NATO refused to look into allegations of the scores of civilian deaths that independent investigations said it caused, so it is impossible for the official tally to rise above zero.
By C.J. Chivers
New York Times
25 March 2012
In an interview with Radio 4 on 2 September 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron claimed the UK conducted 20 per cent of all Nato strike sorties in Libya. He said: "Britain performed 1,600 of those, so around a fifth of strike sorties and I think that is punching, as it were, at our weight or even above our weight."
Funeral in Majer of civilians killed by NATO airstrikes on 8 August 2011.
Sometime late last August 8, NATO warplanes flying from Europe arrived over the Libyan farming village of Majer, where forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi were withdrawing and anti-Qaddafi forces were claiming ground.
Civilians were in motion, too — seeking pockets of safety away from the roaming sides, neither of which fought with precision or clear rules.
This is the type of situation in which air support can be especially risky and in which, even with a careful calculus of modern target planning, mistakes are likely.
The aircraft that night have never been publicly identified by NATO, which has treated their origins and nationalities as strict military secrets.
From the standpoint of public accountability and civilian control of the military, this position serves as a kind of case study in the costs of withholding unpleasant facts, effectively denying civilians and taxpayers of NATO’s member nations their responsibility to assess their military services’ performance — a task that is difficult enough in an allied operation, under which the roles and responsibilities of each nation’s forces can be hard to map.
Shortly before midnight, those as yet unidentified aviators released several laser-guided 500-pound bombs. The first bombs destroyed a house crowded with families. The next bombs destroyed two more. Then the aircraft struck again, survivors and local doctors say, dropping high-explosive ordnance on Libyans who had rushed to the victims’ aid.
The results, by the available evidence, were a horror. By the time NATO’s planes departed, at least 34 people had been killed, many of them women and small children, according to investigations by journalists, human-rights organizations and the United Nations. At least three dozen more people were wounded.
IN a report quietly made public early this month, a United Nations commission pointedly noted that after examining the destruction in Majer, interviewing survivors, reviewing documents and conducting an analysis of satellite imagery from before and after the attack, it found no evidence that “the site had a military purpose.”
It added that “it seems clear that those killed were all civilians.”
The commission recommended that NATO investigate this bloody occurrence (and several others that have been ferreted out in the face of repeated official denials) and follow its own practices in Afghanistan for taking responsibility for civilian casualties and making compensation payments.
Then a well-established pattern repeated itself. NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the alliance had examined the allegations of civilian casualties and, essentially, had nothing to account for. “This review process has confirmed that the targets we struck were legitimate military targets,” he said.
NATO presented no evidence supporting this claim. Instead, it has declined repeated requests — including from survivors — to release weapons-systems video or other material demonstrating that anyone but civilians was present where and when the bombs struck.
In previous statements, Mr. Rasmussen had said that there were no “confirmed” civilian casualties caused by NATO in the entire war. That ringing denial overlooked two points: NATO’s definition of a “confirmed casualty” is a casualty that has been investigated by NATO; and because the alliance has refused to look into credible allegations of the scores of civilian deaths that independent investigations have found it caused, it is impossible for the official tally to rise above zero.
The questions surrounding NATO’s attacks in Majer — the worst known case of the alliance’s causing civilian casualties in its campaign to protect civilians — are not just at the center of the struggle for a more complete sense of a complicated air campaign.
As more voices, including that of Senator John McCain, call for airstrikes against government forces in Syria, extending the principle of Responsibility to Protect to include another conflict, here is a straightforward matter of tactical importance. Learning from the mistakes in Libya could save lives in the next war and do much to help air forces fine-tune their training ahead of future campaigns.
In this context, it is important to remember that the United Nations did not cast the killings in Majer as war crimes, as it did many of the killings in Libya by pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces. Rather, impartial investigators largely agree that NATO painstakingly tried, within the limits of a war where almost all of the airstrikes were made without the help of tactical air controllers on the ground, to minimize risks to civilians.
The violence that killed civilians seems to have stemmed from assumptions, not intent. NATO statements make it clear it believed that the buildings leveled that night housed a loyalist command node. What led to such assumptions? What might have prevented these assumptions or tested them more fully before the ordnance was released? These are grounds for thoughtful reflection and study.
Was this a case of pilot error? Did one arm of the alliance’s effort — say, the intelligence analysts in Italy — select a target that aircraft from another nation were then sent, unaware of the analysts’ mistake, to destroy?
And this is where the questions run deeper. At issue is the commitment to an idea central to Western military thought: civilian control of the military. NATO’s refusal to identify the member state behind the Majer strikes has reduced the public’s ability to wrestle with difficult matters of the efficacy and limits of modern air power or to examine how it might be applied more carefully.
Among the alliance’s members, no one seriously questions the theory that military forces should fall under civilian political control. But in practice, it is difficult for the public of each member state to engage with these questions when NATO and the military forces that operate under its umbrella have refused to identify which countries’ forces were involved in any particular operation. (And yet in Afghanistan, NATO routinely identifies the nationality of forces participating in operations.)
The practice, when asked, is to refer enquirers to each participating nation’s military command, which, almost invariably, refers enquirers back to NATO — a loop that leads nowhere.
This means there is limited public review of, and even awareness of, lethal occurrences, even one as bloody as the strikes in Majer.