Gaëlle Smith, emergency rehabilitation specialist for Humanity & Inclusion, explains the severity of blast injuries in eastern Ukraine and the importance of early rehabilitation for recovery.Read more
Mohammad Rasool is base coordinator for Humanity & Inclusion in Afghanistan, managing our work in the Kandahar and Nimroz provinces. There, our teams are providing rehabilitation and psychosocial support. In this interview, Mohammad describes the situation on the ground.
Q: What is it like living in Afghanistan at the moment?
People are still struggling with poverty, displacement, drought, the risk from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and threat from ISIS. Additionally the country is facing a failing health system and the economy is also on the edge of collapse. So people are highly distressed as they don't know what will happen next in this highly unpredictable situation.
Daily, thousands of people are aiming to leave the country due to protection issues or to seek a better life out of the country. Everywhere in Afghanistan, there is food insecurity and there's a huge need for humanitarian assistance.
Q: What is the level of need for rehabilitation services in Afghanistan?
Even though the conflict is now over, I mean the big conflict between the previous government and the IEA, the battlefields and the districts are still highly contaminated with explosive remnants of war and IEDs. So, of course, the need for physical rehabilitation and risk education, and also for psychosocial support, remains high.
Q: Could you describe how Humanity & Inclusion's teams are supporting people in Afghanistan?
We have several approaches to reach people in need of services, especially rehabilitation, psychosocial support or skill development (which is for income-generating activities).
For instance, we provide support in the rehabilitation center where people are referred to us by other stakeholders including humanitarian partners. And we also have mobile teams. We go to the communities where we deliver the services directly to people. We also refer them for follow-up services to other partners and also to the rehabilitation center if they need further support.
Q: What is the level of injuries at the moment in Afghanistan?
In Kandahar, approximately one-fourth of the people we are seeing in our rehabilitation center are survivors of the conflict. Either they have acquired their injury in the recent conflict in the recent months, or they are the victims of the conflict in the previous years, but they didn't have the opportunity to access the center. We also see people who have injuries from road accidents as well as people who acquired a disability during birth.
Q: Are you able to share the story of a patient that particularly affected you?
I will share one of the story out of a thousand because in our center we are seeing 9,000 patients every year.
One of the people who was referred to us in the recent months was Anisa, an 8-year old girl from Zabul Province (pictured above). A mortar bomb hit her house while she was playing at home with her cousins. She was badly injured and she was taken to several hospitals to treat her.
Unfortunately, her left leg had to be amputated and then she was referred to the rehabilitation center in Kandahar, which is managed by Humanity & Inclusion. Our team at the rehabilitation center worked with her for several weeks to help her recover. She was happy that she could play again with her cousins or go to school.
Q: What are the major challenges you face at the moment?
Certainly, there have been some changes as the new government is not well established yet and the public service remain interrupted. So there are a lot of uncertainties and the new government is trying to introduce new guidelines procedures. Female staff who are working for the public sector, apart from the health sector, are still not able to attend work. We had some challenges related to access for our female staff to our community-based activities. We had a lot of interaction and intensive engagement with new authorities. Finally, we succeeded and access for our female staff was granted.
Q: What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I like visiting my team while they are delivering services to the people we support. I take the opportunity to directly hear from my team and their patients, listening to their feedback, suggestions and challenges that they face in the day to day activities.
Q: Do you have any message for our supporters here in the U.S.?
Of course, I have a message: The people of Afghanistan really need the support from the international community now more than ever. So please, please don't forget Afghanistan in this difficult time.
NGO Letter to US Secretary of Defense Demands Accountability and Reform After 20 Years of Civilian Harm
On December 1, 2021, Humanity & Inclusion and 20 other organizations sent a letter to United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urging him to account for and reckon with the civilian harm of the last twenty years and finally implement structural changes to prioritize civilian protection and accountability for civilian harm.
December 1, 2021
Lloyd J. Austin III
Secretary of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301
Re: Defense Department Civilian Harm Policies and Practices
Dear Secretary Austin,
We write to express our grave concerns about the Department of Defense’s civilian harm policies and practices and their impact, as evidenced most recently by the August 29 drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children; the Air Force Inspector General’s investigation into that strike; and a New York Times report in November that the U.S. military hid the effects of a 2019 airstrike in Baghuz, Syria that killed dozens of civilians and was flagged as a possible war crime by at least one Defense Department lawyer.1 These strikes, and the Defense Department’s record of civilian harm over the past twenty years, illustrate an unacceptable failure to prioritize civilian protection in the use of lethal force; meaningfully investigate, acknowledge, and provide amends when harm occurs; and provide accountability in the event of wrongdoing. For too long, the United States has failed to live up to its legal and moral commitments to the protection of civilians, as well as its own stated policies. This needs to change.
Twenty Years of Civilian Harm
The strikes in Kabul and Baghuz, and the devastating civilian harm that resulted from them, were emblematic of twenty years of U.S. operations that have killed tens of thousands of civilians in multiple countries.23 Contrary to the Defense Department’s assertions that strikes like those in Kabul and Baghuz are unfortunate anomalies, the experiences of our organizations, many of which work directly with conflict-affected civilians and survivors of U.S. lethal strikes, show that this is simply untrue. Instead, these strikes illustrate the Defense Department’s own repeated failure to prioritize civilian protection when it plans to use force; investigate and acknowledge civilian harm when it does occur; learn from and apply lessons from past grave errors; and deliver accountability for civilian harm that has devastated families and communities.
Over twenty years, the Department of Defense has failed to adopt solutions well within its grasp; learn and implement identified lessons; exercise meaningful leadership on civilian protection issues; or assign adequate resources to address civilian harm.4 Indeed, the recommendations outlined in the Air Force Inspector General’s public summary of his investigation into the Kabul strike — to address confirmation bias, improve situational awareness, and review pre-strike procedures to assess the presence of civilians — have been issued countless times by civil society groups and in the U.S. military’s own studies, yet never implemented. A 2013 Joint Staff study, for example, identified misidentification of a target as the “primary cause of [civilian casualties] in Afghanistan,” particularly due to “perceived hostile intent” from individuals who were later revealed to be civilians.5 Understood in this context, the airstrikes in Kabul and Baghuz are not unique tragedies, but the latest in a long pattern of apparent negligence and consistent disregard for civilians’ lives, predominantly those in countries where the populations are majority Muslim, Brown, and/or Black.
Failures of Response and Accountability
The Kabul and Baghuz strikes also illustrate long-standing problems with the U.S. military’s interpretations of its international humanitarian law obligations and its response to civilian harm, including failures to investigate, publicly acknowledge, and offer amends for harm, and ensure accountability in the event of wrongdoing.
For example, The New York Times reported a series of secretive Special Operations strikes that apparently circumvented legal and policy civilian protection safeguards and raised alarm among Defense Department and CIA personnel, as well as U.S. military officials’ attempts to conceal a possible war crime at Baghuz.6 If true, this report raises grave concerns about the U.S. military’s commitment to accountability and adherence to international humanitarian law, including the duty to investigate potential war crimes and hold responsible individuals to account.7
Further, the U.S. military has consistently failed to ensure that in case of doubt about the status of a target, a person is presumed to be a civilian, as set out in Additional Protocol I and customary international humanitarian law. This appears to be the case with the Baghuz strikes8 as well as other civilian deaths over the last twenty years, including: justifying targeting of individuals based on demographics through so-called “signature strikes”; refusing to admit credible civilian casualties due to the vague possibility that women or children could be combatants;9 and most recently, the killing of civilian aid worker Zemari Ahmadi, along with his family members, based apparently on supposition and confirmation bias.10
The Defense Department’s response to the Kabul and Baghuz strikes also underscores the Department’s repeated failure to adequately investigate alleged civilian harm — including possible war crimes, as required under international law — and provide compensation or amends. For example, in an email obtained by The New York Times, an official from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations suggested that the Office’s agents would likely not investigate the possible war crime committed during the Baghuz strike because the office typically investigated civilian casualty reports only when there was “potential for high media attention, concern with outcry from local community/government, concern sensitive images may get out.” Our groups’ experience has shown that this unwillingness to thoroughly investigate and acknowledge civilian harm is often the reality across the Department of Defense. The Pentagon’s acknowledgment of civilian deaths and apology for the August 29 strike in Kabul was welcome, but unfortunately an anomaly, and came only after high-profile media reporting and investigation of the drone strike. For twenty years before that strike, independent rights groups, family members, and others have documented and submitted numerous credible reports of civilian harm from U.S. operations around the world; the vast majority have been under-investigated, unacknowledged, and without compensation or amends.1112
We urge you to robustly account for and reckon with the civilian harm of the last twenty years, and commit to finally implementing structural changes to prioritize civilian protection and accountability for civilian harm. These efforts need to incorporate civil society, and, wherever possible, communities impacted by U.S. military operations and lethal strikes.13 We specifically urge you to:
- Ensure the full and transparent investigation of civilian casualties in the Baghuz strike and August 29 Kabul strike, including an assessment of possible violations of international humanitarian law; publicly release all investigations into and relevant reports on these strikes (with minimal redactions only for legitimately classified information); provide amends for confirmed civilian casualties in accordance with survivors’ preferences and needs, including evacuation and compensation as requested by civilian survivors of the Kabul strike;14 and ensure appropriate accountability for any wrongdoing that resulted in these strikes;
- Commit to transparency around U.S. use of force and civilian harm by, as a start, publicly releasing relevant Department of Defense Inspector General reports15 and RAND Corporation studies16; publishing daily strike data17; and publishing all civilian harm assessments and investigations, including relevant AR 15-6s.
- Revise the Department of Defense Law of War Manual to reflect the presumption of civilian status, as reflected in Additional Protocol I and customary international law;
- Review the forthcoming Department of Defense Instruction on Civilian Harm, in consultation with civil society groups, to ensure that the new policy adequately addresses longstanding failures in civilian harm prevention, investigation, and amends; and
- Publicly commit to a plan, with detailed steps, to direct the Defense Department to respond to the systemic concerns raised by civil society groups in this letter and over the last two decades.
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International USA
Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)
Center for Victims of Torture
Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)
Government Information Watch
Humanity & Inclusion
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
Life for Relief and Development
Norwegian Refugee Council USA
Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Saferworld (Washington Office)
September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows
Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC)
Win Without War
1 Dave Philipps and Eric Schmitt, “How the U.S. Hid an Airstrike That Killed Dozens of Civilians in Syria,” The New York Times, November 13, 2021. [link]
2 Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke, “Tens of thousands of civilians likely killed by US in ‘Forever Wars’,” Airwars, September 6, 2021. [link]
3 This letter is limited to civilian harm resulting from U.S. use of force in the 20 years following the September 11th attacks.
4 See Larry Lewis, “Hidden Negligence: Aug. 29 Drone Strike is Just the Tip of the Iceberg,” Just Security, November 9, 2021. [link]
5 Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA), “Reducing and Mitigating Civilian Casualties: Enduring Lessons,” April 12, 2013. [link]
6 According to the Times, U.S. military officials falsified strike log entries to conceal the facts of the Baghuz strike, destroyed evidence by bulldozing the blast site, and stalled efforts to investigate the possible war crime.
7 While the Defense Department’s recent announcement of a high-level investigation into these strikes is a step towards potential accountability, the investigation will have to meet standards of thoroughness and transparency we have yet to see from prior efforts.
8 The New York Times article reports that the Special Operations Task Force made the opposite presumption, based on what appears to be mere speculation. U.S. Central Command later justified the strike by stating that the many women and children killed could potentially have been combatants because “women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms.” This does not comport with international law.
9 See, for example, Mwatana for Human Rights, “Death Falling from the Sky,” March 2021, and response letter from Staff Judge Advocate Thomas F. Leary in April 2021. [link]
10 Matthieu Aikins, et al., “Times Investigation: In U.S. Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb,” The New York Times, September 10, 2021. [link]
11 For example, the Baghuz strike was part of the U.S.-led campaign in Deir Ezzor, Syria; in the final six months of that campaign, analysis shows that local civil society alleged as many as 1,780 civilian deaths from U.S.-led actions. Yet, U.S. Central Command admitted just 23 civilian fatalities. This points to profound systemic failure.
12 For example, despite repeated authorizations from Congress and the large number of officially confirmed civilian casualty cases in which survivors’ identities are known and they are reachable, ex gratia payments have been rare; in 2020, the Department made zero ex gratia payments despite $3 million in authorized funding.
13 Many of our organizations have also called for the Biden administration to end the program of lethal strikes outside areas of recognized armed conflict in recognition of the appalling toll of such lethal strikes on civilian communities around the world. [link]
14 American Civil Liberties Union, “Food Aid Organization Asks Pentagon to Help Family Members, Staff, and Survivors of Kabul Drone Strike,” October 15, 2021. [link]
15 Department of Defense Inspector General reports on Evaluation of Targeting Operations and Civilian Casualties in OIR (DODIG-2019-074) and Kinetic Targeting in the USCENTCOM Area of Responsibility (DODIG-2021-084)
16 RAND Corporation study on civilian harm practices broadly, required by Section 1721 of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act; and on civilian casualties in Raqqa, Syria.
17 Including, as a start, publishing daily strike data, locations, targets, and outcomes for all U.S. and coalition actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria since 2017, a commitment that was rescinded by the Trump administration.
Humanity & Inclusion’s Armed Violence Reduction department supervises weapons clearance, risk education and conflict transformation programs, which play a vital role in the reconstruction of countries after war.
Perrine Benoist, Director of Armed Violence Reduction at Humanity & Inclusion, tells us more about the department and its work.
Q: Tell us about Armed Violence Reduction at Humanity & Inclusion.
There are about 10 of us on the team. We supervise all HI programs related to mine action, in which the organization has been involved for many years, starting with mine clearance (including field surveys with local communities to identify contaminated areas and the neutralization of explosives), and risk education on explosive weapons to boost the safety and development of communities.
Casualties are frequently excluded because their injuries often result in disabilities, so we also promote their inclusion in society and employment.
We do advocacy work to inform, alert and mobilize States and funding bodies in order to address the causes of conflict, the problems raised by the weapons used in them, and their immediate and long-term consequences for the communities involved. In recent years, for example, we’ve provided testimony on the exponential increase in improvised explosive devices, the unprecedented scale of contamination in Iraq and Syria, and the need to update weapons clearance practices to include drones, etc.
Q: What do we need to know about “conflict transformation”?
The proliferation of weapons and explosive ordnance means we need to take a new approach and tackle the root causes of war, now and in the future. Our “conflict transformation” projects aim to change the behavior of communities and the relationships between them in conflict situations with the potential for violence, and to understand the social structures that foster and condition violent political and social conflicts.
Conflict transformation is based on addressing trauma and grievances between communities to prevent the escalation of a conflict, including by treating the collective trauma caused by violence and promoting mediation and reconciliation.
Q: Why are we taking action?
80% of humanitarian crises are now conflict related. Conflicts are increasingly complex, with multiple causes—such as drought and ethnic rivalry—and multiple actors, including national military, rebel groups and international coalitions. The line between periods of peace and violence is increasingly blurred.
The destruction caused by conflicts and contamination by explosive remnants of war often prevents the healing of the social divide and the resumption of local economic activity, because contaminated fields cannot be farmed, markets cannot be held, and people are less and less able to move from village to village because the journey is increasingly dangerous. Action on mines and explosive remnants of war is essential to help rebuild communities.
Q: How do we work alongside impacted communities?
We work with local communities to ensure our actions promote community cohesion and the economic recovery of conflict-affected regions. We talk with them to decide which areas to clear as a priority. A village might ask us to clear a certain area because then they can farm the fields and start to sell their goods again, for example.
Q: Where does armed violence reduction team work?
At this time, Humanity & inclusion is clearing weapons in Colombia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Chad, and soon Senegal. It implements risk education campaigns in some 20 countries. Humanity & inclusion also organizes victim assistance programs—centered on functional rehabilitation—in more than 40 countries.
Header image: Deminers complete a weapons clearance training in Colombia. Copyright: HI; Inline image: Portrait of Perrine Benoist, Director of Armed Violence Reduction at Humanity & Inclusion
More than 170 members of four national parliaments call on governments to make a firm and concrete commitment to the fight against the use of bombing in populated areas. The call follows a May 27 online conference organized by Humanity & Inclusion and attended by 80 participants to mobilize States against the bombing of civilians.
39 members of parliaments from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom along with a total of 80 participants attended the interparliamentary conference to mobilize the support of their States for an ambitious international agreement to address the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
At the end of the conference, 172 parliamentarians signed a joint statement to call their government to “support the development of an international political declaration to strengthen the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and to strengthen assistance to victims of such practices.” The statement is further opened for signatures.
“More than 170 parliamentarians signed the joint statement calling their governments to commit to the current diplomatic process to negotiate a strong political declaration against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. We are pleased by the strong commitment of so many lawmakers. European governments should not shy away from their responsibilities: In armed conflicts, nine victims in 10 of explosive violence in urban areas are civilians. It is unacceptable. States have a historic opportunity to make a change.” - Alma Taslidžan Al-Osta, Disarmament Advocacy Manager
An international agreement
The draft of an international agreement against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is at its final negotiation stage between states, UN agencies, international organizations and civil society. A final round of negotiations will be held in the Fall. Then, the international agreement is expected to be finalized by the end of 2021.
This diplomatic process started in October 2019. So far, more than 70 States have been involved.
The Secretary General of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, called States to avoid any use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. This would create a presumption against the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas.
This solution is opposed by some States like France and the United Kingdom. Humanity & Inclusion is calling on reluctant governments to change their position on the wording of the declaration and to make a contribution that will have a concrete impact in the field and ensure the effective protection of civilians.
Stop bombing civilians
Bombing continues to destroy the lives of thousands of civilians in Syria, Yemen and more recently in Palestine and Israel. Between 2011 and 2020, 91% of victims of explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians. The use of explosive weapons in urban areas has systematic humanitarian consequences for civilian populations.
Explosive weapons kill and injure civilians, cause severe psychological trauma, destroy vital infrastructure such as schools, health centers and roads, and force people to flee their homes. Bombing also leaves behind explosive remnants of war that threaten the lives of civilians long after fighting is over. It is more vital than ever to adopt a strong political declaration to protect civilians.
On her path to recovery after stepping on an explosive device, Alima, 16, participates in rehabilitation sessions with Humanity & Inclusion specialists.
After finishing up a trip to the market in Bambari one Sunday in May, Alima was ready to embark on the six-mile walk home. With each step, she was careful to avoid the dangers she had heard about: active explosive devices hiding silently in the rocks and dirt beneath her feet, left behind from intense conflict in the Central African Republic.
Knowing the risks, Alima’s brother had taught her a safe route to the market through the grass. Following his instructions, she arrived safely to the market. But on her way home, Alima forgot the way and veered off the path. She stepped on an explosive weapon.
The blast severely damaged both of Alima’s legs, making it difficult to get out of her bed or perform routine activities. Today, Alima is in the Bambari hospital, where she is visited daily by Humanity & Inclusion’s physical therapists.
“Since I spend most of my time lying down or sitting after the accident, the HI physical therapists come every day to do exercises on my legs and feet,” Alima explains. “They keep my muscles working, so that when my wounds heal I can recover more quickly and be independent again.”
With the help of these regular rehabilitation visits and proper medical treatment, Alima will soon leave the hospital and return to living her life at home. Humanity & inclusion teams will continue to work with Alima through the healing process and beyond.
Image: Alima sits on her bed at the Bambari hospital. Copyright: A. Servant/HI, 2021
Gaza continues to grapple with the impact of an 11-day conflict with Israel in May.
256 people in Gaza and 13 people in Israel were killed during the bombing from May 10-21. Almost 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza were injured. In the West Bank and Gaza, an estimated 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Amal, who works for Humanity & Inclusion in Gaza, shares her hopes and experiences for the humanitarian challenges to come:
Q: What is it like in Gaza today?
Life seems to have resumed its course: stores have reopened; people are returning to work. On the day that the ceasefire was announced, a lot of people went to the beach in Gaza to celebrate the end of the violence. It was a very impressive sight. Once the ceasefire was declared, I found myself crying and crying, and I couldn’t stop. That was the first time I had cried about the war, and actually as I am writing this, I want to cry again. In the following days, we were able to go out and see what had happened. We saw all of the destruction and the losses and started to check on people. It brought us back to the reality of the situation and the incredible horror that we will have to live through in the coming period. It may take years just to rebuild what has been destroyed and make up for what we have lost, knowing that the loss of lives cannot be compensated.
The Humanity & Inclusion teams have resumed work and activated the emergency response to help people. It has taken a lot of energy and enormous efforts because our mental and physical state is not well. Knowing that many people in our community are struggling and in need of support gave us the courage to collect ourselves and return to our duties providing support to the most vulnerable people.
Some people stayed under rubble for days after the end of the war. The idea of this was unbearable as we walked through these areas on our way to work and saw the rescuing teams making all efforts to bring them back to life.
Q: How are people doing?
Many people are still scarred. In the days following the announcement of the ceasefire, people were both psychologically and physically exhausted. It was 11 days of uninterrupted bombing; there was no break. More than 100,000 people had to flee, sometimes several times before finding a safe place. Just going out to buy food could put your life in danger. There is still a lot of anxiety among the population: how long will the peace last? What will become of us? Children are still the most affected, with insomnia and nightmares.
Recently, raids hit Gaza again, breaking the ceasefire. I was afraid that the war could restart in the morning. When I received the security communication that the office was open as there were no complication, I was relieved. I cannot bare to live through that experience again.
Q: What is the humanitarian situation like after the crisis?
The material damage is impressive. The bombing produced 40 impact craters on the roads. Nearly 500 buildings were damaged or destroyed. There were also over 1,000 impact craters in fields or vacant lots. We still experience power outages and the sewage system is damaged, which has a serious impact on access to clean water. Humanitarian needs are diverse. Among others, there is a great need for reconstruction, especially for housing.
Many areas are contaminated by explosive remnants because a percentage of bombs did not explode on impact and continue to pose a threat to people. Remnants of exploded bombs can also be dangerous hidden beneath the rubble. For this reason, it is important to conduct awareness campaigns among the population to inform them of these dangers.
Due to the current blockade, Gaza lacks everything, including medical goods and equipment. There are still nearly 9,000 people displaced and sheltered mainly in schools. They need everything: even food and fuel. Many businesses had to stop because goods are not able to enter Gaza, and many merchants are struggling to pay extra for the goods stored in ports. All of these additional financial obligations add to the burden of the poverty-stricken population.
Q: How has HI staff helped?
We have assisted in evacuating people with disabilities during the escalation, and we conducted risk education sessions soon after. We have been distributing vouchers for food assistance to 300 families and medical first aid kits to 500 families.
HI’s future emergency response
Humanity & inclusion is currently in discussion with donors regarding funding for possible future actions to assist people in Gaza including:
- Conduct risk education sessions for children so they can learn to recognize and avoid dangerous unexploded ordnances or explosive remnants.
- Organize recreational activities to improve the psychological well-being of approximately 2,000 children.
- Continue distributing non-food items—hygiene kits, menstrual products, kitchen essentials, diapers and assistive devices—for displaced families and families hosting displaced people.
- Contribute to repair and improvement of 100 partially damaged homes, giving priority to single mothers, elderly people and people with disabilities. Some homes will need to be adapted for people with disabilities or people who may develop permanent disabilities due to injuries sustained in recent violence.
- Coordinate with other humanitarian aid organizations and relevant actors to avoid duplication and ensure inclusive response.
Header Image: Two Humanity & Inclusion staff members on the mobile emergency team walk past a group of children after conflict in Gaza in 2018. Copyright: Hardy Skills/HI
Inline image: Portrait of Amal
Stop Bombing Civilians | U.S. and Russia among main perpetrators of civilian harm caused by airstrikes
As U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepare to meet on June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland, Humanity & Inclusion recognizes the two countries are among the main perpetrators of civilian harm caused by airstrikes.
According to Action on Armed Violence, the United States-led coalition, the Saudi-led coalition, Syria and Russia are key perpetrators of civilian harm from airstrikes since 2011.
“US-led and NATO airstrikes have been the deadliest this decade," explains Anne Héry, Humanity & Inclusion's Advocacy Director. "Combined, their airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen had 7,391 civilian casualties—with an extremely high fatality rate of 71%.
"In Syria, many airstrikes were conducted by Russian forces or with the support of Russian forces: Russia is responsible for at least 3,968 civilian casualties in Syria, according to AOAV.”
Bombing in populated areas: A major humanitarian issue
The use of explosive weapons in urban areas, including airstrikes, has systematic humanitarian consequences for civilian populations. Between 2011 and 2020, 91% of victims of explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians.
Explosive weapons kill and injure civilians, cause severe psychological trauma, destroy vital infrastructure such as schools, health centers and roads, and force people to flee their homes. Bombing also leaves behind explosive remnants of war that threaten the lives of civilians long after fighting is over. It is more vital than ever to adopt a strong political declaration to protect civilians.
Final stage of a diplomatic process
The draft of an international agreement against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is at its final negotiation stage between states, UN agencies, international organizations—including Humanity & Inclusion—and civil society. A final round of negotiations will be held in the Fall. Then, the international agreement is expected to be finalized by the end of 2021.
So far, more than 70 States have participated in this diplomatic process that began in October 2019.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, called States to avoid any use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, creating a presumption against the use of heavy explosive weapons.
“Both Russia and the United States must be more supportive and together with other states develop a strong political declaration. This political declaration must change policies and practices of all militaries to better protect civilians from explosive weapons in populated areas.” —Anne Héry, HI Advocacy Director
Humanity & Inclusion launched its weapons clearance operations in Laos in June 1996. 25 years later, teams continue to help decontaminate the country.
In Laos, Humanity & Inclusion implements multiple mine clearance, risk education, victim assistance and advocacy programs related to the explosive weapons—many dropped by the U.S. military—left over from the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Julien Kempeneers, Humanity & Inclusion’s Mine Action manager in Laos, reflects on the challenges of mine action:
We launched our first mine clearance operations in Laos in June 1996. It’s a special type of mine clearance, because rather than clearing anti-personnel mines we "collect" the remains of exploded ordnance, bomb fragments, explosive remnants, grenades, munitions, etc. Weapons clearance experts also find large bombs—many weighing several hundred pounds—that did not explode on impact, and transport them to a special site for destruction.
Laos is best known for its contamination with cluster bombs—small bombs the size of tennis balls—which we detonate on site. After we find them with a metal detector, we set up a security perimeter and detonate them at the end of every day.
In Houaphan, where we’ve been working since 2018, we’re also finding anti-personnel mines. So we’d like to begin clearing mines there using conventional methods in the near future.
Laos is the country with the highest level of cluster munition contamination in the world. Some 450 square miles of hazardous areas have already been identified.
Weapons clearance organizations have found around 200 different types of munitions. To help record this diverse range of explosives, Humanity & Inclusion published a submunitions catalogue which is now used by all weapons clearance organizations in Laos.
Rural and remote areas
The worst-contaminated areas are the rural and remote regions of eastern Laos, on the border with Vietnam. People still regularly fall victim to these weapons, including villagers, farmers working their fields, and far too many children. For many years, we’ve been running information campaigns to teach local people how to spot hazards and what action to take. We help them recognize suspicious objects and advise them to keep their distance, refrain from touching the objects, mark the area with whatever is handy—like an “X” of branches—and alert the authorities or Humanity & Inclusion, who will come and destroy the bomb.
Why clear weapons?
Contaminated areas become a “no man's land.” People are afraid of triggering an explosion, so they don’t dare go there. Fields lie empty and swaths of countryside go to waste. It’s impossible to build schools or lay roads to open up villages.
By clearing weapons, we’re restoring land to communities who haven’t been able to use it for decades.
When will mine clearance end in Laos?
It’s impossible to say when we’re going to finish clearing the country of explosive remnants. We still don't know the extent of the contamination, and it's likely it will take at least another 30, 40 or 50 years. This gives you an idea of the dreadful problems caused by land contaminated with mines, bombs and cluster munitions. The country was contaminated in the late 1960s, and we’ll probably still be clearing these weapons a century later, in the mid-21st century.
Image: A team of deminers in Laos remove a 500-pound bomb, which was later safely destroyed, in 2018. Copyright: N.Lozano Juez/HI
The United Nations has released its new annual report on the protection of civilians in war zones and calls on States to reach an international agreement against human suffering caused by bombing in populated areas.
Every year, Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres publishes a report on the protection of civilians in conflict zones. Bombing and shelling in urban areas is identified as a major problem.
More than 50 million people were affected by conflict in urban areas in 2020, according to the latest report. In countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has had devastating consequences for civilians.
Need for international agreement
In the report, Guterres calls on states to develop an international agreement against human suffering caused by bombing in populated areas. As part of a two-year international diplomatic process, states, international organizations and civil societies, including Humanity & Inclusion, have been working to draft proposed text. That proposed agreement is expected to be submitted to states for approval by the end of the year.
Humanity & Inclusion supports Guterres’ call, noting that the report stresses once again that there should be a presumption against the use of explosive weapons with wide area effect in populated areas. Humanity & Inclusion also welcomes more transparency in recording conflict casualties to help “facilitate accountability, recovery and reconciliation.”
“No explosive weapons with wide area effect in populated areas should be the international norm.” - Anne Héry, Humanity & Inclusion’s Advocacy Director
Dramatic humanitarian consequences
88% of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians. Injured people risk life-long disabilities and grave psychological trauma. Infrastructure required for essential services such as health, water, electricity and sanitation is often damaged or destroyed.
For example, after 10 years of war in Syria at least one-third of all homes are damaged or destroyed. Major cities like Raqqa, Aleppo and Homs have been largely demolished by extensive and intense use of explosive weapons. In 2017, 80% of the city of Raqqa was destroyed.
More recently in Gaza, 230 buildings were destroyed over 11 days of conflict. Six hospitals, 11 primary healthcare centers and 48 schools were damaged. Electricity, water, sanitation and hygiene facilities were severely affected. This infrastructure damage will have a deep and long-term impact on civilians.