By Chimezie Godfrey
The Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre CISLAC in collaboration with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) has urged the government to assent to the policy and proposed legislation on Protection of Civilians (PoC) in armed conflict in Nigeria.
In a welcome address at the PoC Champions Workshop on Tuesday in Abuja, the Executive Director, CISLAC, Auwal Rafsanjani, commended the efforts of those who availed themselves as instrument of advocacy on the safety of innocent civilians.
He stressed that protective layers must be built across three interconnected spheres: individual, community and the state, adding that harm can be reduced by the strict adherence to rules regulating the use of force.
He said,”While the CIVIC and CISLAC have made specific efforts to ensure that community-based protection approaches are integrated more systematically into its response, such activities can never be considered a substitute for the protection responsibilities borne by authorities.
“These activities are looking to build on its role as a neutral intermediary, by supporting community self-advocacy and organizing information sessions on legal rights.
“Governments must assent to the policy and proposed legislation on PoC as well as present it in a manner that is proof of structural gaps.
“I am glad it is the more reason we have gathered here today; to recognise those whose efforts have positively influenced this process – to establish clear framework for institutional authorities and responsibilities for the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
“For, as bleak as the current state of protection is, there is considerable scope for improvement if we each do our utmost to promote and implement the rules that bind us to preserve humanity in war.”
Rafsanjani pointed out that civilians are the best stewards of their own protection, and because they are “our constituencies, we owe it a duty to design the pathway, that ensures that communities are safe, effective and meaningful; with these kinds of efforts to bring peace and stability in conflict.
“Civilians have devised and implemented highly effective solutions, including communities demanding and obtaining armed escort for women leaving their homes to gather firewood; community leaders persuading warring parties into an agreement to a daily ceasefire; that is because of the effect they also suffer directly or indirectly.
“I urge you to strengthen sanctions that holds perpetrators to account, the experiences and needs of civilian communities who suffer the daily brutalities of armed conflict must be incorporated into measures that protect them.
“We must move beyond a victim mind set to understanding people and communities as agents of their own protection and experts of their own situation, people in communities who suffer the daily brutalities of war and violence do not wait for external intervention, this is as a result of trust deficit that is damaged.”
Rafsanjani noted that too many actors take the absence of political convergence as a free ride for military operations without any limitations and without accountability.
He therefore emphasized that there must be clearer support for respecting international humanitarian law, as no one is above the law, adding that states must adapt to changing needs by prioritizing civilian protection and setting clearer ground rules, among other measures.
The Country Director, CIVIC, Dr Benson Olugbuo explained that the event was aimed at celebrating Protection of Civilians Champions organised with the support of the European Union.
He noted that CIVC with the support of other stakeholders has taken great strides on the journey to adopting a civilian centred approach towards the protection of civilians in Nigeria.
Dr Olugbuo revealed that they are driven by the passion to save and protect civilians through engaging with relevant armed actors and civilians in conflict to develop and implement solutions to prevent, mitigate and respond to civilian harm and in advancement of “our vision of a world in which no civilian is harmed in conflict.”
According to him, it is CIVIC’s firm believe that parties to an armed conflict have a responsibility and interest to prevent and address civilian harm, engaging directly with armed actors and offering them practical ways to better protect civilians will ultimately change their mindset on the importance and feasibility of protecting civilians, among others.
He disclosed that in Nigeria, CIVIC has been working to promote these by engaging with key military institutions to influence their curriculum and reinforce the Protection of Civilians and Civilian Harm Mitigation (POC/CHM).
“In pursuit of these ideals, CIVIC has successfully trained over 2,387 military personnel at training institutions and deployment centres, engaged and trained 663 deployed troops within Brigades in the North East, facilitated training of trainers for 93 military instructors, facilitated 19 meaningful dialogues and town hall meetings between the military, community militias, stakeholders and civilians to strengthen trust, coordination and and inclusive community driven protection of civilians strategies.
“In addition, CIVIC has engaged and empowered communities in the northeast, to establish 6 functional community protection committees (CPCs), made up of 300 community members drawn from across project communities and camps that continue to facilitate appropriate engagement with key security agencies to advocate for their community’s protection needs.
“Furthermore, CIVIC has trained 603 community militias including vigilantes, Civilian Joint Task Force & Hunters on protection of civilians’ principles to provide them with the basic knowledge on understanding civilian centred protection.
“Above and beyond this, is the several advocacy engagements towards the adoption of a Protection of civilians’ policy and bill that CIVIC has been working on with many of you in this room as its champions. When adopted, Nigeria will be the first country in Africa with such a policy that seeks to further safeguard its citizens from harm,” he said.
Dr Olugbuo explained that the concept of POC seeks to address the threats by mitigating harm, facilitating access to basic needs and contributing to establishing a safe and secure environment.
“Basically, POC policy is “Protection of Civilians (persons, objects and services) encompasses all efforts made to avoid, minimize and mitigate the negative effects on civilians arising from military operations on the civilian population and, when applicable, to protect civilians from conflict-related physical violence or threats of violence by other actors, including through the establishment of a safe and secure environment.
“Apart from making Nigeria the very first country in Africa to have a policy and bill that underlines its commitment to civilian protection, the policy recognizes – and builds upon the following:
“Existing best practices, which includes approaches that have been proven to be working in the northeast to address the crisis and improve the humanitarian situation.
“Second, the policy document recognizes – and builds upon existing laws. It is consistent with obligations outlined in domestic law, international law, treaties, and constitutional principles.
“Third, it recognizes that to be effective, we must be consistent across government. Under the policy and draft bill, all Nigerian security operations will prioritize the safety and security of civilians and endeavor to minimize the negative effects of conflict on the civilian population.
“Fourth, the policy documents recognizes that civilians must not be forgotten. The policy and draft bill affirm Government’s commitment to ensuring the protection of civilians throughout the planning and conduct of all security operations – as well as protecting civilians from the actions of other armed actors.
“Finally, this policy, while ambitious, is achievable. The steps outlined are clear and grounded. As we have seen in the progress made here in Nigeria and other parts of the world, there are proven techniques in promoting the protection of civilians,” he said.
He urged the PoC champions, to explore mechanisms that will not only promote the adoption of the PoC policy and draft bill but support its implementation and enforcement.
The Chairman, House Committee on Army, Federal House of Representatives, Hon. Abdulrazaq Namdas noted that the Protection of Civilian and civilian Harm Mitigation is a veritable tool to find an immediate and long-term solutions to the problem confronting and threatening soft targets.
Represented by Mr Adeola Adewumi, Namdas enjoined all awardees and recipients, including himself; to see this recognition as a call to National duty, adding that the PoC is an important consideration across the spectrum of military operations.
He pointed out that there is an existing vacuum and they have collectively developed a policy regime as well as proposed a legislative framework that can help bridge the gap.
“I assure all Champions here today; my sole agenda will be to see the bill component become a law before the end of the 9th Assembly.
“These vacuums also exist in our rules of engagements and concepts of operations. We need to deal with the discretionary powers of a personnel when it comes to the protection of civilian. The use of discretion is the bedrock for abuse and thereafter, subsequent harm.
“Protection of Civilians (PoC) must be considered and integrated during all operations. Civilians are protected persons under international law, and parties to a conflict have a legal obligation to protect civilians from the conflict’s effects.
“Additionally, PoC should be a major objective of many military operations and as well as frequently included in mandates for any kind of operations, no matter how little.
“This has remained my gospel everywhere I conduct my oversight function. There are at least four challenges regarding the PoC strategy. First, an actual PoC strategy from higher echelons may not exist (or it may be too vague to be of value),” he stressed.
Also represented at the occasion were the European Union (EU), the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the State Emergency Management Agency, Borno State, and the Network of Civil Society in Borno State, among others.