Reducing Civilian Harm in Multinational Coalition Operations

NATO ISAF soldiers return to an operating base after a security patrol in Kapisa, Afghanistan. NATO ISAF soldiers return to an operating base after a security patrol in Kapisa, Afghanistan. © ISAF

This is a presentation of “The Sum of All Parts” released by the Center for Civilians in Conflict in January 2019.

The Center for Civilians in Conflict, or CIVIC, released a report on 23 January 2019 called “The Sum of All Parts: Reducing Civilian Harm in Multinational Coalition Operations.” Multinational operations, including operations taken by both permanent alliances and ad-hoc coalitions, are a key part of security policies. However, these security operations oftentimes have consequences which impact the ability to prevent and address civilian harm. This report was carried out to further explore the significance of these consequences and to provide recommendations on how to mitigate them. The report was carried out using interviews, research of secondary literature, and US military publications. Specifically, twenty interviews with civilian analysts, representatives of international organizations and non-government organizations, and US government and military personnel were conducted.

CIVIC used the US military definition of multinational operation to frame their analysis for this report. Therefore, multinational operations are understood to be “operations conducted by forces of two or more nations, usually undertaken within the structure of a coalition or alliance” in this context. A coalition refers to an ad-hoc arrangement focused on a single threat, such as the OIR campaign which was a response to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, while an alliance refers to a formal agreement based on long-term security goals such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Multinational coalitions posses many unique and complex characteristics which could increase the risk of civilian harm. For example, nations in multinational coalitions never give foreign commanders full autonomy over their forces which results in most multinational coalitions having two chains of command. When decisions are made, they need to be approved by both the multinational commander and an individual nation’s commander. This allows for more points of friction during decision making, challenging unity of decision making, and therefore decreasing the ability to prevent or address civilian harm. This type of problem presented itself in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, where nations within the coalition had disagreements about “acceptable levels of civilian harm.” This lead the US to develop its own process to orchestrate strikes independently. Similarly, when coalition members individually define the conditions under which force can be used through Rules of Engagement or ROE, and national caveats, confusion and frustration can arise between member nations of coalitions. Additionally, the United States ROE dictates that force can be used against civilians for self-defense reasons.

The report recognized that some coalitions have made progress in their process investigating and assessing civilian harm. For example, the NATO forces in Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, created a Joint Incident Assessment Teams in 2009 to investigate civilian casualties. Still, due to a lack of transparency and an unwillingness to acknowledge responsibility, multinational coalitions face issues in addressing and reducing instances of civilian harm. CIVIC concludes this report with a list of 16 recommendations for “current and future coalitions and their member states.” Amongst the recommendations, CIVIC states coalitions and states should include civilian mitigation procedures in training, standardized ROE, centralize investigations of civilian harm, standardize procedures for evaluating third party civilian casualty incident reports, create a unified civilian harm disclosure policy, and establish funds to make amends to civilians impacted by violence. Additionally, CIVIC recommends that NATO adopt the Non-Binding Civilian Casualty Guidelines, which was used in Afghanistan, as a standing policy.  


Original report available here:

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