A core goal of international humanitarian law (IHL) is the minimization of civilian casualties beyond that required by military necessity. IHL is thus recognized as requiring armed forces to distinguish between civilian and lawful military objectives, prohibits attacks that are expected to result in excessive civilian loss of life or injuries in relation to the anticipated military advantage, and requires the taking of feasible precautions. Protection of civilians is recognized as both a moral and ethical imperative; and as an essential element for maintaining support for U.S. military operations from partner states, vulnerable populations, and our domestic public.
That said, recent and ongoing military actions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere highlight the urgent need for discourse about both the law and practice of preventing and responding to civilian casualties. Civilian deaths and injuries are alleged to go systemically under-reported, with evidence too readily left insufficiently collected, allegations insufficiently investigated, and information about incidents insufficiently disseminated. A February report by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and the Columbia Law School Human Rights project found significant inconsistencies in how the U.S. military conducts investigations of civilian harm, too many instances of investigations based on incomplete or inadequate information, and insufficient receptivity to and mechanisms for considering information from public or other external sources.
For its part, Congress has adopted legislation – see section 1057 of the FY-18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), as amended here — requiring reports from the Defense Department on civilian casualties caused by U.S. military operations, including lists of incidents reasonably suspected of having resulted in civilian casualties, descriptions of how DOD goes about collecting and processing allegations about such incidents, and steps that it has taken to mitigate harm. (See here for report submitted by DOD earlier this year). Further legislation – section 936 of the FY-19 NDAA — required the appointment of a senior civilian official to be responsible, among other things, for overseeing compliance with DOD civilian casualty policy. In the meantime, the Defense Department has initiated a process for developing a new DOD instruction on minimizing and responding to civilian harm in military operations to address a series of key areas, consistent with section 936.
Against this backdrop, an important symposium series, “Civilian Casualties: The Law of Prevention and Response,” is kicking off on Wednesday (September 30) at noon EDT. The series is intended to promote deeper discussion and greater understanding of the broad range of considerations that underlie these critical issues. Conceived originally (before the pandemic) as a one-day event in Washington — part of the Signature Topic Initiative on Atrocity Prevention, sponsored by the American Society of International Law (ASIL) — the revamped online symposium format will facilitate a far wider range of participants as the Symposium takes a hard, honest look at these issues.
There will be six expert panels spread over a six-week period, each discussing a distinct area of law and policy on civilian casualties, each drawing from leaders and emerging voices from the military and government, civil society and humanitarian organizations, and academia. The U.S. Army Judge Advocate General, Lt. Gen. Charles Pede, will provide introductory keynote remarks on Wednesday. That will set the stage for the first week’s panel: “Compliance Professionals, The Law, and Ethics: Advising Leaders and Influencing Operations from the Front Lines.”
A short overview video of the six-week series is available here, outlining what to expect in future weeks. Registration is free, and those wishing to register may do so here. For those who are unable to join live or who may want to use the sessions for educational purposes, the videos will be posted on the ASIL website for future use.
In addition to ASIL, the six-week series is co-sponsored by the American Red Cross, ASIL’s Lieber Society, the Stockton Center for International Law at the U.S. Naval War College, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Image: The damaged interior of the hospital in which the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) medical charity operated is seen on October 13, 2015 following a U.S. air strike in the northern city of Kunduz. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images