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Protecting Civilians During Conflict

International law mandates that militaries minimize noncombatant harm when at war


Territorial disputes, political ambitions and resource competition often spark or escalate armed conflicts. The resulting wars, regardless of their cause, come with complicated consequences. Among them: short- and long-term devastation, and civilian deaths that account for nearly 90% of wartime casualties, according to a 2022 United Nations Security Council report.

One of the grimmest pictures of conflict’s toll on the general population is Russia’s war on Ukraine, where bystanders have been killed “in their homes and while simply trying to meet their essential needs, such as collecting water and buying food,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said in a news release.

“The very young to the very old have all been affected. Students have seen their education halted or disrupted by attacks on educational facilities, while older people and people with disabilities have faced immense challenges, in some cases unable to reach bomb shelters or having to spend prolonged periods in basements in conditions affecting their health,” Türk said in February 2023. “Every day that violations of international human rights and law continue, it becomes harder and harder to find a way forward through mounting suffering and destruction, towards peace.”

The war has reverberated across the globe, leading to higher food and fuel costs and deepening misery, especially among the most vulnerable. “The toll on civilians is unbearable,” Türk said. 

‘Take All Feasible Precautions’

The Law of Armed Conflict, also called the International Humanitarian Law, does not prohibit fighting in populated areas, but the presence of civilians increases the obligation of warring parties to limit civilian harm, according to Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in New York City. The law requires militaries “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize damage to civilian objects or loss of civilian life.

“These precautions include doing everything feasible to verify that the objects of attack are military objects and not civilians or civilian objects and giving ‘effective advanced warning’ of attacks when circumstances permit,” the NGO reported in February 2023. “The attacking party is not relieved of its obligation to take into account the risk to civilians simply because it considers the defending party responsible for locating legitimate military targets within or near populated areas.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), based in Geneva, Switzerland, published a handbook titled “Enhancing Protections for Civilians in Armed Conflict and Other Situations of Violence” that shares information and tips on safeguarding the innocent. The guide focuses on people deprived of freedoms during an armed conflict or other violent situation, civilians not taking part in an armed conflict or violent situation, and those exposed to risks, such as women and children, the elderly and those displaced from their homes. 

“Civilians are not only increasingly directly caught up in the violence, but control over the civilian population is often one of the things at stake in a conflict,” according to the ICRC handbook. “The development of such a situation can be attributed to increased intercommunal, ethnic and religious tensions, the collapse of state structures, the struggle for control over natural resources, the widespread availability of weapons, the rise of acts of terror and the proliferation of so-called asymmetric armed conflicts. Nowadays, the general lack of protection in crises affecting civilians caught up in armed conflict and other situations of violence is due, not to an inadequate framework, but to poor compliance.”

  • The ICRC recommends that nations develop at least a partial protection plan for times of conflict, including:
  • Present, explain, promote and discuss the implementation of protection activities with relevant authorities.
  • Ensure that law enforcement understands its role and is willing to ensure the law is respected.
  • Develop a network of reliable contacts among authorities and with influential stakeholders, especially in civil society, that might provide resources during crisis. 
  • Select regions, periods of time and people to preauthorize for providing services or assistance.
  • Implement complementary activities that facilitate protection on behalf of civilians, such as assistance programs and communication activities. 
  • Establish and build protection activities in the field, including presentations to civilians.  

“While implementing its protection activities, each organization should proactively seek field-based and action-oriented complementarities with other humanitarian actors to ensure the most comprehensive response and therefore the greatest chance of making a difference in the lives of people at risk,” the ICRC handbook states.

People evacuate during a fire drill in Seoul, South Korea. The exercise was part of a nationwide civil-defense drill. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

A Threat to Humankind

One of the biggest offenders in the Indo-Pacific is North Korea, which continues to develop its nuclear weapons program and launch missiles in defiance of U.N. sanctions. The risk of nuclear weapons being used is “growing at a worrying pace,” Laurent Gisel, head of the ICRC’s Arms and Conduct of Hostilities Unit, testified at the U.N. General Assembly in October 2022. “Nuclear weapons are one of the biggest threats to humanity,” Gisel said. “Their use would cause irreversible harm to future generations and threaten the very survival of humankind.”

There are more than 13,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, Gisel testified, and that number is expected to grow along with the risk of weapons being used.

“This risk is further fueled by the modernization of nuclear arsenals, including the development of smaller nuclear weapons alleged to be more useable, and technological developments that may increase the vulnerability of nuclear weapons and their command and control systems to human or machine errors and cyberattacks,” Gisel testified. “These developments are taking place despite the overwhelming evidence of the horrific, long-term and irreversible effects of nuclear weapons on health, the environment, the climate and food security — despite the absence of adequate capacity for a humanitarian response in the case of nuclear weapon use, and despite the risk of escalation that any use would involve.”

Growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula due to Pyongyang’s missile threats prompted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in August 2022 to order an update of his country’s military operational plan (OPLAN), which outline contingencies based on various wartime scenarios.  

“We need to urgently prepare measures to guarantee the lives and property of our people, including updating the operational plans against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats that are becoming a reality,” Yoon said, according to Reuters.

Current plans don’t consider the extensive advances North Korea has made in developing weapons of mass destruction. “This is the right thing to do,” a senior United States defense official said, according to Voice of America. 

“The strategic environment has changed over the past few years and it’s appropriate and necessary that we have an [operational plan] that is updated and keeps it in tune with the strategic environment,” the official said. South Korea’s capabilities have improved as well, and the OPLAN must account for that, authorities added.

The OPLAN integrates the combined defense posture of Republic of Korea (ROK) Forces and U.S. Forces Korea. An updated plan would have three phases: intercepting a North Korean invasion across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), mounting a counterdefense to prevent troops from crossing the DMZ, and ROK-U.S. combined forces crossing the DMZ in a counterattack, according to The Diplomat magazine.

“Our ultimate goal is peace and not conflict, and toward that end, our countries have worked side by side to deter large-scale conflict, to strengthen our combined capabilities and to defend the rules-based international order that keeps us all secure,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in January 2023 following a meeting with South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup. “Our commitment to the defense of the ROK remains ironclad. The United States stands firm in its extended deterrence commitment, and that includes the full range of the U.S. defense capabilities, including our conventional, nuclear and missile defense capabilities.”

How to Prepare Civilians: A Lesson from South Korea

The South Korean government conducts regular evacuation and emergency drills and has issued contingency plans to embassies for distribution to foreign nationals who might be affected. The guidelines provide instructions based on four alert levels:

Level 1: Heightened Alertness

Indicators: Continuous provocations such as missile and nuclear tests and inflammatory rhetoric. This is the default alert in South Korea.

What to do: Remain calm but be vigilant. Exercise caution and monitor announcements from the embassy and the South Korean government. 

Level 2: Restriction of Movement

Indicators: North Korean and ROK troop buildup along borders. Embassies and international organizations based in Seoul issue advisories and warnings restricting travel to certain locations. The Ministry of Public Safety and Security issues frequent advisories on civilian safety. There may be more military encounters in isolated places, most likely along the DMZ.

What to do: Minimize movement and avoid places of potential conflict. Follow instructions from police or civil defense forces. Prepare for possible evacuation to local shelters. Prepare a survival kit of essential items to last 72 hours. 

Level 3: Voluntary Repatriation

Indicators: Encounters between North Korean and ROK forces along borders increase. The South Korean government issues evacuation instructions for border areas. More military personnel begin to deploy and arrive from the U.S. and possibly Japan. Troop buildup along the DMZ increases. Embassies and international organizations based in Seoul advise against travel to South Korea.

What to do: Local embassies advise nationals to leave South Korea voluntarily and may provide financial assistance to do so. Travel with a survival kit, which should be checked every six months to ensure readiness.

Level 4: Mandatory Evacuation

Indicators: Large-scale military conflict is imminent. Embassies prepare their nationals for mass evacuation from South Korea. South Korea declares a national emergency. Civilian entities halt operations. South Korean men registered for conscription are called into service. 

What to do: Head to a designated evacuation point, likely a location farther south, away from the DMZ. Each person should have a survival kit. 

Building Resilience 

Armed conflict presents nuanced challenges, but being unprepared to protect civilians shouldn’t be one of them. Resources such as the ICRC and the U.N., and examples like South Korea provide a starting point for developing a plan. “It can be hard to find often-invisible scenarios where the rules of war have saved lives,” according to the ICRC. “We don’t see the stories of the pilots who decided not to drop a bomb after assessing that too many people would be harmed. We don’t see footage of health workers crossing frontlines in conflict to provide essential health care.”

While violations of international humanitarian laws exist, there also are operational plans that protect civilians and combatants who respect the rules of engagement and honor their obligations to do no harm to civilians.

“There is undoubtedly terror, pain and heartbreak in conflict,” according to the ICRC. “There is, however, resilience, rebuilding and restoration as well. The people impacted by conflict, as with conflicts themselves, are multifaceted.”  

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