Civilian casualties in NATO campaign in Libya raises questions

Supporters of the rebels. Photo: Al Jazeera English. wikimedia

On May 14, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report examining cases of civilians killed in air-strikes conducted by NATO during its recent campaign in Libya. HRW reported a number of 72 civilians, including 20 women and 24 children, killed in 8 different incidents. Furthermore, according to the report, there was no clear military target in seven of these incidents. This would make the attacks a possible violation of the laws-of-war. In the eighth incident, there was one person believed to be a military commander killed alongside seven civilians.

The report does acknowledge that the sites could have been manipulated to make military targets appear to be civilians for propaganda purposes. However the incidents included in the report are raising enough questions to require further investigations. 

The most serious incident in the report is the strike on the village of Majer, where NATO bombings resulted in 34 civilian casualties, and wounded several others. Theair-strike consisted of two separate attacks, and people rushing to help the victims of the first strike were killed in the second.

NATO claimed that the targets in Majer were military but has, according to HRW, not provided evidence to support this claim. The only possible military artifact found by HRW at the sight, which was examined the day after the airstrike, was one military-style shirt.

The only case where NATO admits to making a mistake occurred on June 19, 2011, when a residential area in Tripoli was hit, killing five civilians. The strike was said to have missed it’s target due to a weapons’ system failure. But, according to the report, NATO provided neither a further explanation of the cause of this failure, nor any actions on behalf of the victims.

NATO responded to the report by issuing a statement, which said the campaign in Libya was conducted with “unprecedented care and precision and to a standard exceeding that required by international humanitarian law.” It went on to say that despite minimizing the risks of civilian casualties the risk could never be zero. It also points to the fact that the regime’s forces often used civilian buildings and wore civilian clothing.

Part of a group of six Palmaria heavy howitzers of the Gaddafi forces, destroyed by French airplanes. Photo: Bernd.Brincken. wikimediaNATO is being criticized for not conducting any investigations of the attacks in question. NATO:s claim is that doing so would be to step outside of their mandate, which does not allow for operating on the ground. On the other hand HRW states that NATO has not even requested permission by the Libyan transitional government to do such investigations.

Although HRW acknowledges the care with which the operation in Libya was conducted, and that the number of civilians killed was low for such an extensive campaign, they maintain that this care is ”undermined by their refusal to examine the dozens of civilian deaths”.

At the same time HRW firmly rejects the exaggerated claims of civilian deaths being made by certain countries, ans suggests that those claims have been made in the interest of making political points rather than actually protecting civilians.

The report clearly raises questions, both regarding the legality of the attacks in question and concerning the unwillingness of NATO to make a clear account of what happened in these incidents. If the attacks were indeed in violation of the laws-of-war, this would be a loss of credibility for NATO, whose stated objective for the campaign was to protect civilians.

JAKOB GUSTAFSSON