A DC-based NGO is promulgating a novel idea: that states should compensate civilians that they legally harm during combat operations.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict(CIVIC) has launched a “You Harm You Help” campaign. Having succeeded in convincing the US Government to create a trust fund for victims of collateral damage in Afghanistan and Iraq, the organization is now trying to figure out how to turn this practice into a global norm.

The idea is important because the existing laws of war don’t require governments to compensate war victims.Governments are often required to pay reparations for war crimes, but hitting civilians by accident is perfectly lawful. And a right to humanitarian assistance is widely recognized for all civilians, but the architecture for it constitutes little more than organized charity.

CIVIC wants to make compensation for deaths and maimings an obligation of warring governments, rather than a charity act by random donors and NGOs. And because the focus is on the outcome not the intention, CIVIC argues states should pay up whether they mean to hit civilians or not.

“In the past century, we’ve seen marked improvements in how we treat each other. Nations have made legally binding commitments to respect women’s and children’s rights, to abolish torture, and protect free expression. Through the Geneva Conventions and treaties banning weapons like landmines, nations have also promised to protect civilians when they go to war. But no treaty, custom or norm requires nations to help those they fail to protect. No matter how many civilians are killed in a war, no matter how many are left homeless, no matter how much property is destroyed, those who do the damage have no legal duty to help.

We hear time after time “war is war” – the standard explanation for overlooking harm to innocent people. It’s time for a change.”

I see CIVIC as a fascinating example of norm entrepreneurship. Fascinating in particular for my new book on advocacy campaigns because CIVIC hasn’t got very far yet, unlike most of the norm entrepreneurs identified in the advocacy networks literature who got attention because their campaigns succeeded.

What remains to be seen is whether CIVIC will become a failed campaign – whether its issue will fizzle, die or end up coopted by others’ issue agendas, or whether we are witnessing the first stages in a future global norm. Stay tuned.

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