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Sarah Holewinski

Sarah Holewinski

Posted: June 14, 2010 05:07 PM

Shhh... Listen... It's a quiet revolution for war victims

What's Your Reaction:

Philip Alston, one of the most respected legal minds in the United Nations system, just issued his annual report. In it, he talks about his travels to war zones and notes an emerging practice: warring parties' "making amends" to civilians harmed in war.

Here's the interesting thing:

Warring parties have no obligation to do anything to help the civilians they lawfully harm. It's a gap in international law and it means that the people we consider "collateral damage" have little or no recourse when their homes are bombed or when their loved ones are killed.

Alston's point - one that I and my organization CIVIC have gone to great lengths to define and document - is that this glaring gap is starting to be filled. Some warring parties are bucking the long-standing tradition of walking away from the civilian suffering they unintentionally cause. Alston notes, in particular, that the U.S. has made compensation to civilians in Afghanistan as do many of its allies. African troops in Somalia paid traders for camels killed by its shelling; in Uganda, one lawmaker just today asked Parliament to enact a law for making amends to civilians harmed in the North.

This is the first mention of the concept of "making amends" in a UN document. True, that's not going to help a war victim immediately, but this is how big change begins. If you listen carefully, you can hear the momentum building for even more warring parties to help where they've harmed, to not walk away.

The reasons for doing so are many. Take Afghanistan: making amends to war victims is a practical, pragmatic way to win over a population and bolster their dignity. Take Sri Lanka: making amends to survivors along with real options for justice can help heal wounds that so often impede lasting peace.

Humanitarians have for decades picked up the pieces of what's been broken in war. What if the warring parties themselves started taking some responsibility?

No offense, United Nations, but you're often stuck a hamster-wheel spinning out old ideas. When Alston called for more research into this emerging practice of "making amends", he was giving those global thinkers something new and exciting to chew on. I, for one, am looking forward to what they come up with...

It's a quiet revolution, but one desperately needed for war victims.