A greater understanding of why civilians are targeted in conflict is vital to protecting them, argues Hugo Slim

October 29, 2007
Hugo Slim

Last year, I found myself watching an early round of the African football cup finals on the television at the Acholi Inn in Gulu, Northern Uganda. Next to me was a former senior leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army who had said he might give me an interview about civilian protection after the match.

The game was extremely “physical” and the LRA man was getting quite heated about the conduct on the pitch. Eventually, one deeply cynical tackle was too much for him. He leapt from his chair, shouting at the referee:

“Hey, that’s unfair, that’s terrible, send him off!”

I was gob smacked. Here was a man who had been the official spokesman for one of the most vicious armed groups in the world (whose troops think nothing of the murder and mutilation of unarmed civilians) bitterly complaining about a tackle that went for the man rather than the ball. But he was genuinely outraged. I had obviously got him wrong. After the match, he turned to me and said:

“Why do you want to talk to me about civilians?”

“Because your organization has killed and terrified so many of them and I want to understand why.”

Accusing him of a foul so soon after the match was not a good idea. He grew angry.

“You want to write a book about our war” he said “but you and all the other white people have only just turned up. We have been fighting this war for years but only now are you interested. You talk about civilians. But what is a civilian? Go around this area for a bit and then, if you can tell me what a civilian is, I will talk to you about it.”

We humanitarians often react to wars as this LRA man reacted to a football match. And, as he suggested, we also talk about civilians without understanding what the idea really means to people at war. We chant, outraged, from the touchlines in support of “innocent civilians” and call upon a host of referees whom we think should sort out the offenders. But they seldom do and we are left to fume on the terraces or rush on with oranges, water and encouragement at half-time. It is good that we do but I think we might be more effective if we do not just chant as loyal fans of civilians and, rather, become more subtle in our understanding of what people inside a war really think about civilians and why they decide to kill them.

People have strong reasons for killing civilians and always have. Often they just totally reject the civilian idea, thinking it foolish to differentiate among their enemy. They see every enemy whether young, old, male or female as a threat which should be utterly destroyed or hurt into obedience. Hitler and the Janjaweet represent these positions.

Others agree that there are such things as civilians but that the cause for which their group fights is so important that it trumps the ethic of civilian protection. Much as they might like to protect ordinary people, they must abandon the idea in this war and hurt civilians in order to win. Churchill and Hamas share this view.

Many other killers of civilians regard civilian identity as just too slippery and ambiguous. They see most people in their war as more complicated than mere civilians. The farmer, the female newspaper editor, the member of another clan, the teacher, the policeman’s girlfriend are “not just” civilians but are also involved in the war in some way whether they like it or not. So they too can and must be targeted to make a point or eradicate opposition. FARC and Bin Laden reason thus.

Then there is the simple fury of revenge in which massacres are done to pay back pain. Vicious Liberian factions often thought like this.

Finally, of course, there are those who want to hold dearly to the civilian ethic. They try not to kill them and regret it when they inevitably do so. American, British and Israeli forces seem to think like this.

So, there is a spectrum of anti-civilian thinking that ranges from rejection, exception, ambiguity and regret. We must understand this better, gauging exactly what ideology civilians are up against in a given war. Besides R2P, we should understand the R2K – reasons to kill. Getting inside the anti-civilian mindset of our opponents, we might find ways to destroy their reasoning and so A2P – argue to protect – a little better.

We should never just chant but also start exposing anti-civilian thinking in more detail so that civilians around the world can argue against it more precisely, particularly the civilian communities concerned. Only they can forge a new ethical consensus and new political contracts around violence in their societies. Because, sadly, despite what they tell you in Geneva and New York, there is no referee.

Hugo Slim’s new book, Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War, is published by Hurst and Co.


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