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The Climate of Justice and the Protection of Civilians

Updated: May 24, 2022

As you would imagine, in a climate of justice civilians are protected; protected by citizens who enforce the rule of law. When one considers the civilians killed in our wars—from the Indian wars to the Middle East wars, our social climate, for the most part, has been anything but just. In fact, our own legal tradition has been much more about the protection of property (land or people) than about the protection of civilians.

This does not mean that the military has never been used to protect civilians. During the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, federal troops protected black civilians in the South from white racists. Federal troops were also used to protect people marching for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Overall, however, our military has killed millions of civilians from the massacre of Sandy Creek to the 2 million civilians killed in Vietnam.

After World War II, the International Committee of the Red Cross wrote the Geneva protocol for the protection of civilians. It made a distinction between combatants and civilians and stated that nations must limit the dangers for civilians in time of war. Most nations have signed on to this international humanitarian law. For the first time, the protection of civilians has a legal foundation that could serve as leverage for moving from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice.

Trump’s policies toward immigrants, and especially his policy of separating children from their parents at our boarder, not only violates the rights of civilians, but also reinforces the climate of injustice in which he reigns.

So, who counts as a civilian? Or a citizen? I think the notions of civilian and citizen belong to the realm of the civic, not the social. I propose that we take such social categories as privileged and vulnerable and translate them into civic terms of civilian and citizen. The civic space, in other words, is composed of civilians who are vulnerable and rely on the enforcement of the rule of law and citizens who have the resources and responsibility to listen to civilians and to ensure that their rights are protected.

Most cities today have ‘Civilian Review Boards” that illustrate this civic interaction between civilians who approach the Board requesting protection and citizens who sit on the Board and have the ability-to-respond. When these meetings repair broken relationships, develop mutual trust, protect our habitat, and develop policies that change unequal social structures, then we can witness the creation of a climate of justice.

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