InterAction welcomes the positive developments to minimize civilian harm in conflict in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and looks forward to seeing these critical measures comprehensively implemented in the months to come.
Ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, among others, has driven more than 65 million people from their homes, representing the greatest population displacement since World War II. Urban conflict, including relentless bombardments in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, has killed thousands of civilians and forced staggering numbers of residents to flee. Disregard for the rules of war also creates the pre-conditions for famine and severe food insecurity, especially combined with poor governance, environmental degradation, and economic decline. Similarly, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and water supply facilities, create conditions for the spread of deadly diseases. Protracted displacement and destruction of infrastructure at such massive scales create new challenges for long term stability and governance. Airwars estimates that anti-ISIS Coalition airstrikes have killed 5,500 civilians in Iraq and Syria since the beginning of operations in 2014.
“We are currently witnessing an astounding scale of human suffering in conflict and historic levels of displacement around the world. Congress’ action to introduce safeguards in this year’s defense bill will go a long way to ensure that the U.S. takes additional concrete steps to spare civilian lives,” Sam Worthington, InterAction CEO, said this week.
The 2018 NDAA, which passed Congress and was signed into law today, December 12, holds the potential to significantly minimize harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure in U.S. military operations and security partnerships. Several of the provisions address the devastating harm wrought in the ongoing conflicts in Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. In addition, the 2018 NDAA includes system-wide provisions to strengthen safeguards to protect civilian lives and infrastructure, including several which reflect InterAction’s “Protecting Humanity in War” recommendations, such as those addressing U.S. military transparency on civilian casualties and improving the capacity of partner forces to ensure the protection of civilians.
The size, influence and military power of the United States means that U.S. behavior has an overwhelming influence on the behavior of other states and actors. Increasing U.S. military transparency for civilian casualties and enhancing harm mitigation measures in U.S. military operations can build on the existing practices to ensure military operations minimize harm to civilians. Congressional action to create these safeguards can help ensure that the protection of civilians is a strategic pillar of U.S. policy and military operations, and save lives.
As implementation of the 2018 NDAA progresses, InterAction and its partners look forward to continued engagement with members of Congress and the executive branch on these important issues.
In the 2018 NDAA, Congress adopts several over-arching provisions to strengthen system-wide measures to minimize civilian harm in U.S. policy in practice. For example, section 1057, which requires an annual unclassified report on civilian casualties occurring during U.S. military operations, represents a step toward greater transparency on the part of the U.S.; the report also must draw on non-governmental sources to account for discrepancies between figures. Additionally, section 1209 requires a report from the Secretaries of Defense and State on a plan for improving the capacity of U.S. partners to ensure the protection of civilians in their own operations; this is a crucial step toward professionalization of forces with which the U.S. engages. These reflect InterAction’s recommendations in “Protecting Humanity in War,” regarding U.S. policy and practice in relation to international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians in U.S. military operations and U.S. security cooperation. InterAction’s recommendations sought to identify the type of legislative action by the U.S. Congress that would achieve positive outcomes to better protect civilians in situations of armed conflict, and were developed in consultation with a group of humanitarian NGOs convened by InterAction, with additional input from other subject matter experts.
Other positive steps for the protection of civilians in the NDAA include: a report on the transfer of defense articles to units of foreign forces accused of committing gross violations of human rights (section 1052); a requirement for the White House to notify Congress of any changes to the legal and policy frameworks guiding the use of force by the U.S. (section 1264); a provision requiring a report on the Saudi-led coalition’s military operations in Yemen, including harm to civilian infrastructure (section 1265); and a requirement for a strategy to improve defense institutions and the security sector in Nigeria (section 1279a).