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In focus: Sarah Holewinski on her work at the Center for Civilians in Conflict

AOAV caught up with Sarah Holewinski, Executive Director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, to talk about her organisation’s work and the importance of documenting civilian harm.

Who is Sarah Holewinski?

Sarah Holewinski is executive director of Center for Civilians in Conflict, leading the organisation’s efforts to make warring parties more responsible for their actions to civilians before, during, and after armed conflict. Under Holewinski’s leadership, the Center has developed pragmatic policies and practices for protecting civilians in armed conflict, including the first-ever agreement by NATO to make amends to civilian war victims in Afghanistan and the first civilian protection policy for African forces in Somalia. She is a frequent commentator on civilian protection issues in publications counting The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and The Washington Post.

Prior to joining the Center in 2006, Holewinski was a member of the White House AIDS Policy team and founding member of West Wing Writers, a firm of former White House speechwriters with clients including former President Clinton and Bill Gates. She also consulted for Human Rights Watch and the Clinton Foundation HIV-AIDS initiative in Rwanda.

Holewinski holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Philosophy from Georgetown University and a Master’s degree in Security Policy from Columbia University. She is a Senior Fellow with Truman National Security Project and a Term Member with the Council of Foreign Relations.

AOAV named her as one of the top 100 Most Influential People in Armed Violence Reduction in 2013.

What is the Center for Civilians in Conflict?

Center for Civilians in Conflict was founded as Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) in 2003 by Marla Ruzicka, a young activist and humanitarian who realized the need for an organization focused on civilian victims in conflict.

After war broke out in 2001, Marla traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan. She noted that no one, including the US military, was keeping count or helping civilians harmed. As a new war in Iraq unfolded, Marla moved to Baghdad and organized a door-to-door survey of the Iraqi people, bringing her results to Washington. An aid on the Senate Appropriations Committee would later say: “She’d actually seen what we’d only read about, namely US bombs dropped in the wrong place, which had wiped out whole communities. Marla gave us on-the-ground information about these people and told us that nothing was being done to help them.”

In 2003, Marla founded Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict to take on the work she was doing with the help solely of volunteers. Working with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Marla helped create the first-ever US-funded aid programs dedicated specifically to helping rebuild the lives of civilians unintentionally harmed by US combat operations.

In April 2005, Marla was killed by a suicide bomb in Baghdad while advocating for civilian war victims. Her colleagues, friends and family knew that her organization held a unique place in the advocacy community that should not be left vacant. CIVIC began a new life built on Marla’s extraordinary legacy.

By early 2007, CIVIC had seen success in establishing smarter, more compassionate US policies for war victims. The organization decided that more civilians could be helped and CIVIC broadened its reach beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

CIVIC also took on the ambitious goal of pressing all parties engaged in conflict – not only the US – to establish a new standard of behavior by providing recognition and help to civilians harmed by their bombs and bullets. This concept of making amends remains at the heart of the organization’s work, even as the scope increased to focusing on all civilians before, during, and after conflicts, not just the victims of harm. The goal of our work is to protect more civilians and to ensure warring parties do not walk away from those they have harmed.

In September 2012, in order to reflect the full scope of the organization’s work at all stages of armed conflict, CIVIC amended its name to the Center for Civilians in Conflict.