Collateral Displacement in War

| November 3, 2017
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Threats to civilian lives should matter for our decisions in war. When deciding whether some strategy or action in war is proportionate and thus permissible, military strategists commonly evaluate the so-called collateral damage; they weigh the number of civilians likely to be killed or injured along with the likely damage to civilian infrastructure against the military advantage being sought. What they do not commonly consider is collateral displacement—displacement of large groups of people that is often an unintended but foreseeable result of many operations in war.

As the laws of war currently stand, while displacement cannot be used as a tool for war, collateral displacement is barely addressed. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Law of War Manual (the Armed Forces’ primary tool for evaluating permissibility in war) addresses collateral displacement not once in its 1200 pages.1 While the manual repeatedly professes that “the protection of civilians against the harmful effects of hostilities is one of the main purposes of the law of war” it focuses exclusively on direct lethal harm and damage to civilian property.

It is not clear why the manual does not address collateral displacement, but there are two likely explanations. Either military planners think that displacement is just not harmful enough to take into consideration, or they think that the harm of displacement is hard to reliably predict. I think they are wrong on both counts. Displacement is a significant harm that can be reliably correlated with lethal harm.

An average refugee now spends an entire generation displaced.2 Some refugees live in official refugee camps, which are often understaffed and unable to provide for the most basic needs of those living in them. Others live outside of formal refugee camps, in make-shift encampments where the conditions are commonly even worse. For example, Jordan is currently home to over 1.4 million Syrian refugees, only 20 percent of which live in formal (usually UNHCR-run) refugee camps.3 Malnutrition and debilitating illness are common there. Large numbers of refugees die from diarrheal, acute respiratory, or malarial illness. Studies show that the crude mortality rate in refugee camps can, depending on the region and conflict, be twenty to eighty times higher than peacetime rate.4 In other words, a displaced person is twenty to eighty times more likely to die as a result of being a refugee in a poorly provisioned refugee camp than during non-emergencies in the same region. Many of these deaths occur in the first few weeks of displacement.5

All of this means that often in war we commit acts that we know will (without appropriate and timely remedies) cause the death of some significant number of civilians. That is why we should care about collateral displacement; it translates into lethal harm in a predictable way. We care about the destruction of civilian infrastructure for much the same reason, after all. The prohibition on destruction of civilian buildings like hospitals and water treatment plants emerges out of the fact that such destruction will foreseeably result in civilian deaths that we can reliably quantify. Even in the absence of civilians near a civilian-use property or infrastructure, the damage or destruction to such property is considered relevant for our analyses of proportionality in war, because such damage has an indirect, but reliably quantifiable relationship with lethal harm to civilians. If our reasons for prohibiting the destruction of civilian infrastructure are grounded in the predictable increase in civilian deaths, we have no reason to exclude collateral displacement from our collateral damage calculations.

Once we start paying attention to collateral displacement, the list of strategies available to us in any given war will likely shrink, because some of them will collaterally displace so many people that they will become disproportionate and thus impermissible. Consider the following scenario: a military contingent needs to take control of the enemy’s ammunition storage. The proposed operation to do so will likely collaterally displace 250 civilians and directly risk the lives of another five. Using traditional proportionality analysis the commander may assess that the risk of direct lethal harm to five civilians is worth the military advantage. What the commander fails to consider, however, is that a number of the displaced civilians will also suffer and even die as direct result of their displacement. These additional harms, if they are factored in, may shift the balance of the proportionality consideration.

If we take collateral displacement seriously in our proportionality calculations in scenarios like the one above, we will be left with two options: either abstain from using those strategies, or take greater responsibility for providing staff and resources to refugee camps in the region.

Public debate on refugees seems to be focused on whether or not, as a matter of kindness, we ought to help refugees from armed conflicts, but there are good reasons to provide for refugees that have nothing to do with kindness and everything to do with remedying the harm we cause in pursuing wars.


Jovana Davidovic is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa.


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  5.  as well as The emergency phase of the encampment according to both studies has the strongest increase in mortality rates.
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Category: Blog, The Ethics of War and Peace

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