Civilians in Conflict

The scale and severity of human suffering in armed conflicts continues to grow at an alarming pace. The world is currently witnessing the greatest population displacement since World War II, with 65.3 million people displaced worldwide at the end of 2015. Since 2011, there has been a rapid acceleration in the scale of global forced displacement, with a 50% increase over five years. Four nations—Syria, Colombia, Iraq, and Sudan—have 52% of all displaced persons within their own borders (known as internally displaced persons or IDPs); while seven—Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, and Jordan—are hosting more than 50% of all refugees. The overwhelming majority of these refugees and IDPs have been displaced from or within countries with ongoing armed conflict involving serious concerns about the protection of civilians. Once they flee their homes, many people are subsequently displaced multiple times due to prolonged armed conflict and heightened vulnerability. Increasingly, displaced people are fleeing to urban areas. It is also important to understand that displacement often lasts many years, even decades, and the longer people are displaced, the more they fall off the radar and are neglected in national policy and development priorities.

The reasons behind such exceptional levels of displacement are clear. Armed conflict is increasingly characterized by widespread lack of compliance with international humanitarian law. Parties to conflict are often reckless, and even deliberately target civilians and civilian infrastructure. Globally, civilian deaths and injuries resulting from explosive weapons in urban areas have increased by 52% over the last four years and the destruction of civilian infrastructure continues on an alarming scale. As conflicts are increasingly fought in cities, civilians suffer the immediate effects of exposure to violence and the longer term of effects of destruction of infrastructure and exposure to unexploded ordnance. In Yemen, for example, civilians have comprised 95% of reported deaths and injuries resulting from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Reducing the human cost of armed conflict demands a comprehensive series of measures to enhance civilian protection in armed conflict through greater compliance with international humanitarian law and more effective domestic protection for IDPs. It also requires ensuring safe access to asylum and effective international protection for those who continue to face threats in their country of origin. 

InterAction Recognizes

  • Preventing harm to civilians requires shifting them from the tactical margins to the strategic center of U.S. policy. This means that the U.S. must strengthen its policies and practices while calling on others—allies and adversaries alike—to respond in kind. In recent years, the U.S. has demonstrated willingness to institute corrective measures when there is an apparent and avoidable pattern of civilian harm. One such example is the adoption of new Tactical Directives in Afghanistan, which were created in response to the high number of civilian deaths and injuries resulting from U.S. airstrikes. This commitment should now be reflected more comprehensively throughout U.S. policy.

  • Protection of internally displaced people would benefit from U.S. leadership promoting universal adherence to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, and supporting states in their adoption of declarations and conventions on internal displacement modeled on the African Union’s Kampala Convention. It is critical that the U.S. use its diplomatic and humanitarian capacities to ensure that parties to conflict respect the protected status of IDPs, and that governments fulfill their responsibilities to IDPs, by responding to their needs or allowing humanitarian actors to deliver life-saving assistance during conflict.

  • At a time when the international refugee protection regime is being eroded, the U.S. is uniquely able to focus attention on the importance of upholding relevant norms as an integral part of its diplomatic efforts with all states, including allies. Restrictive policies on refugees adopted by a number of countries indicate a concerning downward trend in the willingness of states to uphold their key responsibilities. For example, the U.S. approach to asylum seekers arriving from Central America undermines U.S. leadership in encouraging other states to fulfil their responsibilities.

Upcoming Opportunities

  • System-wide, robust implementation of Executive Order 13732 adopted in July 2016 [Ongoing]. This would systematize mitigation of civilian harm so that it is integral to all U.S. military operations and ensure that Executive Order 13732 can be used as a diplomatic tool to call on other states to take comparable measures of their own. In this way, the U.S. can champion efforts to restore compliance with international humanitarian law and respect for civilians in armed conflict. With U.S. security interests increasingly pursued through security partnerships with state and nonstate allies, it is critical that U.S. support for, and cooperation with, foreign forces promote compliance with international humanitarian law.

  • Establish a new U.S. government-wide policy on internal displacement for the 20th anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, [February 2018] that (1) affirms the U.S. commitment to the Guiding Principles; (2) promotes a unified U.S. government approach to IDP protection, with a focus on identifying the most effective agencies for IDP response in a given context; (3) commits the U.S. to strengthening the stature of and support for the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons or that position’s successor; and (4) commits the U.S.—through its policies and practices—to address protracted internal displacement by incorporating humanitarian and development actions.

  • Develop a clear and comprehensive U.S. government policy on refugees as part of the response to the global refugee crisis, including details of the U.S. role in relation to multilateral efforts within one year of President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis [September 2017]. The U.S. must lead global efforts in four key areas: (1) continue to go beyond current levels of humanitarian financing, in order to encourage other governments to increase financing for global humanitarian appeals; (2) expand and facilitate resettlement in the U.S.; (3) fully commit to bolstering refugee inclusion and self-reliance through access to quality education and livelihoods; and (4) use U.S. influence in multilateral financing mechanisms such as the World Bank to catalyze new tools that, in a timely fashion, will support refugee-hosting countries in a more inclusive way and more fairly share the responsibility.

Additional Materials

  • Civilians Under Fire: Restore Respect for International Humanitarian Law, 2016,

  • Global Report on Internal Displacement 2016, 2016,

  • Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action, 2007,

  • UNHCR Resettlement Trends 2015, 2015,

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