Indiscriminate and disproportionate military operations are exacting a heavy toll on civilians in situations of armed conflict. Much of harm inflicted on civilians is foreseeable, preventable, and cannot be dismissed as an inevitable consequence of conflict. The repeated pattern of harm to civilians calls for a concerted and deliberate effort to restore respect for the protected status of civilians in armed conflict.
US NGO network InterAction has issued a report that examines these trends with a focus on Syria and Yemen, It uses AOAV’s data to highlight harm. Our work on US over-use of force was also highlighted in our report on US explosive weapon use in Fallujah, Iraq.
Through their policy brief, InterAction is calling on President Obama to spearhead policy initiatives that unequivocally communicate the United States’ intentions to minimize civilian harm in its own operations while calling on others – both allies and adversaries – to respond in kind. Important opportunities to establish concrete measures to enhance the protection of civilians include bi-lateral and multi-lateral negotiations on Syria and Yemen as well as the lead up to the World Humanitarian Summit.
The scale and severity of human suffering in current armed conflicts represent a distressing race to the bottom in disregard for the basic rules regulating armed conflict. Civilian deaths and injuries resulting from explosive weapons have increased by 52% over the last four years. The world is currently witnessing the greatest population displacement since World War II. This is not merely the tragic, inevitable consequence of conflict, and it cannot be excused by the fog of war. Much of this loss of life and human suffering is avoidable. This is precisely what international humanitarian law, also known as the law of armed conflict, is for – to limit the effects of armed conflict.
There is ample evidence that basic rules are being violated on a daily basis by both non-state armed groups and state parties to conflict, even by those with the most advanced equipment and training. Parties to conflict deliberately target civilians as well as their homes, hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure; use indiscriminate force in populated areas; and fail to take precautions in the conduct of hostilities. This is most acutely evident in Syria and Yemen where much of the harm visited upon civilians is foreseeable and preventable. The lack of investigation and public accounting by the parties to conflict of the impact of their military operations on civilians speaks to the permissiveness of the current climate. Civilians cannot afford such indifference to the basic rules intended to protect them during armed conflict.
Concerted and deliberate effort is needed to restore respect for civilians in situations of armed conflict. A lack of restraint in the conduct of hostilities fuels protracted conflict and often complicates the process of negotiating political settlements. Conversely, rigorous adherence to the norms of international humanitarian law by one party encourages adherence by other parties to conflict. To counteract the current trend of violence against civilians, President Obama should spearhead a series of initiatives that unequivocally communicate the United States’ intentions to rigorously minimize civilian harm in its own military operations while calling on others to respond in kind.
More specifically, President Obama should:
1. Issue a presidential statement affirming respect for the protections to which civilians and civilian objects are entitled, including humanitarian and medical facilities and personnel;
2. Adopt and implement, including through training, a standing operational policy on civilian protection and harm mitigation applicable to all branches of the armed services;
3. Condition U.S. support for and cooperation with foreign forces (both state and non-state) on compliance with international humanitarian law; and
4. Set clear benchmarks for enhanced measures by all parties to mitigate civilian harm in Syria and Yemen.
Safeguarding civilian lives and restoring respect for international humanitarian law demands a concerted effort to raise the mitigation of civilian harm from the tactical margins to the strategic center of U.S. policy. In light of current events and the World Humanitarian Summit in May, President Obama has a unique opportunity to cement his legacy in favor of a rules-based international order. The U.S. should not underestimate the power of its example and leadership to this end.
The full report can be read here: Civilians Under Fire – InterAction – Feb 2016
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