Peace organization PAX regularly interrogates civilians in conflict areas, especially regarding their security. “We then ask, for example, how they view the police,” says program leader Hans Rouw of Pax. It requires caution. The answers are stored digitally without the interviewee’s name, position or even the place of residence. It is no longer possible to trace the source. “Suppose that in a village many people complain about the police and that information leaks out, then the police might get the idea to get a story in that village. That is why we adjust the GPS location in such a way that only the region can be traced. ”
The Dutch armed forces have also been interviewing civilians on missions for years, in order to understand and possibly influence their behavior, wrote NRC this weekend. They do this with the marketing method BDM, with which the military want to operate more effectively, resulting in less violence and civilian casualties. However, defense acknowledges that there are still no strict guidelines and ethical and legal frameworks for the use of the method. Army boss Martin Wijnen said he wanted a political discussion about this. MPs say they ask questions, a few want a debate.
PAX calls it positive that soldiers learn more about local culture and look for nonviolent solutions, but find it necessary to discuss the preconditions. “What does the Ministry of Defense do to ensure that the local population is not harmed by the application of the method?” Says Rouw. “What, for example, are the safeguards against data breaches? In South Sudan, satellite images of burnt-down villages have fallen into the hands of militias, who used these images to burn down the saved villages. ”
Cooperation is risky
Rouw emphasizes that it is risky for civilians to cooperate with foreign military personnel, because their fellow citizens will often see them as collaborators. “We know this, for example, from local interpreters who work for intervention forces and run incredible risks. I know a Kurdish interpreter who cannot return to Mosul, but who cannot apply for asylum in the country for which he worked,” says Vincent Vrijhoef, also program leader at PAX. “The aftercare is not always well organized.”
In the summer of 2017, Dutch soldiers interviewed seventy people in a refugee camp near Mosul, the city that was then still owned by IS. “Refugees are a vulnerable group” who do not easily say no, says Vrijhoef. PAX therefore uses double permission for this type of investigation: before the interview and afterwards, so that people can withdraw their statements when in doubt. The interviews revealed, among other things, that boys aged 18 to 20 were still entering and exiting the areas occupied by IS on a moped and were prepared to provide the coalition troops with information. Vrijhoef: “Those boys have run an incredible amount of risk, perhaps more than the military think.”
The PAX researchers therefore believe that the armed forces should discuss openly more about BDM than now. The method was discussed at a PAX meeting with defense representatives at the end of 2019, Rouw recalls: “When we came to speak about its application in Burkina Faso, we asked questions such as: ‘How does it work? What is the goal?’ Nobody wanted to say anything about that. That is strange, because you always have to weigh a means and a goal against each other. That must be done in public. ”
British ex-soldier Ade Rudd, who taught Dutch military personnel in influencing operations on a number of occasions, was not involved in such debates. “There is no ethical dilemma for me,” says Rudd when asked whether you can always interview people. “People can always refuse to answer your questions, but I have every right to use all the techniques in the world to let you answer that question.” Rudd spent 24 years in the British Army, which has conducted many influencing operations in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan in recent decades. The Dutch military personnel who are familiar with the BDM method and who spoke to NRC do, however, call ethical considerations important.
British soldiers in Iraq had a lot of trouble with children who threw stones at the patrols, Rudd says. “Did the kids do that because they hated us? No, we discovered by asking them and their parents: they were just bored ”, says Rudd. “So we went to the villages, with volleyball and soccer in the back. We played with the children for half an hour and afterwards we gave them the ball. They stopped throwing stones. ” More effective and pleasant, Rudd says, than saying to the parents, “Get your kids in order, because otherwise…”
In Canada, military personnel are also trained in the BDM method, and a similar program is also running in Belgium in which military personnel try to see the world more through the eyes of the local population. At a meeting in November 2018 at the 1 Civil and Military Interaction Command in Apeldoorn, Canadians and Belgians came to see how the Netherlands approached this. Despite a shortage of whiteboards and computers with an internet connection, the atmosphere was ‘relaxed’ and participants experienced the meeting as useful, according to an evaluation.
Yet operations like this have raised ethical questions in the past, such as in the US. It was not the soldiers themselves who tried to fathom the population, but the army took cultural anthropologists, including to Afghanistan. That was controversial from the outset. Critics believed that common standards for academics, such as consent from those surveyed, would erode in a war. The anthropologist association president said to the online medium Inside Higher Ed that it was “in no way possible to obtain information under the terms of a full consent that was not enforced”. The program was quietly discontinued in 2014.
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on June 29, 2020
A version of this article also appeared in June 29, 2020, in nrc.next