What Civilians Themselves Say about Targeting and their Participation in Conflict

“What I think is that there is no line at all … Civilians can turn into fighters at any time. Anybody can change from a fighter to a civilian, all in one day, all in one moment.”

I remember pausing when I heard this assertion. It was July 2012, and I was sitting across from Walid, a 27-year-old insurance salesman from the suburbs of Tripoli, Libya. Over several cups of tea at Casa Café, he told me of his experience of the conflict in 2011. In the first few months, he started posting on Facebook and tweeting about supplies and protests, quickly assuming the role of an informal spokesperson for Libyan civilians. Walid’s story included his eventual arrest and torture, his stint as a recruiter for the rebels, and finally his efforts to distribute anti-Qaddafi fliers in his neighborhood. Near the end of the interview, as we were discussing his understanding of the concept of the civilian, he responded with the unforgettable line above. Walid, the seventeenth Libyan I had interviewed, convinced me then that the research I had undertaken for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) on civilian involvement in war was worthwhile. His experiences were simply too rich and his views too nuanced to be ignored.

After this interview, we conducted 233 more with people like Walid who have lived through conflict in Libya, as well as in Bosnia, Gaza, and Somalia. The results of this research are released in an 84-page report titled The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict.

The study centers on the concept of civilian immunity, which at its essence is the idea that certain people should be protected from harm during war. As many readers of Just Security know, this concept was enshrined in the principle of distinction, according to which civilians must be protected from direct attack during war. This principle is arguably the cornerstone of international humanitarian law, yet still, civilian immunity is not absolute. The Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions set out the important limitation that civilians are immune from being targeted “unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.”

Military commanders, government officials, lawyers, humanitarians, and academics have engaged in a heated debate over how this phrase should be understood and applied. In their debates — primarily focused on definitions, legal obligations, and criteria for targeting — they have argued about key questions such as which activities should qualify as direct participation and when a civilian should lose and regain legal immunity from direct attack. In all these debates, we found the views of one important group was missing: ordinary people who had lived through war. CIVIC therefore set out to gather and analyze their perspectives in this study.

Our researchers asked five primary questions, which we explored through in-depth, qualitative interviews with people in four conflicts: Bosnia, Gaza, Libya, and Somalia. First: had they been involved in the conflict they experienced? Second: if so, in what ways, and why? Third: what were the implications of being involved? Fourth: how did they understand the concept of civilian protection, the concept of the civilian, and the concept of the combatant? And finally: did any of these categorizations have any meaning during war?

For the purposes of the study, we defined “involvement” to refer to all types of activities in which a person might take part during a conflict. By adopting this broad definition, we aimed to capture the views and experiences of all those who fall somewhere between bystanders and combatants under Article 43 of the first Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions. In legal terms, the activities included under “involvement” in this study could be therefore be classified as non-participation, indirect or direct participation in hostilities, or, in a few cases, exercising a continuous combat function. However, because the parameters of these classifications are contested and can be controversial, we intentionally avoided classifying modes of involvement.

The perspectives that emerged from this research were sometimes surprising, often thought provoking, and, we believe, important. Of all the findings contained in the report, four points are notable.

First, our interviewees told us that on the whole, they are heavily involved in conflict. The modes of involvement they discussed were numerous and complex, and some, such as the “journalist” who exclusively documented the missions completed by Islamic Jihad in Palestine, were unexpected. Many told CIVIC that there is simply no way not to be involved in war — it affects every area of life.

Second, while we might assume that people who live through conflict would have a choice of whether or not to become involved, this research suggests that some are forced to become involved, others fall into involvement, and some become involved because they believe they have no other choice. This finding is especially notable, as civilians who directly participate in hostilities may forfeit their legal immunity from direct attack even if their participation is involuntary.

Third, those interviewees who did make a decision to become involved told us they did so for reasons they believed to be justified. The most common motivation that interviewees cited for becoming involved was to protect themselves or their families. Thus, paradoxically, those who become involved to protect themselves can lose their protections under the laws of war. Other motivations included civic duty, forced or voluntary recruitment, elevation of social standing, and outrage at the targeting of peaceful protestors.

Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, people who have lived through conflict are smart, savvy, and sophisticated in their views on distinction and protection. For instance, we interviewed eight policemen from Gaza, each of whom had given a great deal of thought to whether they should be considered civilians or “militants,” and they expressed thoughtful and diverse opinions on this point. Still, while legal concepts or norms related to protection during war may matter a great deal to the people with whom we spoke, they also told us that they found them to be confusing or dissatisfactory in practice. “If you look at the Geneva Conventions,” said one interviewee from Bosnia, “everything looks beautiful. But if you start to apply it, it falls apart. How can you treat each of the categories in a proper way?”

The aim of this report is decidedly not to add another legal or academic perspective to the ongoing debate among experts and policymakers on civilian participation in war. Instead, CIVIC’s goal with this report is to inform this debate — by imbuing it with a dose of reality, shedding light on how war is experienced by ordinary people on the ground, and assessing ways in which protection for civilians might be enhanced. For determining how to better protect civilians, whether in the conflicts we studied or in crises such as Syria and Yemen, we believe there is no better source of information than the people whose lives and deaths are determined by these policies and laws. 

About the Author(s)

Nicolette Waldman

Middle East Researcher for Amnesty International, Former Harvard Law Fellow at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Lead Author and Researcher of the Report "The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict." Follow her on Twitter (@Nicolette_AI)