The U.S. Defense Department (DoD) is soon expected to unveil its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP) followed by its first ever civilian harm mitigation policy that has been in the works for more than two years. Much of the policy conversation, and the media narrative around these issues, has focused on how the United States can reduce civilian harm it causes directly. This is critical, but incomplete, particularly as the U.S. military is less directly involved in current conflicts than it has been in the two decades following Sept. 11, 2001, and as the Biden administration’s defense strategy points to a heavy reliance on partners for future contingencies. A civilian casualty mitigation plan for “future fights,” as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin calls for in the CHMRAP, should include a robust plan and set of tools for working with partners and allies on civilian harm mitigation.
This trend of partnered warfare, or “support relationships,” is not unique to the U.S. military, but rather a wider trend we at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – where I work as Head of Policy for the Washington Delegation – see on the battlefield. To be clear, partnerships have always been a feature of armed conflict. However, partnering has increased in recent years as more states enter pre-existing conflicts, and as the proliferation of private military and security companies and non-state armed groups creates new opportunities. On this latter point, the ICRC assesses that more than 600 armed groups operate in places our teams work, which includes situations of armed conflict and other situations of violence. We assess that roughly half of those groups are receiving security assistance from states. This trend has translated into a significant increase in non-international armed conflicts, from fewer than 30 in 2001 to more than 70 by 2016.
What does this mean for civilians and respect for international humanitarian law (IHL)? Support relationships are a means states use to influence conflict outcomes and conduct warfare in coalition settings. Yet, there are risks unique to partnered or coalition operations as well as broader security assistance. Those risks can be minimized if states take appropriate steps. At the outset of a partnered relationship, states should conduct assessments to identify risks of working with a partner and develop a tailored risk mitigation plan. Other steps include making arrangements between partners to prioritize protection of civilians and ensuring effective joint military planning, resourcing, and coordination to support that objective. The ICRC has compiled a comprehensive list of these types of practical measures. Big picture: policymakers and military planners alike should understand the impact of their partnerships on civilians, both immediate and long-term, and take steps to mitigate risks.
The ICRC has published a comprehensive handbook and a targeted guide on partnered military operations that frames key issues for policymakers. Now we are seeking to better understand challenges in partnered warfare and contribute to the emergence of additional good practices that militaries can put into action in their partnerships. We are in consultations with states, non-state armed groups, and others around the world to expand our understanding of the complexities of these relationships. Our aim is to deepen engagement with those engaged in partnered warfare on practical steps they can take to ensure respect for IHL.
Some key lessons have already emerged from our consultations. In keeping with the ICRC’s confidential, bilateral dialogue, these lessons are not directed to any specific state or context. Rather, these are important lessons that every actor engaged in partnered warfare should consider.
The most attractive feature of partnered warfare is also the biggest risk. Partnered warfare is often attractive because it allows supporting states to minimize troop deployments. Local forces take on the brunt of the fighting, often with external military hardware, some training, and sometimes close air support. The problem is that this rationale for partnered warfare – minimizing the supporting state’s commitments – tends to lead to security assistance that is heavily focused on combat support with less priority on protecting civilians and encouraging IHL compliance. This may be by design or due to a lack of investment in necessary tools and capabilities. When it comes to secretive relationships, a supporting state’s desire for plausible deniability may reduce incentives to positively shape a partner’s behavior. This underscores the need for states to develop risk mitigation frameworks that govern the intelligence communities’ involvement in partnered relationships.
Other times, supporting states may want to do the right thing, but haven’t invested in the right tools or capabilities. For example, many states should develop more robust risk assessment frameworks and capacities to monitor how partners behave on the battlefield. Many states also need to improve training programs, ensuring that partners are consulted on perceived needs, and training is tailored to battlefield realties and helps partners operationalize key concepts, including civilian harm mitigation. States should also ensure they have adequate safeguards for intelligence, ensuring that intelligence sharing is conditioned on a partner’s compliance with IHL, mechanisms exist to evaluate information received from partners, and caveats are established concerning what intelligence may be used for.
Monitoring and evaluation programs should be established to understand the operational impact of all this support, and guide decisions about future security assistance. Importantly, training, mentoring or other tools cannot substitute for a lack of will to comply with IHL. Supporting states should cancel or suspend security assistance if there is a clear risk that supplied arms could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of IHL or human rights. Risks can be mitigated only if supporting states prioritize respect for IHL in their relationships and invest in practical tools and capabilities to make that happen.
Don’t neglect detainees. The frequent desire by supporting states to minimize exposure and commitments on the battlefield often means that detention is not prioritized. Many states increasingly try to avoid detention altogether to avoid long-term resource commitments and legal exposure. And many states are also reluctant to support their partners on detention matters to avoid potential responsibility should the partner torture or mistreat detainees or otherwise violate international law. Another reason may be legislative restrictions on foreign assistance to partner detention.
We recognize these are thorny issues, but we have seen that neglecting to support partners in this area may lead to abuses on the battlefield and other serious problems down the road. Many states and non-state armed groups lack resources to care for detainees. Such situations can be mitigated if supporting states that are themselves committed to IHL compliance engage with their partners early to ensure they conduct humane and lawful detention and provide assistance where necessary.
Know your partner and establish trust. Many of the challenges that we see in support relationships stem from a lack of coherence between the partners around mission objectives, including the priority given to respecting IHL. Ensuring coherence in partnerships starts with a proper assessment of partner willingness to comply with IHL, capabilities to do so, and leadership to ensure security forces conduct operations responsibly. In other words, you need to look under the hood of your partner.
This isn’t easy; it requires policymakers and military officers to ask sensitive questions around issues partners may not want to discuss. But, meaningful assessments are critical to determine whether to provide security assistance in the first place, what arms to provide, and what training, mentoring, or other practical measures may be needed to support partners in complying with IHL. Where possible, this should be a collaborative process between the supporting and supported forces. Many times, supporting states cut partners out of the assessment and decision-making process, which can undermine trust in the relationship and misses an opportunity to jointly identify risks, establish shared objectives, and clarify expectations for IHL compliance. For their part, many supporting states should inject more rigor into the risk assessment process to avoid assessments being a “check the box” exercise.
Reconsider conventional narratives about the “supporting” and “supported actors.” Conventional wisdom suggests that supported actors are more likely to harm civilians than if U.S., NATO, or other western forces lead combat operations. The truth is far more complex. While many western forces bring precision weapons and advanced training, local forces can bring important linguistic and cultural awareness that is often critical to avoiding civilian harm. We have also seen instances where a host government placed a greater premium on limiting the human toll during a military campaign or certain operation, for instance, than the external supporting state. This does not mean local partners are inherently better at preventing civilian harm. Rather, it’s important to recognize the strengths and weaknesses that each actor brings to a partnership. Civilians will be protected best when partners work to minimize weaknesses and leverage the strengths of each actor.
The focus on improving U.S. policies to prevent and respond to civilian harm it directly causes is important. But, any policy on civilian protection that lacks a robust plan for working with partners would be incomplete. Whether for current conflicts or future fights, the United States relies heavily on security partnerships. New frameworks, tools, and capabilities are needed to support partners on civilian harm mitigation, and compliance with IHL more broadly.
Some steps are already being taken. The DoD team working on the CHMRAP is considering how to integrate civilian harm mitigation into security cooperation. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency is overhauling its IHL training and building an advisory capability to support partners on civilian harm mitigation. The Biden administration says that human rights considerations will be elevated in its forthcoming Conventional Arms Transfer policy. This is all positive, but more could still be done to prioritize IHL compliance in U.S. security partnerships. Developing a comprehensive plan that integrates the above lessons learned is a good place to start.