“There is No Safe Place for Civilians in Conflict.” Q&A With Hichem Khadhraoui

Hichem Khadhraoui of CIVIC at the International Peace Institute, May 20, 2024.

It is an especially dangerous time for civilians in conflict, as Hichem Khadhraoui, now Executive Director at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), detailed in a frank assessment of the topic, in response to questions posed during a recent event marking the 25th Anniversary of Protection of Civilians (PoC) mandates at UN PoC Week at the International Peace Institute. We’ve reproduced two of those questions and answers here.

Over the last two decades, Mr. Khadhraoui has worked in the field of civilian protection, including as a Senior Field Manager and Head of Protection for Near and Middle East at the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) and Director of Programmes and Field Operations at Geneva Call. He has extensive field experience with a presence in several conflict-affected places including Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chad and Yemen.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How has the changing nature of conflict increased the threats posed to civilians in conflict?

The first change is an increase in the length of armed conflicts. And then once it starts, it is hard to know how long it will last. When I talk with people about the Ukraine–Russia war, for example, I hear things like, “Why should it stop? I want justice for my country.”

But when a conflict becomes protracted, the consequences on civilians’ lives and civilian infrastructure extend—infrastructure doesn’t get repaired, for example, and there is no economy to support the communities. A protracted conflict means if you lose water in your house, you might not have it again for years; children don’t go to school for years. People become scared to go out and get food, to do their shopping. This is extremely consequential and has a direct and immediate impact in the short and long term on civilians.

The second change is in the type of weapons being used, and the way we use them. It seems like we have completely lost any psychological barriers that would help restrict the types and size of weapons used. A person can go online  right now and buy 20 drones. We are seeing ballistic missiles and one-ton bombs dropped on civilian infrastructure. I spent 10 years in conflict zones, and I can tell you that the impact of a one-ton bomb on civilians is horrendous. And this is happening on a daily basis. The weapons being used are a mix of AI-enabled weapons, “blind” weapons that cannot distinguish between civilians and combatants, and heavy artillery from the early 20th century—all of which has direct consequences on civilians and creates a sense of constant fear. There is no place safe today for civilians in conflict. For all of us who have been in conflict zones, there were always pockets of safety. Today, those don’t exist—wherever you go, you could be hit.

Related to that is the very lucrative business of arms sales. Last year, global military expenditure was estimated to have exceeded $2.4 trillion, and countries are actually proud of their weapons sales. Business was a bit difficult post-Covid, but weapons are something that sells. And of course, when weapons are bought, they are used. So, it has direct consequences on populations.

A third change is this disturbing and growing idea that it’s acceptable to target civilians. There is a line of thinking that goes something like, “Why are they in the line of fire if they are not supporters of Hamas, or supporters of Ukraine or Russia?” or wherever. Directly targeting civilians is never acceptable – legally, operationally, or morally. The even greater danger is if the direct targeting of civilians becomes the norm. Adding to that is the combination of the lack of access to basic services and the changing nature of conflicts, which makes it so that humanitarian actors are finding it extremely difficult to carry out their basic duties. Over one hundred and ninety UN staff have been killed in Gaza. Accessing basic services like food is a constant challenge. But civilians, of course, bear the brunt of all of it.

A fourth change is the increasing weaponization of information. We know that disinformation is used to directly endanger civilians in Ukraine, for example, with lethal results. Psychological warfare also has psychological consequences. When these consequences are added to the physical consequences—the constant bombings, the lack of access to public services—then you understand how the threat against civilians has increased in today’s conflicts.

There are legal and normative frameworks in place to protection of civilians. Would changes to some of them help the situation?

There are already frameworks in place for international humanitarian law (IHL), and they are regularly reviewed. We don’t need to change that. There is a saying: if you can’t fix your window, don’t blame your tools. The problem is a lack of political will, and that is what is leading to this constant sense of urgency. This is the first and biggest challenge to overcome when it comes to implementation.

However, the implementation of the IHL frameworks needs to be more inclusive and more localized. They are seen as a foreign body of law by a lot of communities. I’ve spoken to many armed groups as part of my job, and what they tell me and others about IHL is that, for them, this is something that people in suits from Geneva and New York are talking about. We need to think about ways of contextualizing IHL and bringing it back to where it belongs: with the people. There is an effort—though it should be taken up by everyone—to show where IHL already exists in different cultural and religious frameworks but is just described in different words. IHL was not created in 1949. For example, Hinduism, which is 4,000 years old and considered the first religion, contains key elements of IHL in its core text, the Bhagavad Gita.

We can connect IHL to what already exists for everyone who is on the ground. This could mean increasing knowledge through targeted trainings that address not just armed groups and militaries, but also communities engaged in self-protection, because they are part of the social fabric of a given conflict. Through this, we can increase accountability and our own responsibility for the successful implementation of these frameworks—one that benefits civilians directly.

In Mali, for example, there are some families where one brother works for the military, one brother works for the jihadi groups, and one sister leads an NGO to protect women. They are all living together in the same family, and all of them need to understand what IHL is, from their own point of view, to avoid immediately rejecting it. It’s about building adherence to, and respect for, the norms from within the social fabric of a given country. We need to look at it from a comprehensive point of view, not only from the view of a “targeted actor.”

But also, at the international level, we need to deal with selectivity. There is a strong trend today of “double discourse.” We have a majority of states and populations in the world that don’t believe a word of what the West is saying. Take sanctions, for example, which are a form of accountability. The international community believes that sanctions work at the individual and global level. But in practice, sanctions are only applied in certain countries, by certain countries. And this creates a lack of credibility. Many people don’t believe in the “international community” anymore, because, if you look at the way it works in some key areas, it appears that only certain states are part of this community, and others are not. So first and foremost, we need to strengthen the level of credibility by making sure that we have ways of applying things equally. Looking at the recent ICC decision, the prosecutor is going in the right direction.

Second, political will needs to be strengthened at the local level. We need to include communities in decision-making. They need to have a say in how these frameworks are being implemented and involved in deciding the type of actions that you want to do with them. Making it more inclusive in its implementation would help. And even though militaries talk about the “law of armed conflict,” and we speak about “international humanitarian law,” at the end of the day, it is the same thing. It is about reconciling both worlds—Geneva-New York and the field. So once again, I go back to the notion of inclusivity.

Today, war has lost all rationality. Whatever weapons armed actors have, they throw them anywhere they want, and we see the results. It’s considered acceptable to bring wars to cities, and in urban warfare, where there are civilians and armed actors, it’s harder to distinguish between the two. We should make sure that it is clearly understood by all armed actors, whoever they are, that a civilian remains a civilian, even if they are trapped in a setting where you have combatants. And I think we have to fight that tendency by continuing trainings for armed actors at every level, and by talking to civilians and communities about their responsibilities. They’re not just recipients of aid—they are agents of their own change.