The need to face responsibility for civil harm

Canadian soldier cures an Afghani wounded boy Canadian soldier cures an Afghani wounded boy © Corporal Robin Mugridge / Task Force Afghanistan Roto 1

This article is a brief presentation of PAX’s position paper on the role of monitoring, analysing and responding the harm suffered by civilians in conflict

In June 2020, the Dutch non-governmental organisation (NGO) PAX, which deals with the protection of civilians in conflicts, published the position paper "Civilian harm tracking, analysis and response. What it is and why it matters". In this paper, the NGO outlines the way in which its Protection of Civilians Program takes action and its position on the tracking, understanding and responding to the harm suffered by civilians in present warfare.

The evolution of warfare in recent years has generated conflicts that are increasingly centred on urban areas, involving a growing number of non-state actors and more destructive technologies, making civilians the object of an increasing amount of collateral damage. A broader definition of “civil damage” - which includes all the negative effects caused by the hostile use of force, from the violation of individual integrity to the destruction of livelihoods - allows us to comprehend the real extent to which actions are taken by different actors. Only through a deep understanding of the effects of military action, in fact, it is possible to assess the cost of such conflicts on civilians. Thus, the harm tracking process is generally implemented by the organisation that carries out military intervention, in order to implement changes to improve its performance. However, the state actors involved are becoming progressively less transparent and responsible for their own modes of intervention. Therefore, the civil society and the media have taken on the role of observers and pressure groups: by monitoring, mediating and promoting standards and good practices, they aim at safeguarding civilians. 

There are multiple advantages coming from a process which integrates the repercussions on civilians in all phases of operation. Reporting procedures are, sometimes, the only tools allowing parliamentary control - whether by committed or host countries - over the conduct of operations. Consequently, the military organizations’ need to respond in a more capillary manner to their own control bodies will force contingents to be more aware of their own actions and will result in a more cautious approach by the decision-making bodies in their implementation processes. In addition, the duty of reporting one's own mistakes to the assisted population generates a more genuine and cooperative relationship with the latter. As a final result, civilians are able to find answers and justice for the wrongs they have suffered and the contingents are able to regain credibility to carry out their role strategically.

Conclusively, the NGO PAX emphasises the need to focus on the complex relationship between the modalities used by perpetrators and the effects on civilians. First of all, for such an understanding, accurate basic knowledge of the context of action and types of harm inflicted on civilians - from the physical one in the short term to the psychological one in the long run - is necessary. In addition, this contextualisation must be complemented by a constant collection of reliable data allowing a more transparent, cooperative and effective decision-making process. Starting from these assumptions, a collaboration with the various civil and military actors can lead to a more concrete and effective promotion of future national policies and initiatives. Overall, a more transparent, accountable and careful approach can lead to a more effective tackling of civil harm in conflict.


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Author: Matteo Consiglio; Editor: Margherita Curti

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