U.S. Military Too Often Fails to Effectively Investigate Civilian Deaths, New Report Finds
The Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute Analyzed Over 200 Investigations, Found Key Steps Missing or Ignored
New York, February 13, 2020 –The U.S. military too often fails to effectively investigate civilian deaths and injuries in its operations around the globe, said the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute (HRI), in a new report released today. Military investigators have dismissed or ignored important sources of evidence from outside the military, and risk missing vital information about their operations if they continue to do so, the groups said. Effective investigations are essential to upholding fundamental human rights, democratic accountability, and effective military and counterterrorism policy.
The in-depth report, based on two years of research, sets out the measures the U.S. military should take to ensure that civilian deaths and injuries are properly investigated. It calls upon the U.S. Department of Defense to make it easier for civilians and civil society groups to report harm, including by setting up reporting channels appropriate for the different countries and environments in which it conducts operations. The military should interview civilian witnesses and visit sites of attacks more regularly, and find alternative ways to conduct interviews or collect evidence if these measures are not possible. The Department of Defense should more promptly and regularly release detailed investigation results, ensuring greater transparency and accountability, the groups said.
“While we found some examples of good practice in our review, these examples were overshadowed by the inconsistency—and too often inadequacy—of the overall record of military investigations,” said Dan Mahanty, U.S. program director at CIVIC and an author of the report. “From what we can tell, the military may even be shortchanging itself by not getting the total value out of its investigations.”
The 65-page report, “In Search of Answers: U.S. Military Investigations and Civilian Harm,” is based on analysis of 228 military investigation reports into alleged civilian casualty incidents in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, between 2002 and 2015. The research team also conducted in-depth interviews with current and former military officers and U.S. government officials, as well as with civil society experts. Among those interviewed were human rights experts from Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, who have worked for years trying to reduce civilian harm and promote accountability.
In the 228 investigation reports reviewed, military investigators frequently did not acquire important evidence regarding an incident, and did not explain why they had not collected this information. The research team found that, of the 228 investigations analyzed, military investigators interviewed civilian witnesses—including survivors, family members of those harmed, witnesses, or local police—in only 49, or 21.5 percent, of the cases. Civilian witnesses often have information that cannot be found through aerial surveillance or other military sources, including details on who was harmed in an attack and the extent of losses suffered. Investigators visited the sites of harm to look for physical evidence and assess damage in only 16 percent of the cases reviewed by the research team. Yet site visits can often provide important forensic or physical evidence, including weapons remnants.
The report finds that civilians and NGOs, particularly those living in the country where harm occurred, find it extremely difficult to even report civilian deaths to the U.S. military. Some did not know who to contact, or how to reach someone who could review and respond to their complaint. Others tried to make reports to local police or authorities, who said they had no way of communicating their claims to U.S. forces. And if complaints are made, civilians are often left in the dark: the US government often fails to communicate to them whether a military investigation took place, or its conclusions.
“Civilians injured in U.S. military attacks, and the families of those who are killed, have endured long and painful struggles trying to find out why they or their loved ones were harmed, and whether their communities are still at risk,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Project on Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights at HRI and an author of the report. “They have a right to proper investigations, to the truth, and to remedies for their losses. The general public also needs to know whether the military is taking all steps to ensure civilians are not unlawfully harmed in its operations, including the crucial step of reviewing all available information thoroughly when harm does occur.”
The report found that individual commanders play a key role in investigation effectiveness, and that their commitment to effective investigations is essential. It found that, when civilian sources—whether NGOs or individual survivors—report attacks that injured or killed civilians, the military overly relies on its internal records to dismiss these claims, though these records are not consistently updated and at times do not contain details of all strikes.
Since 2001, the U.S. military has been involved in operations around the world, including counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, highly secretive counterterrorism raids and drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen, and large-scale air campaigns in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. In each of these environments, U.S. forces have killed or injured civilians. Yet official military counts of civilians killed and injured have differed significantly from data reported by NGOs and journalists. For example, in Operation Inherent Resolve, which targeted the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, during the two first years of the campaign, official estimates limited the civilian death toll to 152 civilians, whereas Airwars, a civilian harm monitoring group, estimated a minimum of 1,500 civilian casualties—a 90 percent discrepancy. Not only are effective investigations necessary to provide accountability and redress, but they provide essential information to the public, who may otherwise fail to understand the full impact of war, the groups said.
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The report is available at: https://www.law.columbia.edu/human-rights-institute/initiatives/about/publications
The Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute advances international human rights through education, advocacy, fact-finding, research, scholarship, and critical reflection. We work in partnership with advocates, communities, and organizations pushing for social change to develop and strengthen the human rights legal framework and mechanisms, promote justice and accountability for human rights violations, and build and amplify collective power.
The Institute’s Project on Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights strengthens respect for human rights and international law in the context of counterterrorism and armed conflict, including a focus on U.S. practice and policy. The Project includes work on drone strikes and ‘targeted killings,’ torture and detention, compensation for victims, strengthening armed conflict laws, and war crimes investigations.
The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) is an international organization dedicated to promoting the protection of civilians caught in conflict. CIVIC’s mission is to work with armed actors and civilians in conflict to develop and implement solutions to prevent, mitigate, and respond to civilian harm. Its vision is a world where parties to armed conflict recognize the dignity and rights of civilians, prevent civilian harm, protect civilians caught in conflict, and amend harm.
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