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Protection: Protecting Humanity in War: Recommendations for Congressional Action

Protecting Humanity in War: Recommendations for Congressional Action

The scale and severity of human suffering in armed conflicts worldwide continues to grow at an alarming pace. These conflicts have driven more than 60 million people from their homes, the greatest population displacement since World War II. Civilian deaths from explosive weapons have increased by 92 percent since 2011, with 2016 being the most dangerous year for civilians, according to some monitors.

Much of the harm civilians experience in conflict is indiscriminate, foreseeable, and preventable. This is precisely what international humanitarian law, also known as the law of armed conflict, is for: to limit the effects of armed conflict on people.

The U.S. military has taken significant steps to ensure its own operations do not cause excessive harm to civilians. There is still much work to be done, however, and Congressional action is particularly urgent considering the reports of recent increases in civilian casualties in the Middle East resulting from U.S. and U.S.-led coalition air strikes in 2017.

The size, influence, and military power of the United States means that how the U.S. behaves has an overwhelming influence on the behavior of other states and other conflict parties. Reducing the human cost of armed conflict demands a comprehensive series of measures, shifting the prevention of harm to civilians from the tactical margins to the strategic center of U.S. policy. This means that the U.S. must systematize its existing good practice while calling on others to respond in kind. U.S. policies and practices are particularly critical given the extent of U.S. security cooperation with state and non-state actors across the world. The U.S. can and should set an example and call on others to follow its lead.

The recommendations listed below 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. They include the following priority areas for action by the U.S. Congress:


Increase U.S. military transparency for civilian casualties

In order to enhance U.S. Government transparency regarding civilian casualties from U.S. Government or U.S.-led coalition operations, we recommend that Congress:

  • Mandate monthly publicly releasable estimates of civilian casualties caused by U.S. operations and by U.S.-led coalition partners;
  • Authorize the release of an annual report that provides information about U.S. military strikes and combatant and non-combatant deaths that resulted from operations;
  • Call for an assessment of civilian casualty trends resulting from U.S. operations;
  • Mandate disclosure of any changes to the December 16, 2016 Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force; and
  • Authorize resources to bolster the capacity of the military to investigate allegations of civilian harm.
  • Read the full recommendations here.

Enhance Civilian Harm Mitigation in U.S. Military Operations

The Secretaries of Defense and State should submit a report detailing staffing patterns to adequately support the protection of civilians and rule of law, as well as partner conduct. We recommend that Congress:

  • Call for a report and analysis of staffing pertaining to the protection of civilians in relation to military operations and building partner capacity;
  • Call for an assessment report on civilian harm related to anti-ISIS coalition operations with recommendations on how to improve civilian harm mitigation measures;
  • Encourage the Combined Air Operations Center to establish independent “red teams” as a means to consider operational outcomes of air strikes and introduce improvements to the targeting process.
  • Read the full recommendations here.

Improve the Conduct of Partner Forces and Private Security Companies

DoD and State should put together a strategy for professionalizing partner forces which puts civilian protection at the forefront. We recommend that Congress:

  • Call for an independent review of partner force civilian harm mitigation efforts;
  • Authorize specific resources to enhance the ability of DIILS, DIRI, and IMET to implement institution-building programs and recruit appropriate staff;
  • Reinforce private security companies’ (PSCs) compliance with human rights and international humanitarian law principles by requiring PSCs that are contracted by the U.S. government to be members of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers Association (ICoCA)
  • Mandate a report on measures taken to ensure PSCs’ compliance with internationally-agreed codes of conduct and respect for human rights.   
  • Read the full recommendations here.

Condition Arms Sales on Compliance with International Humanitarian Law

We recommend that Congress:

  • Prohibit the sale, license, or export of defense articles or defense services to foreign security services until it is certified that the recipient has not engaged in violations of IHL or human rights;
  • Require the Secretary of Defense and State to publicly certify conditions tied to the sale, license or export of defense articles or defense services, including building specific capacities of recipients to comply with IHL and mitigate civilian harm;
  • Call for periodic reviews and enhance end-use monitoring;
  • Suspend sales, licensing or expert based on credible information that the recipient has or is committing violations, violates the end-user agreement or fails to provide appropriate information thereto.
  • Read the full recommendations here.

For more information, or to get involved with this work, please contact Tom Buttry