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Sarah Holewinski

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You're a Widow in Libya... Now What?

Posted: 10/10/11 03:49 PM ET

Calls for justice after war are made compelling by horrendous stories of wrongdoing and resulting human suffering. This is certainly the narrative coming out of Libya. From prisoner abuse under Gaddafi to the alleged killing of African migrants by rebels, demands for accountability are loud and clear -- and quite rightly so.

But left out are people considered "collateral damage."

We at CIVIC are currently interviewing them in Misrata, Tripoli, Benghazi and just outside of Sirte, where thousands have fled in anticipation of heavy fighting this week. We talked to people like Mahmoud. He lost both his leg and his younger brother in the crossfire, and his distress was palpable. Post-conflict, Mahmoud's story is part of the great patchwork of recovery the incoming governors of Libya will need to knit together -- after all, they need a full participating citizenry to build the new Libya.

Both the National Transitional Council (NTC) and NATO touted the importance of protecting the Libyan people from suffering throughout the operations that ousted Gaddafi. Some questionable actions notwithstanding, I saw those pledges to be made in good faith. NATO and rebel forces both knew that their causes -- to intervene with a protection mandate and to overthrow a dictator, respectively -- wouldn't be viewed as legitimate if either was intentionally harming the population.

Still, in this war (as in all wars) civilians were killed, maimed, lost. And it will be much harder for Libya's new state to get on its feet if many of its people cannot contribute to its success.

If history is any predictor of the future, thousands of Libyans like Mahmoud won't get much help, or even attention. Iraq's widows are still waiting for promised pensions -- many are now destitute, unable to provide for families. Think back to the world wars or any of the localized Cold War era scrabbles. Countless civilians lost loved ones, but we don't know how many; we don't know their names; and few received the help they deserved, much less recognition of their losses and suffering.

There are three reasons that victims deemed "collateral damage" by warring parties are so often forgotten. Foremost, their stories aren't salacious. Losses considered part of the business of conducting a war are often portrayed as regrettable but expected, and blame is hard to pin down, leaving the story without a good antagonist. Second, there are no laws that require warring parties to recognize and make amends for the losses they've caused to the civilian population during lawful combat. So while there are legal rules for handling executions and other violations of international law, there is no parallel recourse for civilians caught between the lawful actions of the National Transitional Council, NATO or Gaddafi loyalists (like a small arms firefight or a bomb that mistakenly went off course).

Finally, since a man like Mahmoud isn't entitled to a day in court, his concerns most likely won't be addressed by the accountability and reconciliation programs now being developed in the new Libya. States emerging from conflict tend to put out the biggest fires first, or those for which they have templates. Providing formal justice has been addressed before (albeit insufficiently in most cases, from Yugoslavia to Rwanda), so at the very least there's a path to follow. Not so for someone unintentionally shot on the way to the market.

Still, recognizing and assisting civilians inadvertently harmed in war is not without precedent. Libyan policymakers can take their cue from some recent examples of recognition and help to a war-torn population. In Afghanistan, NATO forces have offered compensation for destroyed homes and medical care for injuries. In Iraq, the US Congress approved a livelihood assistance program for families specifically harmed by US combat operations. In Somalia, Yemen, and Georgia there haven't been official programs of amends for losses, but compensation or housing has been offered on occasion. These efforts aren't perfect and the context of the Libyan conflict is unique, but the civilian suffering and imperatives to ease it are strikingly similar no matter the conflict zone.

And there are also the small programs Libya has already started. In Benghazi, we are told the National Transitional Council has established a committee to register and compensate the wounded and the families of the killed, the detained, and the missing. This is a laudable effort and has to be expanded to reach the entire country when it's safe to do so. And while the compensation was only planned for loss of life and limb, all losses should eventually be provided for, including property and livelihoods.

The NTC is responsible for the well-being of its own people, but the new government is going to need a lot of international support to get it right. The UN began tracking casualties just after the start of the conflict, and should provide that data along with technical assistance so Libya can plan to properly care for all those in need. NATO also has a role here, despite never quite getting its act together to track civilian casualties. Given the security force's protection mandate, NATO cannot walk away from the human costs of this conflict without raising serious questions about its suitability to conduct military interventions, present and future. Civilians harmed in the midst of NATO combat operations -- like in an airstrike in June -- should certainly receive recognition and help.

With the support from its friends, Libya could be one of the first post-conflicts to get this right, and make sure that some form of justice isn't for the few but for all.