International Order & Conflict
Policy Paper

A Political and Diplomatic Case for Protection of Civilians at NATO

Revitalizing NATO’s landmark Protection of Civilians policy for a shifting global security landscape

As NATO faces a shifting and evolving strategic landscape, PoC will continue to have political and military relevance for NATO in future operating environments. While much of the work on PoC must take place in a military realm, political and diplomatic perspectives will also be critical in the years ahead. NATO’s PoC policy and supporting documents, as well as progress in implementation over the past five years, are a significant achievement and reinforce the unique values-based nature of the Alliance. NATO has led the way in actual application and demonstrated real-world success. A shifting strategic environment with new priorities should not marginalize the continuing importance of PoC to NATO’s core identity; instead, it should necessitate the reaffirmation and recalibration for a new era. NATO must re-focus political attention on PoC implementation with a specific focus on resourcing and adapting the concept to address new threats.

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Introduction

NATO’s established approach to the Protection of Civilians (PoC) over the past five years, and its experience in Afghanistan and Libya over the past two decades, positions it as a leader in the global protection space. As NATO faces a shifting and evolving strategic landscape—away from out-of-area operations and toward territorial defense, great power competition, and hybrid threats—PoC will continue to have political and military relevance for NATO in future operating environments. While much of the work on PoC must take place in a military realm—including further development and diffusion of the concept as a core military capability—political and diplomatic perspectives will also be critical in the years ahead.

In future conflicts, NATO political authorities will task a military mission and must absorb, internalize, and continuously build a deep understanding of PoC. The Alliance can maintain a strategic and ethical edge against its adversaries by remaining a leader in implementing robust PoC approaches and ensuring it remains part of the operational mindset in future missions.

The coming year holds particular importance as Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg leads the development of a new NATO Strategic Concept 2022, which will look ahead to the challenges confronting the Alliance, as discussed in the NATO 2030 agenda, and beyond. For some, it may be tempting to focus on a fresh start, moving on from policies, concepts, and lessons learned associated with previous conflicts, including counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and its abrupt conclusion. Indeed, one consequence of this shift for PoC has been its transfer in 2019 from a robust role in NATO’s Operations Division to an under-resourced item under the control of the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security.

Even though PoC—and the policy itself—was singled out in the June 2021 Brussels NATO Summit Communiqué1Brussels Summit Communiqué Issued by the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels,” NATO, June 14, 2021, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm.,the path forward to understand the policy implications and integrate PoC implementation into NATO’s partnerships, policy, exercises, operations, and mission planning could be more clearly defined. As NATO evolves its thinking about future missions and force posture, it is in its Allies’ and Partners’ continuing interest to maintain prioritization of PoC to demonstrate continued adherence to the Alliance’s founding values and maintain robust public support.

Legacy

NATO has built an impressive foundation from which to develop further its ability to protect civilians in conflict. At NATO’s July 2016 Warsaw Summit, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) endorsed a formal NATO policy for the protection of civilians. But of course, NATO’s engagement on PoC did not begin in Warsaw; there were many important lines of effort underway long before—within NATO HQ, in missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq, and other international forums. NATO’s policy provided political top cover and pulled those lines of effort together into a coherent, consistent, and integrated approach that future NATO and NATO-led operations and missions could apply.

NATO Warsaw Summit 2016

Driven by our values and international law, we recognize the imperative to protect civilians from the effects of armed conflict…In this policy, protection of civilians includes all efforts taken to avoid, minimise, and mitigate the negative effects on civilians arising from NATO and NATO-led military operations and, when applicable, to protect civilians from conflict-related physical violence or threats of physical violence by others.

Following the 2016 Summit endorsement, NATO developed an Action Plan with clearly defined activities toward implementation and a Military Concept for the Protection of Civilians that outlined a framework to build NATO capabilities. The concept included four key concepts:

  • Understand the human environment,
  • Mitigate harm (both from NATO operations and from other actors who might seek to harm civilians as a strategy),
  • Facilitate access to basic needs, and
  • Contribute to a safe and secure environment.2NATO, “NATO Policy for the Protection of Civilians Endorsed by the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Warsaw,” NATO, July 9, 2016, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_133945.htm.

NATO has developed a wide range of tools, including integrating PoC into doctrine, developing a PoC focus in training and exercises, and creating a military handbook that weaves PoC into daily operations, tactical decisions, and challenges. However, it is unclear how allies and partners have integrated the PoC policy into their national plans and strategies.

By creating a strong foundation for PoC, NATO has signaled its willingness to live up to the values that hold the Alliance together. Much work remains, however. NATO should reaffirm PoC as a core element of its shared values and a path toward success in the future, both on and off the battlefield.

NATO should reaffirm PoC as a core element of its shared values and a path toward success in the future, both on and off the battlefield

NATO can work to advance PoC now by raising awareness of NATO policy and the day-to-day implications of that policy for all NATO decision-making, garnering buy-in from both military and political leaders, and gaining the support of all 30 Allies and NATO’s political and operational partners. This support will enable NATO to provide support and, importantly, resourcing to develop PoC further as a core military capability backed by strong political support.

Toward the Future

The 2021 Summit made clear that NATO is making a significant strategic pivot away from out-of-area operations to confront transnational threats such as terrorism, trafficking, and maritime piracy along with instability on the Alliance’s periphery. The new challenges facing the Alliance are both traditional and novel. Great power competition has returned, with Moscow seeking to challenge Washington and the West in several domains and geographies. China is now a serious strategic competitor as well. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally shifted the calculus of what constitutes an enduring threat to transatlantic society.

New threats are emerging, posing unprecedented and, in some cases, existential challenges to governments and security institutions. In cyberspace, rogue actors operating with strategic rivals’ tacit or even explicit support can affect critical infrastructure, undermine military preparedness, and foster citizen distrust in government and institutions. Hybrid warfare, as practiced by Russia against Ukraine, is designed to create confusion and controversy through actions with unclear origins and appearing as something else, enabling deniability and escape of responsibility. This, in turn, muddles the application of strategic direction and weakens the ability of Allies to organize and use the military and non-military tools available to them.

NATO’s future-oriented perspective will come into sharper focus later this year through the NATO 2030 agenda and the “Forward Looking Reflection Process” undertaken by Secretary General Stoltenberg. One part of the agenda already agreed will be a revised Strategic Concept to replace the one produced in 2010. This Strategic Concept 2022 is mandated to look at new threats and technologies, redefine security challenges back towards great power competition, the rise of China as a strategic competitor, and better align NATO’s political and military instruments to safeguard the freedom and security of all Allies.

NATO will also, however, want to double down on the shared values that form a core element of strength in the Alliance. These values include a renewed emphasis on the broad topic of Human Security, an umbrella concept (as yet undefined by NATO) that, along with PoC, includes Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC), Human Trafficking, Combat-Related Sexual Violence, and Cultural Property Protection. The revised Concept should also be an opportunity to update NATO’s thinking on Human Security topics with a particular focus on PoC to include Article V operations on an Ally’s territory, where protecting civilians—including possibly citizens of NATO Allies—may either be critical to success or the main goal of the operation. With this in mind, NATO’s renewed focus on a strong deterrence and defense posture3Ibid., Para 6B also reinforces the importance of protecting civilians. PoC must be incorporated into standing defense plans as well as into dynamic planning and regular NATO exercises, including on the defense of the Alliance.

PoC must be incorporated into standing defense plans as well as into dynamic planning and regular NATO exercises, including on the defense of the Alliance.

A renewed political and diplomatic commitment to PoC in the Strategic Concept will reinforce NATO’s core values and focus the Alliance on mitigating and managing conflicts and their impact on civilian populations. The new Concept should also seek to address the vulnerability of civilians to emerging and disruptive technologies and hybrid threats, suggesting, perhaps, a responsibility to protect in the absence of open or attributed conflict, consistent with the Article III responsibility towards resilience and Article IV ability of any Ally to consult on security concerns below the level of armed conflict. The work surrounding PoC must be reinvigorated at the political level to remain at the core of NATO’s identity and be relevant to new challenges, requirements, and opportunities. The 2022 NATO Summit will be a critical moment with the new Strategic Concept providing Allies a vital opportunity to reboot NATO’s PoC policy while the Alliance pivots back to collective defense.

To lock in this commitment, Allies and Partners will need to take the lead and provide the impetus for NATO to move ahead on PoC. National champions will attract the attention of NATO’s senior leadership and staff and help guide the next steps. Based on recent discussions, the interest and motivation on the part of certain nations are evident. It remains, however, unclear which countries will be willing to match their stated rhetorical intentions with concrete steps to advance this agenda. One angle of consideration may be the reflective process NATO intends to undertake after the messy end to Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan and the subsequent evacuation operation. Although messy and incomplete, the demonstrated commitment in late August 2021 to evacuating vulnerable Afghan civilian allies following the collapse of the Afghan government, protected them from likely Taliban reprisals.

Rebooting PoC

There is no doubt that NATO has made great strides in advancing a broad-based approach to PoC in the Alliance’s thinking, policies, and messaging. However, the long-term institutional memory, sustained capacity and tools needed to carry out PoC in a future mission have not yet been created  Missing also is the ability of NATO political leaders to create mission mandates that effectively communicate their expectations to military leaders about what they mean by PoC. Clarity in the mandate allows military leaders to create desired end-states and to plan and execute missions with the protection of civilians in mind.

On the political side, factoring in the adoption of NATO’s policy on PoC five years ago may now have led to complacency and a belief that because it exists, the policy is now fully ingrained in NATO’s thinking and planning. Another tendency may be an implicit view that the prioritization of PoC is a relic of a bygone era in NATO’s past as the Alliance shifts focus away from counterterrorism, stabilization, and out-of-area operations toward new security challenges, hybrid threats, and great power competition. However, the fulfillment of a true, comprehensive, and effective approach by NATO to the protection of civilians remains unfinished even though PoC is every bit as relevant to the new threats and strategic realities facing the Alliance.

Stemming from its core values and practical PoC achievements, NATO is uniquely positioned to advance international norms and frameworks in this area. First and foremost, PoC has enabled NATO to signal its strong adherence to human-centered values in its strategies, policies, and actions. It indicates an abiding respect for the rule of law, not just in letter but in action. Fealty to PoC has also contributed to enduring domestic public support for NATO operations, and when it was done very well, it boosted local support in mission areas. Efforts to protect the civilian population in Afghanistan, for example, helped sustain a steady political commitment of troops and funding for NATO’s longest mission and amply demonstrated how it could be integrated into the strategic and operational objectives of the mission.

Focus on PoC has also been a bedrock component of NATO’s upholding of the rules-based international order. Recent NATO condemnations of Russia’s use of advanced poisons in Salisbury4“Statement by the North Atlantic Council on the Use of a Nerve Agent in Salisbury,” NATO, March 14, 2018, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_152787.htm. and Syria’s chemical weapons5 “Statement by the North Atlantic Council on Actions Taken against the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria,” NATO, April 14, 2018, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_153670.htm. emphasize their effect on civilians. Finally, PoC is a high priority for several NATO Partners, such as Austria, Finland, and Ukraine, providing continued engagement and collaboration opportunities. Indeed, this combination of Partners and Allies formed a “Tiger Team” that helped drive PoC onto the agenda for NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit.

Nevertheless, the effort to fully integrate PoC into NATO’s work remains incomplete. NATO’s priorities, methods, and outlook are changing rapidly as it confronts new and unprecedented threats from several directions. The first PoC Action Plan achieved its purpose of focusing NATO on the issue in a comprehensive manner and considering the first steps for implementation. However, as NATO pivots towards new threats and opportunities, the need for a next-generation plan—one that identifies core capabilities to be developed on both the political and military sides—is increasingly apparent.

An Enduring Capability

To truly realize an enduring and continually relevant PoC capability that enables military counterparts to safeguard civilians in future missions, NATO political leaders need to maintain the momentum of the PoC policy and apply further resources to its application for new threats and challenges. PoC should be an integral part of the Alliance’s emphasis on fortifying resilience (consistent with Allies’ obligations under Article III) to new, unexpected, and unattributed threats. A revived and revised political strategy on PoC will be vital to gaining the needed attention and recalibration. Ideally, it should come from four directions: NATO institutions, NGOs and the thinking community, other multilateral organizations, and, most importantly, Allies and Partners.

NATO Institutions

PoC succeeds when it is factored in from the beginning in peacetime training and exercises and pre-mission operational planning, not as an afterthought or bolted on to an already-formed operation or mission. Thus, the work to weave PoC into NATO activities, strategies, and outlook should focus on its institutionalization and resourcing.

PoC is currently housed under the Human Security (HS) agenda and is part of the Special Representative for Women, Peace, and Security.6 “NATO to Step up Work on Human Security Approach,” NATO (blog), February 25, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_181798.htm. Unfortunately, there is currently no International Staff (IS) devoted explicitly to PoC, and only limited coordination of this work with the partnership activities of the Political Affairs and Security Policy (PASP) Division and with the operations planning at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), the Allied Command Operations headquarters. PASP traditionally provides policy leadership for carrying out Allied priorities, working with the International Military Staff (IMS) at HQ, SHAPE and Allied Command Transformation (ACT) to ensure its centrality in partnership policy and operations planning. For PoC to become a focus of this office—as it ought to be—staffing and resources are necessary. In addition, it would also make sense for PoC to be explicitly included in a staff portfolio in the Secretary General’s Private Office. Ensuring the advancement of the PoC agenda will require consistent and dependable staff resources in both the IS and IMS.

PoC succeeds when it is factored in from the beginning in peacetime training and exercises and pre-mission operational planning, not as an afterthought or bolted on to an already-formed operation or mission.

While including PoC under the larger HS umbrella makes some organizational sense and permits tidier bureaucratic lines of authority and division of responsibility (like Women, Peace, and Security [WPS]), PoC needs a clear home within the IS structure with staffing, resources, and a direct connection to policy in order to be fully incorporated into partnership, planning, and operations. In addition to the PASP office—perhaps under the direction of the Arms Control, Disarmament, and Non-Proliferation Center (which also runs NATO’s small arms/light weapons and mine action policy and programs)—NATO should create dedicated Peacetime Establishment (PE) positions, which can help develop a military structure that is more effective with regard to operational and transformational tasks, and nations should provide staffing to SHAPE.

PoC currently seems to be thought of as a primarily J9 function (civil-military cooperation). However, it must be part of the J5 (operations planning) to ensure that the design and development of operations, exercises, and training result from new and updated doctrine on emerging threats and Large-Scale Combat Operations. NATO could also benefit from an update of its survey of PoC implementation by national militaries. While an early survey was done ahead of the development of the policy, it would behoove NATO to understand better what allies and partners have on their books in terms of policy, doctrine, guidance, and training to ensure a coherent understanding and interoperability in future missions.

Beyond organizational charts, the Secretary General’s Private Office needs to ensure PoC is a regular feature on agendas of the Political Committee, the Deputies Committee, the Operations Policy Committee, the Military Committee, and ultimately the North Atlantic Council, with periodic reviews and opportunities to consider ways to develop further the strategy and its implementation. PoC policies and concepts must also be exercised regularly in NATO’s large-scale field and headquarters exercises (especially the biennial crisis management exercise and the Jupiter command post exercises), including NATO Force Structure Exercises (e.g., JAGUAR), national exercises (e.g., the DEFENDER series), and with NATO and Partner participation (e.g., AURORA).

As Secretary General Stoltenberg seeks to pilot NATO toward the future, the time is ripe to consider PoC for a new era and articulate its evolving relevance. Ideally, PoC should be a critical capability identified for further resources and development across the 2030 agenda to become an integral element of the new Strategic Concept. This evolution must be a feature of the 2022 Summit communiqué.

Non-governmental Organizations & Thinking Community

As has been the case in other international organizations, non-governmental organizations specializing in humanitarian law, human rights, and international security have an important role in advancing thinking and practical outcomes on PoC. The Stimson Center, PAX, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), HALO Trust, Small Arms Survey, and others have explored PoC’s continuing relevance and importance in a shifting strategic landscape, including deep experience in conflict zones. CIVIC, for example, has been a relentless advocate for practical ways to implement PoC in conflict zones, as demonstrated by the research it has undertaken on the operationalization7Marla Keenan and Alexander William Beadle, “Operationalizing Protection of Civilians in NATO Operations,” Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 4, no. 1 (November 20, 2015): Art. 55, https://doi.org/10.5334/sta.gr. and implementation8 Shannon N. Green, Lee Sutton, and Ashelyn Pindell, “Closing the Gap: Implementation of Protection of Civilians Policies” (Center for Civilians in Conflict, October 2020), https://civiliansinconflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/POC-Brief.pdf. of PoC, notably in Afghanistan.9Qayoom Suroush, “Afghan Airstrikes: Good Practices and Challenges to Protect Civilians” (Center for Civilians in Conflict, August 2020), https://civiliansinconflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/PB-on-Airstrike-_Final.pdf. A broader cast of thinkers, such as RAND Corporation, the Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance (DCAF), and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, could provide a more military-focused perspective and jump-start ideas on PoC’s relevance to a new era. Case in point: the Stimson Center has commissioned a set of papers (including this one) focused on identifying future challenges in PoC and providing recommendations to NATO for developing PoC as a core capability. These organizations have spent decades working on this topic, and NATO should continue to leverage their experience and expertise.

International Organizations

Momentum on PoC can also come through the interactions NATO has with other international organizations. Some of the original impetus for the current PoC policy at NATO came from a realization that the United Nations had taken significant steps to mainstream protection of civilians in conflict into the mandates of UN peacekeeping and political missions. That synergy can continue. Coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the EU External Action Service are excellent opportunities for realizing progress in areas of shared concern such as PoC. Efforts by other regional organizations, such as the African Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to advance PoC in their regions, even if under different political contexts, are also opportunities for NATO to exchange lessons learned on the way forward. All of these external engagements will help impart and contribute to cementing the relevance and advantages of PoC. They also provide prime material for a more robust and forward-leaning messaging strategy NATO will need to communicate effectively with a domestic public that remains leery of global commitments and arrangements.

Allies and Partners

NATO institutions and agendas can be quite sensitive to prevailing political winds from national capitals, meaning Allies, with support from the Partners, can take the lead in advancing PoC within NATO. This was the case in 2014 when a group of countries banded together to urge its inclusion on the NATO political agenda. This effort ensured the policy’s drafting and its eventual adoption at the 2016 Warsaw Summit.

To make further progress, countries that see PoC as a tangible example of their values embedded in a commitment to shared defense and cooperative security should look at ways to energize and refresh the agenda at NATO.

The policy itself has stood the test of time. However, champions of the PoC agenda need to emphasize that PoC is an urgent security priority, especially in an era of renewed great power competition, when the nature of a conflict could be unclear or unattributable, or if conflict takes place on their own territory. What if a NATO Ally were to find itself needing to request an Article V operation on its own territory? NATO citizens would thus require protection from those adversaries who may seek to harm them as a strategy.

Principal Recommendations

  • Define PoC’s relationship with Human Security so that it can transcend a policy-only approach and gain focus and resourcing as a core political issue and military capability.
  • Make PoC an explicit concern of the SG’s Private Office to ensure a comprehensive approach and continued visibility.
  • Task an office within PASP, along with adequate personnel and financial resources, to sustain political, diplomatic, and operational momentum on PoC.
  • Allied Command Transformation should approach one of the Centres of Excellence—preferably Civil-Military Cooperation—to provide further analysis and support for advancing PoC throughout NATO.
  • Place PoC as a standing item for periodic review on the agendas of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) and the Political, Deputies, Operations Policy, and Military committees.
  • Develop a NATO Standards Agreement to foster the continued development of consistent and robust national policies on PoC among Allies and Partners.
  • Continue efforts to integrate PoC into operations and planning at ACO and subordinate commands, including, if necessary, by revising the current Action Plan or developing a new plan and creating Peacetime Establishment positions.
  • Re-assemble the “Friends of PoC” group from interested Allies and Partner nations and respected NGOs and IOPs operating at both a political level from capitals and among Permanent Representatives and at an expert level to ensure concrete proposals and reinforce its inclusion in the 2022 Strategic Concept.
  • Encourage robust engagement with a broader base of stakeholders, including national legislators, civil society and the private sector.

Key Message Elements

A successful political strategy will require a robust set of message elements to and from the constituencies mentioned above and directly to NATO citizens:

  • PoC is a valuable contribution to Alliance security and a manifestation of NATO’s unique and enduring role as a values-based security alliance.
  • PoC at NATO is a strategic effort demonstrating how an overriding concern for civilian well-being can deliver operational and strategic advantages.
  • Real-world examples of PoC’s advantages to NATO’s strategic objectives are the Alliance’s operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya.
  • PoC takes on added importance as NATO shifts its focus toward Article V concerns—both in the reinforcement of NATO’s Deterrence and Defense posture and the defense of Allied territory, requiring the protection of NATO’s civilians.
  • PoC has continuing relevance to NATO given the new threats and challenges facing the Alliance from attacks below the level of Article V, including information operations, cyber-attacks, terrorism, and other forms of hybrid warfare from state and non-state actors.
  • An adapted and successful PoC policy at NATO enhances and strengthens the Alliance’s resilience in the face of future uncertainties and risks.

Points of Opportunity

  • NATO’s 2021 Summit tasked the Secretary General to develop a new Strategic Concept as the Alliance looks ahead to 2030 and beyond for agreement at the 2022 NATO Madrid Summit. Within the IS and among Allies, the penholders for the Strategic Concept should be encouraged to include PoC in the final product.
  • Nations on record as supporting a robust approach to PoC at NATO, especially NATO Partners such as Sweden, Finland, Japan, Australia, and Switzerland; seek to match the rhetoric to specific actions and dedicate resources.
  • Encourage constructive engagement by the United States on PoC.
  • Include PoC on the agenda for the Ambassadors’ private lunch to prepare the NAC to revitalize the PoC agenda, including a formal decision to modernize guidance and prioritization in the new Strategic Concept.
  • Place PoC on the agenda of a Military Committee meeting for a lessons learned discussion, which would include incorporating PoC policy into CMX (building on the German/Dutch November 2021 exercise10The Stimson Center, PAX, Cordillera Applications Group and the 1st German Netherlands Corps (1GNC) have worked over the last year to develop a specific TTX on the protection of civilians in urban operations. The TTX will run October 2021 at 1GNC and could easily be adopted and replicated across various other NATO training outlets.) and providing recommendations to the Deputy SACEUR for incorporation into NATO’s military strategy and operational planning documents.
  • Highlight the importance of PoC to NATO at the Annual Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Lisbon in October 2021.
  • The NATO 2022 Summit must reinforce the importance of PoC to the security of NATO’s territory, population, and forces, now and in the future.

Conclusion

NATO’s PoC policy and supporting documents, as well as progress in implementation over the past five years, are a significant achievement and reinforce the unique values-based nature of the Alliance. NATO has led the way in actual application and demonstrated real-world success. A shifting strategic environment with new priorities should not marginalize the continuing importance of PoC to NATO’s core identity; instead, it should necessitate the reaffirmation and recalibration for a new era. NATO must re-focus political attention on PoC implementation with a specific focus on resourcing and adapting the concept to address new threats.

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