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date: 19 November 2017

Summary and Keywords

Contemporary civil conflicts frequently impose disproportionate costs of civilian populations. By some estimates, roughly 90% of conflict causalities were combatants in the wars of the early 20th century, but by the end of the century nearly 90% of causalities were civilians. While scholars have spent decades examining phenomena such as genocide and terrorism, they have only recently begun to systematically examine the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to the more general occurrence of civilian victimization during intra-state armed conflict. What is civilian victimization, and how does it differ from other forms of political violence? Is it possible to differentiate between “collateral damage” and intentional civilian targeting during civil conflicts? While virtually all conflicts impose significant costs on civilians, those costs vary tremendously across armed conflicts. Moreover, while collateral damage is an unfortunately common feature of warfare, violence perpetrated against civilians often includes massacres, bombings of civilian targets with negligible military value, summary executions, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of intentional attacks on noncombatants. Yet, these practices are comparatively more common during some wars, in some areas, or by some groups. This variation suggests that while all internal conflicts are violent, certain characteristics of actors, the conflict spaces, and/or the patterns of interactions between rebels, the government they challenge, and civilians within the conflict zone explain why some conflicts produce greater levels of abuse against civilians than do others. Do similar factors explain both government-sponsored civilian victimization and violence committed by non-state actors during civil conflict? A cursory review of available data clearly demonstrates that both state and non-state forces often engage in high levels of civilian victimization. In general, the existing evidences suggest that the motives for state and non-state actor violence are similar. However, key differences in the nature of institutional and organizational arrangements suggest that rebels and governments experience different types of constraints on their ability to act on their motives. How can the international community effectively respond in order to reduce the severity of civilian victimization in ongoing conflicts? This important policy question has produced a range of conflicting answers; however, the most recent scholarship on the topic suggests that both United Nations peacekeeping operations—particularly when they include a strong mandate for civilian protection and a robust military force—and international condemnation (“naming and shaming”) can effectively reduce the magnitude of intentional violence against civilians.

Keywords: intrastate conflict, civil war, insurgency, terrorism, mass killing, civilian victimization, violence

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