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NATO in the Dock on Libya Bombing

On May 14, 2012, Human Rights Watch released an important report, Unacknowledged Deaths: Civilian Casualties in NATO’s Air Campaign in Libya. The 82-page report reveals conclusively that some of NATO’s ten thousand sorties flown over Libya resulted in the deaths of at least seventy-two civilians, including twenty-four children. These are not large numbers, largely because HRW’s analysis is based on the most obvious cases and because its work was not assisted by an investigation of NATO’s own paperwork. HRW did not conduct a comprehensive investigation. That was not possible. Its investigators went to eight sites of NATO air strikes and found here that NATO’s bombs had indeed killed civilians. The findings, then, are not comprehensive. They are illustrative.

The HRW report begins with some fairly plain sentences, “International humanitarian law, also known as the laws of war, requires that all attacks be directed at military targets. Civilians are immune from deliberate attack. While not all civilian casualties indicate a violation of the laws of war, attacks cannot be indiscriminate or cause disproportionate civilian loss.” The pointed statement is the second one, namely that “civilians are immune from deliberate attack.” Absent an investigation of NATO’s own materials, it would be impossible to prove that these attacks were deliberate. NATO claims, as we shall see, that it is not capable of killing civilians deliberately. If there were civilian casualties, NATO contends, these are either by “weapons system failure” or by the accidents of war. No deliberate intent can be proven, so no blame lies with NATO.

What Human Rights Watch found is consistent with other reports, notably a January 2012 report by independent Arab human rights groups, Amnesty International, the
Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, and most importantly the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (March 2, 2012). All find evidence of civilian casualties, with a whiff of war crimes at the margins of these reports. They are too careful to make any rash claims, but it is hard to ignore that this is the implication.

NATO has refused to cooperate with any of these inquiries. To the UN, NATO’s legal advisor Peter Olson wrote that “NATO incidents,” as he called them, are not crimes; “We would accordingly request,” he concluded in his letter from February 15, 2012, “that, in the event that the commission elects to include a discussion of NATO actions in Libya, its report clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya.” When HRW approached NATO for its cooperation, NATO replied on March 1, the day before the UN report was released. NATO pointed out that it had already helped the UN Commission, and so HRW could simply see that report. Richard Froh, Deputy Secretary General of Operations for NATO, wrote to HRW, “We encourage you to consider these comments [in the UN report] when drafting your own report.” But NATO did not cooperate with the UN’s commission. It was a brush off.

NATO has said that it has conducted its own internal review. It has not made this review public. When the UN Commission and HRW asked NATO for specific details and not just its boilerplate target selection criteria, NATO has not done so. NATO has not sent its investigators to the ground for its internal lesson learned report. The entire exercise seems like a whitewash.

When asked if it will do a more through investigation, NATO claims that it has no mandate to do so. If the Libyan government asks for such an assessment, NATO claims, it would “cooperate fully.” The Libyan government has set up an inter-ministerial task force to investigate civilian deaths. Nothing has come of this task force, and as my sources in Tripoli tell me, it is likely that its members have neither met nor been briefed as to their terms of reference. Given the turmoil in Tripoli, as I show in my Libyan Diary in the current subscriber-only edition of Counterpunch newsletter, it is understandable that this task force has done little. When rebels storm the prime minister’s office as they did on May 7, it is unlikely that a forensic analysis of civilian deaths is on the forefront of the minds of this beleaguered government.

Human Rights Watch concludes of this official Libyan government task force, “Given that NATO played a critical role in the defeat of the Gaddafi government, however, the task force is likely to avoid serious criticism of NATO’s air campaign.” David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, suggested, “NATO’s claim that it cannot investigate civilian casualties because it has no mandate to be in Libya is feeble and disingenuous. If Human Rights Watch can visit each of the sites – to inspect weapons debris, interview witnesses and examine medical records and deaths certificates, alongside reviewing satellite imagery and photographic evidence – NATO should certainly ask the Libyans for access to the sites to do the same. It has not done so.” And it seems unwilling to do so.

Human Rights Watch asks that NATO pay compensation to the families who have lost loved ones. That is certainly a just call. But it is insufficient. NATO acts with impunity, promoting the preposterous notion that it is not in its DNA to conduct atrocities. Such pretense is dangerous. It gives the armies of the West license to act as do the helicopter pilots who killed twelve civilians (including Reuters correspondents Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen) in Baghdad on July 12, 2007, or troopers from 2010 who posed for their “atrocity photos” in Afghanistan. Drones and night-raids, depleted uranium bunker buster bombs and water boarding: these are pendants of brutality. There is no limit to them if one assumes that one is not capable of being barbaric. Absent a proper investigation of NATO’s war making this kind of warfare will be considered to be acceptable.

The scandal here is that NATO, a military alliance, refuses any civilian oversight of its actions. It operated under a UN mandate (Security Council Resolution 1973) and yet refuses to allow a UN evaluation of its actions. NATO, in other words, operates as a rogue military entity, outside the bounds of the censures and sanctions of democratic society. It is precisely because NATO refuses an evaluation that the UN Security Council will not allow another NATO-like military intervention. The new HRW report reinforces what was raised in the UN report from March. It simply underlines the necessity of a formal and independent evaluation of NATO’s actions in Libya.

Vijay Prashad’s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter , is published by AK Press. He will be one of the keynote speakers at the NATO Counter-Summit in Chicago on May 18-19.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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