How Many Innocent Civilians Did NATO Kill in Libya?

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Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

A woman is seen through a car window as she flees the besieged city of Bani Walid September 12, 2011. Residents fleeing Bani Walid reported intense street fighting, while NATO warplanes could be heard overhead.

When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meets next week at a summit in Chicago, expect a lot of self-congratulatory rhetoric about the alliance’s bombing campaign in Libya last year. Backed by a U.N. Security Council mandate, NATO charged in, citing its “responsibility to protect” civilians threatened by the bloody rampages of the late Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi. The near 10,000 sorties launched by NATO strike craft helped push back Gaddafi’s forces; targeted attacks on the regime’s arsenals and defenses allowed rebel fighters on the ground to eventually sweep into Tripoli and bring down Gaddafi. Not long thereafter, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron were greeted raucously as heroes in Tripoli and Benghazi.

With the endgame in Afghanistan dragging along and financial woes dogging many NATO member states, the relative success of the Libya mission lets the grand old alliance feel good about itself. But then read this question posed recently by a Libyan: “I just need an answer from NATO: Why did you destroy my home and kill my family?”

That quote, attributed to Faiz Fathi Jfara from the town of Bani Walid, appears in a Human Rights Watch report released this week titled “Unacknowledged Deaths.” The report details eight specific incidents where at least 72 Libyan civilians died as the result of NATO’s bombing campaign. A third of the victims were children under the age of 18. HRW researchers found the remnants of a laser-guided missile in the ruins of the Jfara family compound, where five members of the family, including a nine-year-old girl, were killed when bombs fell on Aug. 30. NATO claims it struck a “major command and control node” used by Gaddafi’s forces.

As the report stresses, NATO indeed did take significant measures to limit civilian casualties during its operations in Libya. And the Gaddafi regime did play up and, on occasion, stage incidents of collateral damage as last-gasp propaganda for their flagging war effort. In response to HRW’s report, NATO issued a statement, excerpted below, stressing the care it took to safeguard civilian life:

This was the first air campaign in history where only precision-guided munitions were used. NATO approached each individual targeting decision with extraordinary caution. We had solid intelligence and a very strict target selection process. The day of the week, time of day or night, or even the direction of attack were carefully considered to minimise any risk of civilian casualties. We conducted 9,700 strike sorties and dropped over 7,700 precision bombs, but no target was approved or struck if we had any reason to believe that civilians would be at risk. Whenever possible, we used the weapon with the smallest yield to avoid unnecessary harm or damage. In some cases, as many as 50 hours of airborne video observation was conducted and analysed before a strike was authorised. Hundreds of possible strikes were aborted at the last moment due to the perceived possibility of a civilian presence.

Yet, while expressing regret for loss of civilian life, NATO has, according to HRW, so far “failed to acknowledge these casualties or examine how and why they occurred.” The New York-based rights group is now urging for proper investigations into these eight separate incidents and called for “prompt and suitable compensation” for the victims’ families. The worst case documented by HRW took place in the small village of Majer, south of the bitterly contested city of Zlitan. On Aug. 8, a series of NATO bombs fell on a compound here that, according to witnesses and residents, was occupied by civilians escaping the shelling and street fighting ravaging larger cities nearby. Their sanctuary proved short-lived—according the HRW, the NATO bombing killed 34 people. The report quotes one of the survivors: “The house was full of people who fled the war. All of them were my relatives… We heard the sound of bombing and the electricity went of… When I got outside, we started looking for the bodies.”

When pressed recently by HRW, NATO claimed that the Majer compounds were “legitimate military targets,” but they have not provided evidence to show for it beyond repeated insistences that “credible allegations” were investigated. But beyond NATO’s worrying reticence to directly account for these supposed massacres, the larger, simpler truth here is that, in war, collateral damage is inevitable—no matter the humanitarian pretensions of the combatants.

And it’s not just restricted to the calamities wrought by a wayward missile. Rights groups faulted NATO in the deaths of some 62 refugees fleeing the war in Libya last May—repeated distress calls from their ship, which was cast adrift in Mediterranean, went unheeded by nearby NATO vessels. Dozens onboard died of thirst and starvation. The aftermath of NATO’s campaign has proved deadly as well: after NATO sorties sent Gaddafi forces into retreat, the dictator’s vast caches of arms were opened up and emptied. Advanced weaponry from Libya has found its way to Mali, where an ethnic insurgency twinned with extremist, al-Qaeda-linked militias has plunged one of Africa’s most stable democracies into chaos. Yes, NATO should feel pleased about bringing to an end the career of one of the world’s most macabre and quixotic tyrants. But, as its heads of state gather in Chicago next week, the legacy of Libya ought to offer a moment of pause, not applause.

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