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DOD Works With Partner Nations to Avoid Civilian Casualties During War

Nov. 17, 2020 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

The United States works with partner nations to mitigate civilian casualties as much as possible during military operations, adhering to the Law of Armed Conflict, also known as International Humanitarian Law.

A panel of Defense Department experts on the topic spoke remotely at the American Society of International Law.

A Marine aims a weapon.
Urban Ops
Marines conduct urban operations training at the Infantry Immersion Trainer aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Oct. 24, 2014.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Garrett White
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The American military's strong commitment to minimizing civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible and adhering to international humanitarian law principles is enculturated and internalized at all levels of command and across the services, Air Force Maj. John Legg, assistant professor of law at the U.S. Air Force Academy, said.

At the educational level in all of the services, commanders are inculcated with the moral and legal obligation to mitigate civilian harm, he said.

Also, structures are in place in the military to mitigate civilian casualties, he said, adding that the department works closely with allies and partners to ensure these norms are followed. 

A person looks over a service member's shoulder.
Training Exercise
A role player portrays a distressed civilian assisting the Marines during a Squad Overmatch training exercise at Camp Lejeune, N.C., May 3, 2017.
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Foreign military sales are contingent on the partner nations' respect for mitigating civilian casualties, Loren Voss, senior advisor for Civilian Harm Mitigation at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, said.

Factors that determine whether or not an FMS transfer is approved include looking at how the weapons will impact regional stability, how the arms are intended to be used, how the transfer affects U.S. national security and foreign policy interests and how the recipient nations will mitigate any risk of civilian casualties, she said. 

The State Department's Office of Regional Security Arms Transfers oversees this effort in cooperation with DSCA and the geographic combatant commands, as well as with congressional oversight, she said.

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Practice Procedure
These airmen are participating in training that includes learning about the law of armed conflict, use of force and other rules of engagement, as well as practicing individual movement, team movement, weapons handling and detention and searching techniques.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Jacob Stephens
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Retired Army Col. Randy Bagwell, senior director of International Services — U.S. Programs at the American Red Cross, said there are cultural differences among nations. Some cultures respect the rule of law more than others and compliance with the Law of Armed Conflict is much higher in those nations. Also, some nations lack the training and education necessary to reduce civilian harm.

Nicholas W. Mull, Civilian Harm Mitigation Program manager at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, said his organization promotes partner nations' military and institutional awareness of the Law of Armed Conflict through education and advisory efforts, as well as plans to ensure shared normative values dedicated to the rule of law.