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.
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.
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
A prolonged fuel shortage is complicating the delivery of humanitarian aid, worsening the crisis in Yemen. Caroline Dauber, Humanity & Inclusion’s country director for Yemen, explains how civilians are impacted.
In May 2020, Humanity & Inclusion and other NGOs alerted the United Nations and States on the profound consequences of the fuel crisis in Yemen, exacerbating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Caused by war, the current fuel shortage has recently taken on unprecedented proportions: Fuel imports from Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port and lifeline, decreased by 91% between January and April this year. For the first time, the number of imports dropped to zero in February.
As a result, the prices of goods and services have skyrocketed. Fruits and vegetables are becoming luxury commodities, and food prices continue to increase on a monthly basis. In some areas, the price of water has doubled.
Delivering humanitarian aid
The ability of Humanity & Inclusion and other humanitarian organizations to deliver assistance to those with the greatest need has also been affected. Transportation costs are soaring, preventing people from reaching life-saving assistance and medical treatment.
Health providers report problems operating medical equipment that requires generators. The fuel shortage has forced some health agencies to reduce their activities and triage patients to treat those with only the most serious conditions.
Some agencies are struggling with water disposal services and provision in camps for displaced people. As waste management trucks cease operations, trash in displacement camps accumulates rapidly, increasing the risk of disease.
The water office in Hajjah, which used to provide water to displaced communities twice a month, can only do so once a month. People unable to purchase clean and safe water from water trucks are resorting to drinking dirty or saline water. Other vital services such as food distribution are also affected, as delivery teams report delays.
Some aid agencies may scale down activities and reduce the number of people assisted to meet increasing costs for contracted goods and services. A growing number of people in desperate need will be left unassisted.
Millions in need
- 20 million people—or 66% of the population—in Yemen are in need of humanitarian assistance
- 16 million people are food insecure
- 15 million people struggle to access clean water
- 4 million people have been forced from their homes
HI in Yemen
Humanity & Inclusion has 80 staff members in nine health facilities working to serve the Yemeni population. Since Humanity & Inclusion began working in Yemen in 2015 teams have:
- Offered rehabilitation sessions and instruction to 30,633 people
- Provided psychosocial support and counseling sessions to 22,999 people
- Equipped people with 35,371 mobility aids, including crutches and wheelchairs
- Fitted 522 people with artificial limbs and braces
- Distributed 2,250 hygiene kits
- Trained 807 medical staff in rehabilitation
- Offered financial support to nearly 700 households
Image: Destruction in Aden, Yemen. Copyright: ISNA Agency/HI
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
Ceasefire between Gaza and Israel enables local teams in Gaza to launch rehabilitation services for more than 500 people.
Twelve days after the most recent escalation of violence in Gaza, the parties involved have announced a ceasefire.
This long-awaited break comes after nearly eight days of constant bombings resulted in 242 lives lost between Gaza and Israel, including 67 children and 43 women. More than 1,700 people are injured.
“We’ve been waiting for a ceasefire,” says Laurent Palustran, Humanity & Inclusion’s country manager for the region. “We can now start responding to humanitarian needs with more ease and be able to intensify the distribution of a lot more aid than what we’ve done so far.”
According to a recent report by the UNWRA, approximately 91,000 people have been internally displaced, over 66,000 of whom have sought refuge in 58 UNWRA schools opened as emergency shelters. Humanity & Inclusion teams have conducted needs assessments of those displaced people to determine next steps.
“We’re starting to get clearer data thanks to these evaluations,” Palustran explains. “We have identified over 500 people in these shelters that have disabilities and are in need.”
Reham Shaheen, Humanity & Inclusion’s Rehabilitation Task Force Coordinator in Gaza, explains the needs of the vulnerable populations the organization serves in areas of conflict.
“Psychosocial support is one of the greatest needs,” Shaheen says. “Many will lose a limb or an organ and will have psychological needs afterwards. People really need mental health and counseling to cope with the current situation. Then there is great need for multidisciplinary rehabilitation services, like physical therapy and wound dressing sessions to prevent disabilities after injury.
“Usually the needs of injured people change after a few weeks. There is either deterioration or improvement in their condition, so there is dire need for assistive devices and rehabilitation support as well.”
Humanity & Inclusion is prepared to distribute mobility aids such as crutches, walkers and wheelchairs, along with Infection Prevention and Control kits to keep wounds clean and prevent infection that could lead to long-term ailments.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not let up in Gaza, with Johns Hopkins reporting a total of 304,532 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, and 3,448 deaths between Gaza and the West Bank.
“This escalation occurred while we’re being hit with a second wave of Covid-19,” Shaheen explains. “We have two emergencies, so there is a need for hygiene kits. People need to have clean environments to be able to avoid illness, and in terms of injuries, to keep their wounds clean to avoid any infections.”
Image: A Humanity & Inclusion physical therapist assists an injured civilian in a rehabilitation session in Gaza in 2018. Copyright: Hardy Skills/HI
The resurgence of violence between Israelis and Palestinians since May 11, has already left dozens dead and many others injured, including at least nine children. Humanity & Inclusion’s teams, working in Gaza since 1996, are ready to deliver aid to the most vulnerable people, including those who are injured.
Within 24 hours of the latest outbreak of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, some 50 people were killed and many others injured, including nine children, between the two countries.
“Civilians are the main victims of these latest clashes,” explains Laurent Palustran, who manages Humanity & Inclusion’s actions in Gaza.
“We are particularly concerned about the most vulnerable people, including aging adults, people with disabilities, and isolated women. They find it difficult to move around and seek assistance, so they’re the first to be affected in crises and conflicts.
“Gaza is 1.86 miles wide and 26 miles long, and counts more than 2 million inhabitants. The population density is extremely high. This is why there are multiple civilian casualties as soon as a conflict and fighting break out. Airstrikes often also damage and destroy homes and infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, as well as roads, electricity grids, gas lines, and communication networks.”
Humanity & Inclusion is preparing to supply aid to the most vulnerable people through its teams and local partner organizations. Staff will also mobilize their pre-positioned humanitarian stocks, including hygiene kits and walking aids such as crutches and wheelchairs.
Gaza has been under blockade for a long time, and supplies are already extremely limited. The latest clashes could lead to a rapid deterioration of the situation. If the power plant is no longer supplied with fuel, there could be power shortages, and water could be in short supply. Food shortages are also a possibility.
If fighting continues, hospitals in Gaza risk an influx of injured people who will need urgent rehabilitation care after receiving emergency medical treatment. Humanity & Inclusion also fears that the situation facing the most vulnerable people will worsen unless they receive the humanitarian aid they need. It will also be necessary to provide support to people who have lost their homes as a result of bombing or who are unable to ensure their basic survival.
Image: A member of Humanity & Inclusion's mobile emergency team assists an injured man in Gaza in 2018. Copyright: Hardy Skills/HI
Abdullah was playing outside with his friends, when an airstrike blasted his village in Yemen. After doctors amputated his leg, Humanity & Inclusion helped Abdullah stand tall again.
The attack in December 2019, deeply affected Abdullah, 12. Not only was he gravely injured, but his cousin, who was like a brother to him, was killed. In an effort to save his life, Abdullah was rushed to Al Kuwait Hospital in Sana’a, where his leg was amputated.
The hospital is more than five hours from Al-Hudaida, where Abdullah lives with 11 siblings and his parents in a small house. Until recently, the village was the scene of frequent fighting and airstrikes. Living in poverty and isolation, Abdullah’s family does not have access to health services, electricity, food or water. The nearest school is miles away. For Abdullah and his family, getting the boy fitted for a prosthetic leg seemed out of reach at first.
Confined to the hospital for almost a month, Abdullah struggled with the grief of losing his cousin. He worried he would never play, walk or run again.
Traumatized, Abdullah was afraid of the doctors who came to see him. He screamed whenever physical therapists tried to do rehabilitation exercises with him. He was completely lost. Everything frightened him.
Humanity & Inclusion’s team took the time to reassure him and build his confidence. The team gave him psychological support and rehabilitation care. He went from using a wheelchair to crutches.
Then, the team fitted him with a below-the-knee prosthetic leg, and conducted rehabilitation sessions to help strengthen his muscles and teach him to walk again. The team also taught Abdullah and one of his brothers how to maintain and clean the artificial limb.
Abdullah is now walking with the help of his new leg. He will receive new prosthetics as he grows.
Humanity & Inclusion in Yemen
Yemen has been devastated by an ongoing conflict that began in March 2015. Humanity & Inclusion teams work in nine health centers and treats patients from all over the country. Since Humanity & Inclusion began its operations in Yemen six years ago, teams have treated 30,000 people, many of them victims of the conflict. More than 3,000 people were victims of explosive weapons such as bombings, explosive remnants of war, landmines, and improvised explosive devices.
Humanity & Inclusion has provided more than 35,000 crutches, walkers, wheelchairs and other mobility aids to people in Yemen. More than 500 people have been fitted with prosthetics and orthotics through Humanity & Inclusion's collaboration with the Sana'a Physical Therapy and Prosthesis Center.
In additional to physical rehabilitation, nearly 23,000 people have received psychological support from Humanity & Inclusion. More than 800 Yemeni health workers have been trained in early trauma response. Support Yemenis with disabilities affected by the ongoing conflict.
Header image: A boy named Abdullah holds his amputated leg while waiting to be fitted with a prosthetic in Yemen. Copyright: ISNA Agency/HI
Inline image: Abdullah, 12, practices walking over obstacles with his new prosthetic leg in Yemen. Copyright: ISNA Agency/HI
After a decade of war, Syria has been completely contaminated by explosive remnants on a scale experts have never seen before. When the conflict ends, the complex work of clearing weapons and rebuilding the country will begin. Emmanuel Sauvage, Director of Armed Violence Reduction at Humanity & Inclusion, tells us more.
What makes contamination in Syria different?
There are two reasons why Syria is a special case when it comes to weapons clearance. The first is the very wide range of weapons used. After a decade of conflict, Syrian soil is contaminated by a complete spectrum of explosive weapons including unexploded bombs, explosive remnants and booby traps, and improvised mines. The second is the fact that urban areas and their outskirts are the worst affected. You find the widest range of explosive weapons in cities. We know from experience that it is particularly difficult to clear urban areas. In Raqqa, for example, where 80% of the city has been destroyed, the ground is littered with rubble mixed with explosive remnants and booby traps left behind by the belligerent parties. In Laos, they are still clearing weapons 45 years after the Vietnam War, so I think it will take at least two generations to clear Syria.
What are the obstacles to weapons clearance in Syria today?
The variety of explosive weapons used in the Syrian conflict makes clearance complex. Each type of explosive weapon works in a different way. You don’t neutralize an improvised mine in the same way as an unexploded bomb. We need to deploy different experts for different types of explosive weapons in the ground. But since there are all kinds of explosive weapons in Syria, we need many more professionals trained in these types of weapons.
Mine clearance in urban areas is particularly long and complicated. When buildings and infrastructure are destroyed in cities, the rubble is contaminated by explosive remnants. In some Syrian cities we can almost measure contamination in cubic meters because the ground is contaminated by layers of rubble and explosive remnants. This requires specific resources, professionals trained in this type of contamination, and great care to be taken when clearing and reconstructing cities.
When we talk about reconstruction, what exactly do we mean?
Reconstruction obviously begins with weapons clearance. The international community must take action to protect Syrian lives from explosive remnants. Some 11.5 million Syrians out of a total population of 17 million are currently at risk from these weapons. Weapons clearance is therefore a priority in reconstructing the country.
Then comes the actual reconstruction, which is divided into interdependent stages: the reconstruction of infrastructure and housing, economic recovery, but also restoring the link between the different communities damaged by a decade of conflict. It’s a huge challenge. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the early 2000s, apart from weapons clearance, it was important to get the communities talking to each other again in order to plan for long-term peace. Weapons clearance brought people together around a problem and shared risks, and provided a starting point for dialogue and collective initiatives. It marked the first step towards defusing the tension caused by the conflict.
We also have to think about how to support individuals. Syrians have experienced the horrors of war, and they need physical and psychological support. Physical trauma such as amputations, brain and spinal cord injuries, but also psychological trauma need specific care. I think it will take at least two generations to rebuild Syria.
Humanity & Inclusion and the Syria crisis
Since the organization began its response to the Syria crisis in 2012, Humanity & Inclusion has helped 1.8 million Syrians in six countries through emergency rehabilitation, psychological support, and supplying prosthetics and other assistive devices. As of December 2020, Humanity & Inclusion provided 14,000 prosthetics or orthotics to Syrians and conducted rehabilitation sessions with 180,000 people. Learn more about our work and the Syria crisis.
Header image: Destroyed buildings and other debris.
Inline image: Humanity & Inclusion's Emmanuel Sauvage speaks into a microphone held by a reporter at an event in France. Copyright: Basile Barbey/HI, 2020
Statement | Use of heavy explosive weapons in towns and cities in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict must stop
October 6, 2020
The use of heavy explosive weapons in the cities of Ganja and Stepanakert, and other towns and populated areas in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is killing and injuring civilians, and destroying vital infrastructure.
INEW calls on all parties to the conflict to stop the use of heavy explosive weapons in towns, cities and other populated areas due to the high risk of harm to civilians, and amid rising civilian casualties.
The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that hundreds of homes and infrastructure including hospitals and schools, as well as roads, electricity, gas and communications networks, have been destroyed or damaged by heavy artillery fire and by airborne attacks using missiles forcing families to leave the towns and find shelter.
Every year tens of thousands of civilians are killed and injured by bombing and shelling in urban and other populated areas using weapons designed for use in open battlefields. Many more civilians experience life-changing injuries, and suffer from destruction of homes, hospitals, schools and vital services. The use of explosive weapons is also one of the main catalysts of forced displacement, as civilians flee for safety. Unexploded ordnance left behind after a conflict has ended further impedes the safe return of civilians.
The bombing and shelling in these towns and cities highlights the needs for new international standards against the use of heavy explosive weapons in towns and cities. Heavy explosive weapons are those with wide area effects, and include weapons that produce a large blast area or spread fragments widely, weapons that deliver multiple munitions that saturate a large area, such as multiple-launch rocket systems, and inaccurate weapons where the effects of the weapon extend beyond the target. When used in cities and towns where there are concentrations of civilians, the risk of harm to civilians is great
Over 100 countries have recognized the harm caused to civilians from the use of explosive weapons in cities, towns and other populated areas. States have started discussions on the development of new international standards to adopt stronger rules against attacks using heavy explosive weapons in cities, towns and other populated areas, under the leadership of Ireland. INEW calls upon states to include in the elaboration of a political declaration, a commitment to avoid use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.
Humanity & Inclusion comment
Humanity & Inclusion Disarmament Advocacy Manager, Alma Al Osta reacts:
“The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is the latest example of how bombing in urban areas affect civilians. As the conflict has escalated, belligerents have used heavy bombs, killing and injuring civilians, and destroying vital infrastructure… We condemn the bombing and shelling – and the use of banned cluster munitions – that have devastating humanitarian impacts on civilians. A strong, international political declaration against bombing in populated areas is urgently needed.”
About Humanity & Inclusion
Humanity & Inclusion is a co-founder of INEW, and sits on its steering committee.
Humanity & Inclusion is an independent international aid organization, working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster for 38 years. Alongside people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups, our actions and voice are focused on responding to their essential needs, improving their living conditions and promoting respect for their dignity and basic rights. Since its founding in 1982, Humanity & Inclusion (the new name of Handicap International) has set up development programs in more than 60 countries and intervenes in numerous emergency situations. There are eight national associations within the network (Germany, Belgium, Canada, United States, France, Luxembourg, UK and Switzerland), working tirelessly to mobilize resources, co-manage projects and increase the impact of the organization’s principles and actions. Humanity & Inclusion is one of six founding organizations of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize and winner of the 2011 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. Humanity & Inclusion takes action and campaigns in places where “living in dignity” is no easy task.”