The 2018 NATO summit in Brussels focused heavily on strong defense and deterrence, with emphasis on counterterrorism operations. In advance, NATO commissioned an article, Preparing to Protect: Advice on Implementing NATO's Protection of Civilian Policy, by Marla Keenan and Stimson Distinguished Fellow Victoria Holt, to highlight how NATO will address mitigating harm to civilians in these future operations. The article looks at the origins of NATO’s protection of civilians policy, with a specific focus on the challenge of mitigating harm from its own operations and from the harm of others (e.g., mass atrocities). With adoption of its new policy in 2016, NATO has expressly defined both ambitions for the first time. This challenge will be real in future crisis situations, whether in war-fighting and stability operations like Afghanistan and Libya, or for collective defense and counterterrorism operations closer to home.
The road to the policy began in 2007, with widely-reported mass civilian casualty incidents in Afghanistan. NATO leaders recognized the need to reduce harm and improve its ability to protect civilians from its own operations. This approach required both new guidance and practice. In 2010, NATO created a Brussels-based office focused on the protection of civilians within the operations division. In 2011, the Operation Unified Protection in Libya was mandated to protect civilians from others' actions including with authorization to use force to do so. This marked the first time both protection goals were explicit for NATO. Experts recognized a significant gap in NATO military force’s understanding of how to implement the mandate, measure progress, and define the desired end state. Recognizing the challenges of Libya, the changing character of warfare, the high risks to civilians, and the likelihood that future NATO operations would need to mitigate harm to civilians, NATO adopted its new policy in 2016. NATO’s efforts to support better analysis, planning, and training for future operations to protect civilians efforts will enhance its success, and should include outreach to experts in both the civilian and military communities.