In strikes on Libya by NATO, an unspoken civilian toll

First published 4th Jan 2012

This New York Times article extends this newspaper's concern for the unaccounted casualties of the Libya intervention

A team of investigators from the newspaper have conducted extensive on-the-ground investigations and

an on-the-ground examination by The New York Times of airstrike sites across Libya — including interviews with survivors, doctors and witnesses, and the collection of munitions remnants, medical reports, death certificates and photographs found credible accounts of dozens of civilians killed by NATO in many distinct attacks. The victims, including at least 29 women or children, often had been asleep in homes when the ordnance hit. In all, at least 40 civilians, and perhaps more than 70, were killed by NATO at these sites, available evidence suggests.

This article provides an example of the way in which press and media organisations can contribute proactively to casualty recording by using their own investigatory capacities.  Another related example would be the work of the Associated Press in conducting its own systematic investigations into civilian deaths in Iraq.

The NYT data have been used, in this instance, to engage in a direct dialogue with NATO representatives  who previously have claimed little or no loss of civilian life from direct NATO strikes.

From what you have gathered on the ground, it appears that innocent civilians may have been killed or injured, despite all the care and precision,” said Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO headquarters in Brussels. “We deeply regret any loss of life.” She added that NATO was in regular contact with the new Libyan government and that “we stand ready to work with the Libyan authorities to do what they feel is right.” NATO, however, deferred the responsibility of initiating any inquiry to Libya’s interim authorities, whose survival and climb to power were made possible largely by the airstrike campaign. So far, Libyan leaders have expressed no interest in examining NATO’s mistakes.

The New York Times article cites responses from leading human rights NGOs to these discoveries.

NATO’s response to allegations of mistaken attacks had long been carefully worded denials and insistence that its operations were devised and supervised with exceptional care. Faced with credible allegations that it killed civilians, the alliance said it had neither the capacity for nor intention of investigating and often repeated that disputed strikes were sound. 

The alliance maintained this position even after two independent Western organizations — Human Rights Watch and the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or Civic — met privately with NATO officials and shared field research about mistakes, including, in some cases, victims’ names and the dates and locations where they died. 

Organizations researching civilian deaths in Libya said that the alliance’s resistance to making itself accountable and acknowledging mistakes amounted to poor public policy. “It’s crystal clear that civilians died in NATO strikes,” said Fred Abrahams, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But this whole campaign is shrouded by an atmosphere of impunity” and by NATO’s and the Libyan authorities’ mutually congratulatory statements.