oct.

A few days ago, the Pakistani military began its long-awaited offensive into the militant stronghold of South Waziristan.  Folks around me in Islamabad were right to be worried about retaliatory attacks, given today’s suicide bombings at the University.  The mood is tense.  Security checkpoints have grown and are more thorough, roads have been blocked, and many schools have been closed.

The Pakistanis I speak with all express dismay and anger with the situation.  For them, this level of violence is new.  Terrorist attacks in the cities, like Islamabad and Lahore, were unheard of before last year.

There is very little information about what is going on in Waziristan.  The offensive is all over the newspapers and television, but because of its remote location, the insecurity and restrictions on access imposed by the military, information is very hard to come by.  What is known is that there is intense fighting and tens of thousands of civilians have already fled, while many more remain within the conflict zone.  Some are predicting the operation to last two months.

Civilians will undoubtedly suffer.  We know that from thousands of years of war around the world. Hopefully with improved access and information, we can do more to bring attention to the plight of displaced civilians and those within the conflict zone.  And if history is any lesson, providing civilians with the assistance they need to rebuild their lives will be critical to the Pakistani government’s long-term success in Waziristan.

PAKISTAN: CIVIC Fellow Headed to Pakistan

Posted by Chris, CIVIC Fellow

Hi everyone!  I’m excited to be joining CIVIC and begin working in Pakistan.  After some last minute visa drama, I will be leaving soon for Islamabad.  I’ll be writing here about our work in Pakistan throughout the coming months, but let me begin by introducing myself and explain my interest in CIVIC’s work.  LINK TO CHRIS’ BIO

Though I am new to Pakistan, I have worked extensively on human rights and the laws of war in many different parts of the world.  I worked with the United Nations in Jordan to assist Iraqi refugees, with Human Rights Watch on the negotiation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions and, in Gaza, with a Palestinian human rights NGO.

In Gaza, I witnessed the impact of armed conflict on civilians first-hand.  Israeli strikes were an almost daily occurrence and though civilians may not have been targeted, large, modern bombs and ordinance exacted a heavy toll in the dense city blocks and refugee camps.  During the Hamas takeover of the territory, the entire city became a battlefield.   Every civilian was trapped in their home and many were caught in the cross fire as gunmen fought building to building.

Throughout my work, I’ve seen how the greatest burden of conflict is often borne by innocent civilians.  Death, injury, destruction of homes and property, and the loss of livelihood and loved ones are so common in war zones and yet the suffering is difficult to communicate or convey to others a world away.  As a lawyer, I have deep respect for the potential of international law to protect civilians in conflict, however I also recognize that current law says little about those deemed ‘collateral damage’ and even less about how to help those that have been harmed.

This is why I’m so passionate about CIVIC’s work and excited about the opportunities to get help to war survivors in Pakistan.  Conflict there has increased markedly the past couple years, especially in the northwest of the country.  Caught in the middle, many civilians have been harmed or their property destroyed, while millions have fled to escape the fighting.

It will be challenging, but there is a lot of progress to be made.  I’m looking forward to getting started.  In my next posting I’ll explain a bit more about the current situation in Pakistan and what we hope to accomplish.  Until then…