In the evening hours of June 22, 2003, Mohammed and his brother were returning home in their car and approached a U.S. military checkpoint near Kunduz, Afghanistan. They slowed and came to a stop as requested by the soldiers manning the checkpoint. The car was searched; nothing was found. But confusion on both sides ensued, and the U.S. troops opened fire. Mohammed was hit twice, once in his arm and once in his leg, and a bullet pierced the back of his brother’s head.
Although they survived, Mohammed and his brother can no longer work. Mohammed’s right hand is now useless, and his brother is in Pakistan trying to get medical care for the ongoing medical issues caused by his injury. Mohammed was the only breadwinner in his family, so he now relies on his elderly father-in-law to provide sporadic support for them all.
Accidents like this are fueling local support of anti-American insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. And on the military side, mistakenly harming an innocent civilian contributes to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. soldiers returning from battle.
We at CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict) know first-hand that these kinds of accidents are not only devastating for everyone involved; they are also—to some extent—avoidable, or at least there are ways to redress the suffering.
Mohammed and his brother were told by the Afghan Government that U.S. troops would help with health care and provide compensation for their injuries and the damage to their car. After all, the U.S. has the ability to make such condolences and has often done so in cases of accidental harm to civilians. The brothers visited the closest Provincial Reconstruction Team (bases that are spotted across Afghanistan) three times to request help. Each time, soldiers turned them away. The brothers provided written statements as well as photos and cell phone videos of the accident. Compensation and help were never offered.
“The Americans offered me no reason for what they did, they offered me no help, no excuse… not even an apology,” Mohammed said angrily.
Mohammed’s story is too common in war. The evolution of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) over the last century has greatly expanded protections for civilians and saved countless lives. IHL governs what can and cannot be done in war—it prohibits attacks on doctors and ambulances, for example. When a warring party violates the laws (by deliberately targeting those doctors and ambulances), it can be found at fault in legal terms and is thus required to pay damages to anyone harmed. In this way, civilians can rebuild their lives. But when warring parties play by the rules and nonetheless still harm civilians, as so often happens in the fog of war, those civilians have no available legal remedy and no expectation of receiving the help they so often need or the recognition they deserve. To put it simply, once someone like Mohammed is harmed, the rules of warfare do not create an expectation that the U.S. will do anything to help him recover.
After centuries of civilian lives being devastated by war, CIVIC believes it is time for a change. We advocate that warring parties “make amends” to address the lawful harm caused in the course of battle or, stated less tactfully, to help those considered “collateral damage.”
At the end of 2009, we traveled to the Army Command and General Staff College in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas to participate in trainings for U.S. military personnel. Our job is to bring into the room the perspective of civilians in conflict and to consistently press the military to consider the human costs of their actions, from strategy to implementation. No soldier wants to harm a civilian, but in the heat of battle soldiers are often forced to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and their comrades. In Ft. Leavenworth’s mock conflict scenarios, we discuss with the young majors their rules of engagement, how civilians might react to soldiers and kinetic operations near their homes, how to interact with the local population, and how to address civilian harm when it happens.
These types of trainings have already paid dividends, not only on an individual level but Army-wide. One notable success is the U.S. military’s recent commitment in Afghanistan to recognize civilian losses and offer verbal and tangible condolences (in the form of ex-gratia payments) to families harmed as a result of military actions. CIVIC has urged NATO members fighting in Afghanistan to do the same. At the time of this writing, no two of these countries contributing combat troops made condolences in the same way to Afghans harmed. Some countries will offer a few hundred dollars (and in one case a guitar) to a family grieving; in others, troops are authorized to give up to $2,500 for an unintentional civilian death. These efforts, imperfect as they are, are important first steps toward recognizing the dignity, as well as the material needs, of casualties. Now they should specifically work together to make sure all civilians harmed in Afghanistan—no matter by whom—receive help commensurate with their losses.
While no amount of money can replace a lost loved one, compensating civilian victims of war and their families has proven an effective means of healing anger and resentment and slowing cycles of violence borne of such suffering in war. The U.S. Congress, at the urging of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and CIVIC, created and continues to fund programs in Iraq and Afghanistan that identify families harmed in combat and offer them what they need to get back on their feet, whether it’s jobs, schooling, or psychosocial care. Nepal and the Philippines are also working on compensation and aid programs for civilians harmed in their respective conflicts. Making amends is a growing and welcome trend.
The success of such policies, from the perspectives of both civilians and the warring parties, raises some obvious questions. Why don’t all countries make amends to their civilian victims? The obvious answer is that most formal militaries are loath to recognize or publicize that despite the best efforts of soldiers, they cannot always protect innocent civilians from being harmed during war. But ignoring this reality is not only morally disingenuous, it’s bad strategy. It deepens unrest in a community and makes an already difficult situation—as all wars are—worse.
While states are often reluctant to take on new commitments during armed conflict, an initial round of meetings with country delegations at the United Nations conducted by CIVIC reveals a deep well of enthusiasm. Countries as diverse as South Korea, Chile, and Nigeria have all expressed support for the idea that warring parties should help those they’ve harmed. For that reason, CIVIC and a number of NGO partners are set to launch the Making Amends Campaign—working together to ensure that making amends is standard practice, not an exception, among warring states. The Campaign will seek resolutions in the UN’s political bodies, policy changes in the UN’s programmatic agencies, and outspoken support from some of the world’s most prominent diplomats. Whatever form the “making amends” principle ultimately takes, one thing will be clear at the campaign’s conclusion: compliance with the laws of war does not give states carte blanche to ignore civilian suffering.
So, what does the future hold for civilians in war? That answer depends in large part on the future of warfare itself, with an already fast-changing landscape from the tanks and trenches of World War I to the recent counterinsurgency battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. What's important to remember is that civilians will always be in the line of fire: working, living, growing up, and hopefully growing old in the spaces where militaries fight. Whether or not they bear the brunt of those wars is up to each of us.