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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The price of a life: the confluence of strategy and legitimacy in civilian harm compensation Heard, Kaleigh S.


It is estimated that since the Global War on Terror began in 2001, these wars have directly caused the deaths of 897,000 to 929,000 people, including 364,000 civilians (Cost of War Project, 2022). While efforts to mitigate civilian harm have grown, significantly less attention has been paid to what happens when civilian harm does, inevitably, occur. Theorized by counterinsurgency specialists to reduce or mitigate some of the population-centric strategic costs associated with civilian harm incidents caused by counterinsurgency forces, civilian harm response and compensation has become a central consequence management strategy used by Coalition forces in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. They are thought to assist counterinsurgents to obtain, retain, or regain legitimacy amongst affected communities in the aftermath of civilian harm incidents. However, efforts to respond to civilian harm incidents have varied widely in practice. Approaches, processes, and amounts of compensation have ranged widely across cases, begging the question— does civilian harm response and compensation ‘work?’ This study argues that for civilian harm response and compensation to be effective in contributing to counterinsurgency goals they must be designed with the needs and expectations of affected survivors, their families, and communities at the centre. In order to demonstrate this theory, I present evidence using process tracing and qualitative comparative techniques to analyze a wealth of primary and secondary data garnered from archival and interview-based research conducted in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. I show that in these contexts how militaries respond to civilian harm incidents matters greatly to achieving their strategic objectives and securing the central objective of counterinsurgencies—legitimacy—in the aftermath of civilian harm. In all nine cases, I demonstrate that it is only when the needs and expectations of survivors, their families, and communities are prioritized and embedded into the response and compensation approach that these can mechanisms contribute positively to counterinsurgency’s legitimacy-centric objectives.

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