News & views | 15 June 2017 | by Felisha Aakster


Will NATO sucessfully implement a Protection of Civilians Policy?

During a period of four intensive months as a research intern at PAX I studied the implementation of NATO’s Protection of Civilians (PoC) policy, all under supervision of Wilbert van der Zeijden, project lead Defence and Security Policy at PAX. The study provided many new insights into how NATO approaches policy implementation processes and how the discourse on Protection of Civilians is developing. One question remains unanswered though: will the implementation of NATO’s PoC policy have real effect on the ground? Will it change military planning and operational procedures, will it lead to military making different decisions on the ground, with beneficial implications for civilians?

Promising progress by NATO

Starting on a positive note, on paper the Action Plan NATO drafted as a guide for the implementation process looks promising. NATO attempts to implement PoC systematically into the organisation by, along with ten other actions, developing a Military Concept, by revising planning directives and by training and educating troops in PoC. Furthermore, the implementation process is relatively open. NATO cooperates with other IOs and NGOs on the implementation and solicits their input. To me, this shows NATO has serious intentions to get protection of civilians “ín the bloodstream of the organisation” as one respondent phrased it. In addition, PoC is somewhat of a hot topic and most member states would agree that successful protection of civilians is crucial in modern missions.

Limited effect

On a more negative note, I am sceptical about the practical implications this policy will have in and on NATO’s member states. First, our research showed that several member states seem less inclined to implement the PoC policy. Some states believe their efforts in the field of PoC are already sufficient or even better than NATO’s PoC policy. Others see no need to prioritize PoC implementation amidst a growing number of ‘soft’ objectives. The conduct of operations by NATO member states part of the Coalition against the Islamic State is worrisome in that respect. Following investigations by Airwars, a transparency project investigating the international air war against Islamic State, members of the Coalition are responsible for approximately 1,500 civilian casualties since 2014. Especially in terms of transparency and accountability about civilian casualties the members of the Coalition score poorly.

Too controversial

The issue of civilian casualties was, according to some of our respondents, “too controversial” to make it into the PoC Policy and Action Plan. Other respondents said they believe the PoC Military Concept will have to detail how NATO deals with civilian casualties. Either way, this begs the question to what extent NATO member states are willing to let NATO Policy on PoC affect their actual conduct of operations in, exspecially when operating outside the NATO framework. NATO may not be able to create sufficient incentives for member states to commit, to transparent, measurable, real life, protection of civilians.


Of more practical concern is that the officers at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, responsible for coordinating the implementation, will all be phased out now that the policy drafting is done, on paper. Those positions will not be filled again, except by voluntary national contribution if available. Quite a few respondents voiced the concern that, without a central person with enough rank to drive the implementation process, implementation may be at risk.

Time will tell…

So, will NATO’s PoC policy and Action Plan translate to real effect on the ground? Or not? I do think NATO will make a considerable step in defining and understanding PoC. The Military Concept will be a crucial step in this process. If successful, the Concept will heighten awareness in the organisation of the importance of PoC, it will lead to new operational guidelines and procedures that will be trained at the Academies and in exercises. At the same time, several respondents argued that it is unlikely that NATO will be end up in a mission any time soon in which PoC can be applied, and evaluated, which could undermine NATO’s resolve to get PoC ‘in the bloodstream.’ This would leave it to the member states to interpret PoC outside a joint NATO-context. And as indicated above, there is reason to doubt whether member states will put the protection of civilians at the heart of the planning and conducting of their operations.



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