Fighting the fallout of urban conflict

The Centre for Civilians in Conflict Interim Executive Director Udo Jude Ilo provides insights on steps to address the suffering of civilians caught up in warfare.

Civilians have borne the brunt of urban warfare in Ukraine, Sudan and, most recently, Gaza. What humanitarian and human rights law mechanisms and tools could ease the suffering?

This is an important question given the increased number of armed urban conflicts. Today, an estimated 50 million people are affected by urban warfare and the prevalence of these wars is likely to continue to grow as populations increasingly congregate in urban areas.

As in any armed conflict, adherence to international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law is of utmost importance. Because of the inherent challenges of urban fighting, applying the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution to the conduct of hostilities is crucial, meaning life or death for civilians.

Unfortunately, in many recent conflicts, IHL principles have been flouted. This is clearly indicated in the number of civilian casualties in Gaza, Sudan and Ukraine and the complete destruction of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools.

In addition to adherence to humanitarian laws, militaries and conflicting parties should prevent and mitigate civilian harm. Processes include adequately training armed forces to protect urban dwellers, understanding the urban landscape, and mapping and assessing in advance the risk military operations might pose to civilians and infrastructure. In addition, ways should be sought to distance combat from populated areas. Such considerations should be taken in all aspects of training for, planning and conducting urban military operations.

Based on our experience, we know that collecting data and information about how civilians are harmed can help the military rapidly adjust tactics and rules of engagement to avoid further devastation.

Militaries and conflicting parties should undertake to prevent and mitigate civilian harm

Tracking mechanisms that systematically record and analyse can also help prevent, mitigate and respond to civilian harm. Armed actors need to understand how their hostilities affect people. This is especially relevant in urban spaces where combatants and civilians are often in close proximity and where reverberating effects from violence directly or indirectly threaten the population.

Armed actors should proactively obtain and use information on how civilians are harmed so that their assessments of proportionality and precautions are better informed. When such mechanisms are applied meaningfully, they can inform commanders timeously on where and how civilians are affected and reduce risks.

The Centre for Civilians in Conflict also advocates better understanding and integrating the perspectives of affected civilians in military operational planning and response to civilian harm. It has facilitated dialogues between civilian communities and militaries whenever and wherever possible. Civilians also have their own self-protection mechanisms, which are crucial to understand if they are to be strengthened and supported.

A protection of civilians (POC) mandate is outlined in the African Standby Force (ASF) doctrine. What is needed to deploy the ASF and in what conflicts?

The ASF could be a key mechanism for addressing the continent’s peace and security threats while ensuring civilian protection. The AU previously deployed stabilisation missions, but ad hoc and with security arrangements that did not necessarily reflect the principles envisaged in the original ASF make-up and authorisation processes. These deployments did not follow the ASF mandate and deployment timelines nor any AU-set joint and coherent agreements.

Deployments have included the East African Community Regional Force in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in November 2021. Earlier in 2021, Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community states sent two separate missions to northern Mozambique that were endorsed by the AU only after deployment. Similar ad-hoc arrangements were made in G5 Sahel.

It is imperative to use the ASF to achieve a common doctrine and strategy to guide new missions and operations conducted by regional economic communities and mechanisms. Standardised training on civilian protection is key. This includes strengthening intelligence capabilities, promoting collaboration with humanitarian agencies and establishing a clear legal framework for ASF engagement in conflicts. ASF operations should be tailored to specific conflicts, aligning interventions with local needs and international standards.

Poor protection often relates to inadequate resources from troop-contributing countries or donors

Peacekeeping and peace support operations (PSOs) have been rejected, notably in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo for failure to ensure civilian security and engender legitimacy and credibility from local communities. How should continental and regional organisations such as the AU and United Nations (UN) mitigate such challenges?

The responsibility to protect civilians rests primarily with the host state. The UN deploys peacekeeping missions to support host states and protect civilians within their capabilities. Many failures to protect civilians relate to inadequate resources from troop-contributing countries or financial contributors. To mitigate the rejection of peacekeeping operations by the populations they’re mandated to protect, the AU and UN must prioritise community engagement and local ownership.

Integrating local perspectives into mission planning, improving accountability mechanisms and adapting strategies to changing conflict dynamics are essential. Continuous evaluation, improvement and transparent communication can build trust and credibility in peacekeeping operations.

However, missions are not designed or resourced to address fully most problems facing host governments and populations. Truly tackling the causes of conflict, reaching or implementing peace agreements and building the capacity of host governments to protect civilians all depend on international and regional actors other than peacekeeping missions. So greater unity is needed among these actors to back missions diplomatically and financially.

The UN can learn from the AU or regional African missions that have instituted civilian harm tracking and analysis mechanisms. UN peacekeeping is still developing its understanding of and doctrine on civilian harm mitigation, while this is central in AU policy.

Effective civilian harm-tracking tools and mitigations are needed to strengthen mandate delivery while minimising risk. They also help manage reputational risk associated with causing unintentional harm or foregoing operations through inadequate understanding or mitigation of risks.

Developing doctrine on civilian harm mitigation is central to AU policy

In April 2023, the 15th ordinary meeting of the Specialised Technical Committee of Defence, Safety and Security adopted civilian protection in PSOs. What is the significance of this policy?

The policy provides a clear framework for AU PSOs to prioritise and implement civilian protection strategies. Its implementation can improve accountability, promote compliance with international norms and enhance the effectiveness of AU operations. The policy recognises that the Peace and Security Council (PSC) has committed that all PSOs will have a protection of civilians mandate.

This will require mandating future PSOs and putting in place all the capacities, structures and mechanisms needed for implementation. The AU needs to rely not only on its members but on international actors, particularly through the UN, which has two decades of civilian protection experience.

An AU innovation and improvement over the UN’s policy is that PSO mission-level strategies for civilian protection are developed with stakeholders including local communities. This is an opportunity to include civil society early on in strategic planning and to truly incorporate civil society partners in implementation.

The PSC recently called for a review of the African Peace and Security Architecture. How can the protection of civilians be better mainstreamed into the AU’s peace spectrum?

It requires a comprehensive approach including incorporating protection measures into peacebuilding initiatives, strengthening early warning systems and ensuring that peace agreements explicitly address civilian rights and safety. Regular assessments and adjustments to the African Peace and Security Architecture can enable a more proactive and responsive framework.

The AU’s policy defines four protection ‘pillars’ similar to the UN’s three peacekeeping protection ‘tiers’. It is understood that protection is not about just force but about dialogue and implementing programmes. However, peacekeeping and peace support operations face the challenge of truly integrating protection activities by all components under a civilian-led, politically focused, whole-of-mission strategy. Coordination, capacity building and sharing best practices between AU and UN can contribute to mainstreaming protection through various responses to peace and security challenges.

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