The Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI) recently published its two-volume semi-annual lessons report focusing on protection of civilians and civilian harm mitigation and response. Following is an extract from the report and links to both volumes.

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The fighting in Ukraine, initiated a year ago by the Russian invasion, is a daily demonstration of any armed conflict’s impact on resident or neighboring populations. Russia’s war on Ukraine is certainly not the only ongoing armed conflict in the world at this time. However, its ubiquitous imagery promotes near real-time reflection of the nature of war—past, present, and future. That reflection includes a continuing review of the suitability of the laws, policies, and programs designed to protect civilians or, at the least, mitigate the harm to them.

Perhaps the first questions that occur in this reflection are the following: What is protection? and what gets protected? The closest answer to the first question may be found in the United Nations (UN) policy document, The Protection of Civilians in United Nations Peacekeeping. Focused on peacekeeping operations, as indicated in its title, it emphasizes “there is no UN-wide definition of ‘protection of civilians’” but “there is a common objective…to protect civilians from risks and threats to their physical integrity.” [emphasis added.] While physical integrity is not further defined in this policy, by implication it suggests protection against bodily harm to a population. Such physical integrity harm may be from weapons, personal/sexual violence, disease, or exposure.

Similar protection of civilians and harm mitigation concepts extend to armed conflict and are codified in International Humanitarian Law/Law of Armed Conflict (IHL/LOAC). Dr. Karolina MacLachlan, writing for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) website in June 2022, also highlights civilian protection and summarizes thusly:

Protecting civilians is a key aspect of warfare and an ethical and strategic imperative in all types of conflict, from hybrid warfare to counterinsurgency and large-scale military operations where the adversary might be using tactics designed to cause civilian harm.

Physical integrity is the aspect of protection that most observers contemplate when considering protection of civilians (POC) and/or civilian harm mitigation and response (CHMR) policies and measures. Yet physical integrity, while of obvious vital importance to a population, is only one of many POC/CHMR concerns.  For instance, NATO’s 2018 Military Concept on the Protection of Civilians has as an objective, “safeguard civilians from harm by belligerents,” but also highlights three others: “the culture, history, demographics,” “access…to basic needs and services,” and “a safe and secure environment through support to the local government and its institutions.”

The United States (US) Department of Defense (DoD) Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, reiterates the enlargement of POC/CHMR beyond physical integrity. It acknowledges:

Hard-earned tactical and operational successes may ultimately end in strategic failure if care is not taken to protect the civilian environment as much as the situation allows — including the civilian population and the personnel, organizations, resources, infrastructure, essential services, and systems on which civilian life depends.

While speaking at the United Nations (UN) UN Security Council (UNSC) Open Debate on Protection of Civilians in late May 2022, Robert Mardini, Director-General, International Committee of the Red Cross, introduced yet another aspect of the POC/CHMR discussion, enjoining states “to avoid and prevent the spread of mis- and disinformation…and mitigate its impact on affected people.”

While this report (in two volumes) contains Lessons that address the physical integrity of a population, it also includes Lessons connected to many—but not all—the other articulated POC/CHMR concerns regarding the what is protected? question. The Lessons in Volume I are categorized as cultural heritage and identity; infrastructure and property; information and technology; and services.

Volume II of this Lesson collection address other questions: Who is a civilian? and Who does the protecting and the mitigating? Regarding civilian status, the UN policy document described above provides a simple answer that derives directly from IHL/LOAC: “everyone is to be considered a civilian.” Or, more accurately:

everyone…except persons falling in one of the following categories: • members of the armed forces; • members of an organized armed group with continuous combat function; and • civilians directly participating in hostilities, for such time as they do so.

However, the Russian war in Ukraine, among many other contemporary armed conflicts, challenges that simple definition of civilian. While theoreticians may assert that IHL/LOAC provides for every civilian status contingency, practitioners recognize that the reality of armed conflict—as demonstrated near-daily in Ukraine—complicates the matter.

This Lesson collection is not a comprehensive inventory of all topic areas included in the POC/CHMR discourse. Rather, it is intended to provide both overview and particular insights that may encourage further study. Consequently, the Lessons collected here encompass discussion points that both expand and narrow the discourse.

PKSOI’s Lessons Learned Analyst, Colonel Lorelei Coplen (US Army, Retired), authored or edited the Lessons in both volumes between June 2022 and February 2023, unless otherwise indicated. Each of these lessons are also found in the Joint Lessons Learned Information System (JLLIS) database, identified by the JLLIS number adjacent to each Lesson title. JLLIS access is at and requires a DoD Common Access Card (CAC) for registration.

Click on the links below to read or download this PKSOI semi-annual lesson report.

(Endnotes for the above extract can be found in preceding linked reports.)