Addressing the Devastation
The killing of civilians is nothing new, writes Hugo Slim. A historic and global phenomenon, the killing of civilians does however seem more present than ever, with round the clock news reporting of the horrors civilians endure. Political and public outcry is growing into a steady roar. Just last month, President Karzai demanded President-elect Obama stem Afghan deaths while Pakistani villagers protested in the streets for their loved ones killed, and that’s in but one small corner of the world.
If Slim eloquently exposes the hows and whys of civilian killing in war, he also seems to see a way out: public pressure to change. Rape is now deemed unacceptable; cluster munitions will be banned in December by over 100 countries; children cannot be used as soldiers. Time and again, the way wars are fought changes as public opinion changes. We find ourselves in just such a time now, with so many of us rejecting the needless suffering of war victims the world over.
So what’s the next big change in the way wars are fought? Not today, but soon, warring parties may be expected to help the civilians they harm.
Unintentional harm to civilians is rationalized to a point under international law, with “collateral damage” a regrettable but understood part of warfare. With public pressure mounting, many militaries now pride themselves on limiting civilian casualties. The US is case in point: no press conference from Baghram or Baghdad is complete without assurances of the great pains taken to avoid civilians. Yet when it comes to addressing the devastation that inevitably comes with their bullets and bombs, warring parties have traditionally left civilians to pick up the pieces of their lives without the respect and help they deserve.
There are some, however, that are reconsidering that position and finding it in their best interests both morally and strategically to make amends for the harm they cause. Not one to set the standard for emerging international norms, the United States began compensating civilians harmed by its military during World War II and today makes “˜condolence’ payments to those harmed in Iraq and Afghanistan. America also funds livelihood assistance programs for families harmed by US forces. In Afghanistan, NATO member states have donated to a relief fund that assists communities after a battle. The Philippines is considering compensation to civilians, as is Georgia to South Ossetians. None of these efforts are an admission of legal liability or fault for the harm. Still, with every gesture of recognition, compensation, rebuilding or donation to NGOs helping recovery, these nations have crossed the next ethical threshold in the conduct of war and are changing the way wars are fought. They are recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of these victims and their suffering; civilian losses have not been overlooked.
Non-state actors understand the import of this too. Sahib Dad, an Afghan man I met in Kabul, lost two daughters to a US bomb right in his front yard. The Taliban brought cotton to wrap the dead, food, and money. What America lost in respect and support, the Taliban gained in this case. So while some warring parties are tearing the citizenry apart, in places like Congo and Somalia where countless war crimes are being committed daily, there are others that see the protection and well-being of the local citizenry as vital to their mission.
I met a shepherd in southern Lebanon who’d lost a hundred heads of cattle to cluster duds in the fields; they had literally been blown away. In the next town over, a little boy showed me his mangled back, a memento of picking up a dud that looked like a toy. It’s enough to make a person wonder why countries that use those weapons aren’t the ones making the biggest contributions to de-mining programs. Making amends isn’t hand washing. It’s the right thing to do. As more and more nations (or non-state actors for that matter) practice this behavior, an expectation that the behavior will be practiced is building.
We would all rest easier if civilians were not killed or maimed in the first place. But should survivors of wars be left to mourn with nothing, no matter how unintentional the harm done? Whether in their own self interest or out of compassion, warring parties should be (and seem to be) asking themselves if civilians are owed something more.