New publications on protecting civilians: protecting health, protecting education and illustrations of harm from weapons in Iraq
By Anna de Courcy Wheeler & Elizabeth Minor
Featured image: Children in Bardarash refugee camp © Emily Garthwaite/Article 36
Protecting civilians should be conceived of as a wide goal of conflict prevention and sustainable development, which gives attention to the health and wellbeing of people, the social structures that ensure justice and dignity, and the environment. Its objective should be the highest standards of public health; evidence and transparency in analysis for policymaking; accountability in governance; and environmental protection. As such, it is a goal towards which more can always be done.
In three new research briefings released today, Article 36 takes this broad conceptualisation of protecting civilians to examine how protecting health, protecting education, and considering how the impacts of the use of weapons affect civilians and communities across space and time are key to achieving the full protection of civilians:
Conflict is a fundamental global health challenge, whereby harm is inflicted on human health to achieve political ends. Protecting civilians is, first and foremost, about preventing or minimising death, injury or ‘harm’ from military action. As such, notions of ‘protection’ and of ‘health’ are intrinsically linked.
This research briefing, on ‘Health and harm: Protecting civilians and protecting health,’ explores the wide ranging and long term health impacts of conflict: as a result of damage and impairment to the social structures upon which public health rests, the full health effects of conflict extend much further than direct deaths and traumatic injuries.
The briefing recommends that compliance with international humanitarian law must be recognised as a necessary minimum baseline in the protection of civilians – but that it is not sufficient for the full protection and promotion of health and wellbeing during conflict. Rather, policy discussions on better protecting civilians should proceed from a public health perspective, and from examining the patterns of harm caused by conflict, with reference to impacts on social and economic structures as well the means and methods of warfare used. Such an approach could support more effective, productive and holistic initiatives to protect civilians than a narrower focus on legal compliance alone.
If the full protection of civilians is approached with a broad lens that includes conflict prevention, protection during conflict, social cohesion and post-conflict societal resilience, education rests at the heart of civilian protection. Education is an area where the long term effects of conflict can be clearly understood, and have already been acknowledged by states through the Safe Schools Declaration, which acts as an example of how concern regarding longer term harm can be successfully integrated into policy responses seeking to improve protection of civilians.
This research briefing, ‘Education and conflict: Protecting civilians and protecting education,’ gives a broad overview and review of the impact of conflict on education. It recommends that states should further commit to developing the normative framework, at both policy and legal levels, and take practical steps to better protect education in conflict as a cornerstone for the full protection of civilians.
The normative presumption against attacks on and military use of schools should be strengthened, along with emphasis on the continuity of quality education. Greater attention should also be paid to patterns of harm to education created by the use of certain weapons, including explosive weapons that have wide area effects. The full scale of harm caused by these weapons should be recognised.
This research briefing, ‘Protecting civilians and harm from weapons: Illustrations from Iraq,’ gives a snapshot of some of the key challenges for protecting civilians in northern Iraq at the time of research in November 2019, and highlights some of the relationships between these contemporary dynamics and impacts of conflict to previous weapons use. Starting with a broad contextual snapshot, the briefing also highlights the case of the Al-Shifa hospital complex in Mosul, which was used as a headquarters and weapons factory by ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS), and was destroyed during the battle to retake the city from ISIS. This case shows some of the particular post-conflict hazards and complexity of clearance, remediation and recovery that emerge when a modern medical facility is destroyed by explosive weapons.
Two years after Iraqi forces and the international coalition that supported them militarily declared the conflict with ISIS in Iraq complete, civilians living in conflict-affected areas continued to deal with harms resulting from the weapons, means and methods of warfare that were used. The recent and accumulated physical legacies of conflict in Iraq – including the destruction and hazardous remnants left by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in particular – continue to have an impact on the health, housing, services and livelihoods of Iraqis today, including through the continued displacement of over one million people. The impacts of the previous use of and current availability of weapons continue to interact with other social, political, economic and conflict dynamics to pose challenges to civilian protection in Iraq.
The wide-ranging and lasting impact of conflict and the use of weapons in Iraq gives an illustration of why developing global policies for the full protection of civilians requires recognising and acting on how harms to civilians develop over time. In developing global policy towards the full protection of civilians, states should analyse the short, medium and longer-term effects of patterns of weapons use, and how harm to civilians from specific, immediate decisions during conflict can transmit through space and time. Such an analysis should inform the adoption of further international measures to prevent and address civilian harm.
Download these research briefings