(Brussels) – The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has failed to acknowledge dozens of civilian casualties from air strikes during its 2011 Libya campaign, and has not investigated possible unlawful attacks, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
“NATO took important steps to minimize civilian casualties during the Libya campaign, but information and investigations are needed to explain why 72 civilians died,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch and principal author of the report. “Attacks are allowed only on military targets, and serious questions remain in some incidents about what exactly NATO forces were striking.”
NATO’s military campaign in Libya, from March to October 2011, was mandated by the United Nations Security Council to protect civilians from attacks by security forces of then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The number of civilian deaths from NATO air strikes in Libya was low given the extent of the bombing and duration of the campaign, Human Rights Watch said. Nevertheless, the absence of a clear military target at seven of the eight sites Human Rights Watch visited raises concerns of possible laws-of-war violations that should be investigated.
Human Rights Watch called on NATO to investigate all potentially unlawful attacks and to report its findings to the UN Security Council, which authorized the military intervention in Libya.
NATO should also address civilian casualties from its air strikes in Libya at the NATO heads of state summit, taking place in Chicago on May 20 and 21, Human Rights Watch said.
The Human Rights Watch report is the most extensive examination to date of civilian casualties caused by NATO’s air campaign. It looks at all sites known to Human Rights Watch in which NATO strikes killed civilians. Strikes that resulted in no civilian fatalities – though civilians were wounded or property destroyed – were not included.
The most serious incident occurred in the village of Majer, 160 kilometers east of Tripoli, the capital, on August 8, 2011, when NATO air strikes on two family compounds killed 34 civilians and wounded more than 30, Human Rights Watch said. Dozens of displaced people were staying in one of the compounds.
A second strike outside one of the compounds killed and wounded civilians who witnesses said were searching for victims. The infrared system used by the bomb deployed should have indicated to the pilot the presence of many people on the ground. If the pilot was unable to determine that those people were combatants, then the strike should have been canceled or diverted.
Under the laws of war, parties to a conflict may only direct attacks at military targets and must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. While civilian casualties do not necessarily mean there has been a violation of the laws of war, governments are obligated to investigate allegations of serious violations and compensate victims of unlawful attacks.
Human Rights Watch said NATO should also consider a program to provide payments to civilian victims of NATO attacks without regard to wrongdoing, as NATO has done in Afghanistan.
At seven sites documented in the report, Human Rights Watch uncovered no – or only possible – indication that Libyan military forces, weapons, hardware, or communications equipment had been present at the time of the attack. The circumstances raise serious questions about whether the buildings struck – all residential – were valid military targets. At the eighth site, at which three women and four children died, the target may have been a Libyan military officer.
NATO officials told Human Rights Watch that all of its targets were military objectives, and thus legitimate targets. But it has not provided specific information to support those claims, mostly saying a targeted site was a “command and control node” or “military staging ground.”
NATO said the Majer compounds were a “staging base and military accommodation” for Gaddafi forces, but it has not provided specific information to support that claim. During four visits to Majer, including one the day after the attack, the only possible evidence of a military presence found by Human Rights Watch was a single military-style shirt – common clothing for many Libyans – in the rubble of one of the three destroyed houses.
Family members and neighbors in Majer independently said there had been no military personnel or activity at the compounds before or at the time of the attack.
“I’m wondering why they did this; why just our houses?” said Muammar al-Jarud, who lost his mother, sister, wife, and 8-month-old daughter. “We’d accept it if we had tanks or military vehicles around, but we were completely civilians, and you can’t just hit civilians.”
To research the eight incidents, Human Rights Watch visited the sites, in some cases multiple times, inspected weapons debris, interviewed witnesses, examined medical reports and death certificates, reviewed satellite imagery, and collected photographs of the wounded and dead. Detailed questions were submitted to NATO and its member states that participated in the campaign, including in an August 2011 meeting with senior NATO officials involved in targeting.
NATO derived its mandate from UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force to protect civilians in Libya. The relatively few civilian casualties during the seven-month campaign attests to the care NATO took in minimizing civilian harm, Human Rights Watch said.
Countries such as Russia that have made grossly exaggerated claims of civilian deaths from NATO air strikes during the Libyan campaign have done so without basis, Human Rights Watch said.
“The countries that have criticized NATO for so-called massive civilian casualties in Libya are trying to score political points rather than protect civilians,” Abrahams said.
NATO asserts that it cannot conduct post-operation investigations into civilian casualties in Libya because it has no mandate to operate on the ground. But NATO has not requested permission from Libya’s transitional government to look into the incidents of civilian deaths and should promptly do so, Human Rights Watch said.
“The overall care NATO took in the campaign is undermined by its refusal to examine the dozens of civilian deaths,” Abrahams said. “This is needed to provide compensation for victims of wrongful attacks, and to learn from mistakes and minimize civilian casualties in future wars.”