• 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.

PAKISTAN: Internally Displaced in Northwest Pakistan

By Chris

Children playing in a field in Jalozai camp, surrounded by thousands of tent homes.

I’m in Jalozai camp in northwest Pakistan.  Built on a barren, dusty plain, it is a massive tent city with over 80,000 displaced persons.  Residents of Jalozi have little or no access to employment.  They are completely dependent on UN agencies and NGOs for food, water, and other essentials.

Plastic sheeting around ‘blocks’ of tents provide a minimal sense of privacy and security.  Firewood is scarce and though winter is approaching, UNHCR has been unable to offer heavier, winterized tents.  Many have been here for up to two years.

I met Ghulam Noor here, sitting on a metal bed frame in a dusty field, chatting with some friends.  He’s 22, but already married with a four month old baby.  He has been living in Jalozai for a year.

Last October, Ghulam Noor was in his village bazaar when a Pakistani helicopter gunship opened fire.  He was hit by shrapnel in the leg and head and is now paralyzed from the waist down with minimal movement in his arms and hands.  He says what he needs most is medical assistance.  His father and family pooled money to pay for initial treatment, but he requires additional care for paralysis and the shrapnel still lodged in his head.  Ghulam says he is depressed, can no longer work, and is completely dependent on the support of his family to survive.

For those like Ghulam who have to cope with a debilitating injury as a result of the conflict, life in Jalozai camp is especially difficult.  There are no facilities for the disabled and little or no assistance is offered to such persons or their families despite the unique challenges they face.  Talking to victims in Jalozai, a feeling of powerlessness and senselessness pervades their stories.  For Ghulam, all he wants to do is walk again and can’t understand why the helicopter that paralyzed him opened fire.  For others, all they want to do is return to their villages and rebuild.  But no one knows how or when they will be able to move forward with their lives.

UNITED NATIONS: Uganda Steps Up in Security Council Debate

Posted by:  Scott P

I spent the day here at the United Nations. At 10 a.m. sharp, Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger called the UN Security Council to order as President. Seated around the horseshoe-shaped table were Ambassadors, Foreign Ministers, and high-level UN officials who had come from near and far to speak about the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. To put an exclamation point on this tenth anniversary of the first Security Council session on Protection of Civilians, the Council passed Resolution 1894 at the outset.

CIVIC had been keeping an eye on the negotiation of 1894 for weeks, and we were quite pleased to see its emphasis on compliance with international law and mention of reparations (the first such mention in any Security Council resolution on protection).

For two and a half full hours, the delegations on the Security Council took the floor and railed against impunity, implored other states to comply with the law of armed conflict, discussed the need for better guidance for peacekeepers, and drove home the importance of improving access to humanitarian assistance. At the end of the morning session, Sindelegger recognized Ugandan delegate Benedict Lukwiya, who concluded his statement with this powerful plea:

“Long after the guns have gone silent, affected populations, many of whom end up losing everything, are left to pick up the pieces with no assistance, even from friendly forces. International law does not provide for making amends to individuals, who lose property or livelihood as a result of armed conflict.  This draft resolution calls for national reparation programs for victims as well as institutional reforms. However, my delegation would like to go a step farther and also recognize the need for all parties to armed conflict to emphasize the dignity of civilians by recognizing losses that result from lawful combat operations as well as providing meaningful amends to affected individuals and communities, such as financial assistance or funding for humanitarian aid programs. My delegation encourages all member state to embrace the concept of making amends – not because there is any legal obligation to do so, but simply in the intrests of mitigating suffering and promoting humanity.”

It’s the first time anyone has made such a call at at the UN in it’s 64-year history — and we couldn’t have set it better ourselves.

CIVIC conceived of the concept of making amends several years ago. We believe that warring parties should help the civilians they harm. So the Ugandan representative’s remarks were a big victory for us.  Now that Uganda has taken the courageous step of introducing the idea of “making amends” at the UN, we’ll be working with our partners to officially launch a campaign on the same idea. Stay tuned!

GUEST BLOG: Fussing Over Numbers: Body Counts and Accountability (The Huffington Post)

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

Since the new UN estimates on civilians killed so far in 2009 were released on Friday, I’ve been getting questions on whether these numbers are helpful, or even accurate, in describing the conflict: What’s the value of the obsession with body counting?

In one sense, these numbers offer a measure of accountability for the human costs of the conflict. As I pointed out in my blog on Friday, in a month where the news has been dominated by competing press statements about attempts by both sides to the conflict to reduce civilian casualties, an estimate that 1000 people have already died so far this year is a stark reminder of how far these promises are from the past 6 month’s reality.

Nonetheless, there is a strong argument that we shouldn’t even be fussing about numbers when there is so much guesswork involved. In general, the UN has pretty accurate estimates, but it is a fair point that any estimates in Afghanistan should be treated with a wide margin of error. (The Globe & Mail published a great piece describing how access issues, local traditions, and sometimes deliberate misinformation by locals or local leaders, can make it impossible to find the “truth” in some of these investigations.)

Another critique raised by a friend of mine who is a human rights investigator is that these civilian casualty counts boil a thousand stories of loss into impersonal statistics, and obscure the real tragedy of these incidents. Once you digitize them, she would argue, no one bothers to ask about the names and faces behind those numbers.

A recent op-ed by Tom Hayden put a sharp point on this issue for me. He argued that the US Department of Defense should openly admit whether there is a standard number of civilian deaths that are considered acceptable for any given airstrike in Afghanistan (many confirmed that there was a “magic number” in Iraq), and what the decision-making process is for authorizing deaths that reach above a certain numerical threshold.

As a human rights advocate, this is the type of measure we tend to call for because it increases transparency over how these life and death calculations are made. Another common argument for releasing this type of information is that families have a ‘right to know.’ But thinking of my friend’s argument that numbers dehumanize a loss, I do wonder whether it’s something that really serves the victims and their families? Based on the interviews I’ve had with Afghan families who have lost a loved one, the last thing they’d want to hear is that their father, mother, or child was deemed expendable by a mean calculation made by an impersonal decision-maker a thousand miles away.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erica-gaston/fussing-over-numbers-body_b_250316.html

GUEST BLOGGER: Exploding Lebanon

Posted By: Jess K., traveled to Lebanon to speak with cluster munitions victims

My driver expertly navigated his way down the main street of Al Bazouriye, a small town that happens to be the ancestral home of Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, and where he lived out most of his adolescence after fleeing Beirut during this country’s civil war.

I went to Lebanon to gather testimonials of victims of cluster bombs that Israel used in its 2006 war with Hezbollah. Like many of the villages in south Lebanon, Al Bazouriye (5 miles east of the large southern city Tyre) greatly suffered from falling cluster bombs, largely in the last 72 hours of the conflict. As our car pulled up to a small café in the center of town, really more of a rundown booth with a few plastic chairs arranged outside and occupied by middle-aged men, I was told by my translator that there I could meet a fisherman from the coastal village of En Naqoura. Mohammed is a handsome man of about 35. He wore a black baseball cap with a matching polo shirt, and a pair of lightly tinted sunglasses. He told me that he used to be a fisherman and now drives a taxi. As we sipped our Turkish coffee and ate sweet cookies, Mohammed told me how he lost his hand and an ear from a cluster bomb. He said: “I was pulling in my haul, I grabbed something round, there was a flash, and I fell to the ground. Caught in the net was a cluster bomb. Something left over from 2006.” He pulled up his right sleeve revealing an arm so heavily peppered with the effects of shrapnel that the tattoo of a heart on his bicep is broken by the knotting of scars that reach all the way up to his neck. I can only imagine the difficulty of fishing with one hand.

With average failure rates as high as 25 percent, and much higher in some locations, cluster bomblets like the one Mohammed picked up failed to detonate when they were dropped. They now pose a hazard to civilians. The children here remind me of my young son, who is safely back in the US and needn’t worry if he strays while playing in the grass. In the US, we can go to work without concern that our spouse may not return for dinner because her life has been cut short by a cluster bomblet as she runs a routine errand. But these are the conditions that people in south Lebanon must live with because countries buy, sell and use these terrible weapons.

UPDATE: Shortages in funding for clearing unexploded duds in south Lebanon has forced a halt to operations. CIVIC is pressing international donors, like the United States and Israel, to provide the funding the de-miners need to continue their work. For video taken by CIVIC in Lebanon and Israel, click here. For more on the ban on cluster munitions agreed upon by 107 countries, and take action to help limit the effects of US cluster bombs, click here.

GUEST BLOGGER: BDPs and Problem of Lack of Info, Pt. 2

Posted By: Rebecca W., working with CIVIC’s Erica in Afghanistan

Read Part 1, by Erica, on Kabul…

KANDAHAR – On a recent trip to Kandahar, I heard similar stories about the “guessing approach” that aid agencies are forced to adopt in their efforts to assist Battle-Displaced Persons (BDPs). Access to information is a problem that is intensified by a high level of corruption amongst government officials and a lack of monitoring after aid has been distributed. A UN World Food Programme (WFP) representative told me that he faced “tremendous problems” establishing the numbers of BDPs that require assistance. After one military operation in Helmand, he was told by local government officials that 8,000 families – or approximately 48,000 people – had been displaced. After contacting the British PRT in Helmand and the US marines, and after WFP’s implementing partners went into the field, WFP managed to establish that only 1000-1500 BDPs actually required assistance. According to the WFP representative, such inflation of numbers is not uncommon and shows how “the government authorities are taking advantage of our aid.” Kandahar government officials, he said, will send him “fake lists” of BDPs that include IDPs and even, in one instance, a list of individuals from a village that simply did not exist. Another problem is the fact that there is not, as yet, a system in place that tracks the BDPs who have been helped. “We give people a one-time food distribution,” the representative told me, “and then we don’t know what happens to these people. Then the government comes with another list and there’s a good chance that the same people appear again as BDPs who need help. We have no way of knowing.”

BDPs and Problem of Lack of Info, Pt. 1

Posted By: Erica

Below is the first of two separate reports on the information vacuum that exists when assessing the need for humanitarian aid to battle-displaced persons.  Both my report and the future report form Rebecca, our guest blogger, highlight the difficulty of properly assessing, delivering and evaluating aid to those harmed by conflict.

KABUL – Last week I met with several staff members from the United Nations HCR who work specifically with assisting battle-displaced persons (BDPs) in Afghanistan. Particularly in the conflict-prone south of Afghanistan, near Kandahar and Helmand, assisting those who are battle-displaced can be a never-ending cycle. Recent news articles have focused on large numbers of displaced civilians in Arghandab and Garmser . like UNHCR, together with the World Food Program, the International Red Crescent or other humanitarian agencies, Agencies have the tough task of trying to develop enough emergency relief supplies – tents, blankets, food, clean water – to allow these families to survive in the immediate aftermath of conflict. Their work is often compromised by lack of access to credible information. Because of security concerns, they often cannot go to the site of the conflict, and have to depend on reports from the military, journalists, community leaders etc. “Often it means splitting the difference between what the military says and the community leaders say,” one UNHCR representative told me. “If the community says 3,000 and ISAF says 300, we prepare enough provisions for somewhere in the middle of that.”