NATO Watch Press Brief

Released 21st Feb 2012

First published 28th Feb 2012

UK Defence Committee claims that civilian casualties from NATO bombing in Libya 'cannot be counted' and admits that it ‘does not have the power’ to press for scrutiny of NATO's analysis of the conflict

British MPs have claimed that there is no way of knowing how many civilians died in the Libyan conflict as a result of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector. The UK Defence Committee issued its findings after an inquiry into operations in Libya that led to the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

The MPs said in their report published on 8 February:

We accept that the coalition forces did their best to prevent and minimise civilian casualties and we commend them for this approach. Nonetheless, it is at least possible that some civilian casualties were caused by coalition actions. In the absence of observers on the ground it is impossible to say whether, despite the best efforts of coalition forces, any civilian casualties were caused by coalition action and if so how many (paragraph 38).

However, the Defence Committee, while acknowledging “that it is difficult to estimate numbers”, still called on the UK Government to assess “the number of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces, pro-Gaddafi forces and NTC forces” (Paragraph 41).

One investigation by the New York Times found that at least 70 civilians were killed by NATO bombs, including 29 women and children. Human rights groups have demanded that the Alliance thoroughly investigate casualty reports and publish their findings. To date, NATO has refused to do so, despite a growing clamour for these allegations to be properly investigated.

Hamit Dardagan, Co-Director of Oxford Research Group’s Every Casualty programme which drew up a Charter for the recognition of every casualty of armed violence, said:

It is mistaken to suppose that no casualty recording can be done after military action has ended – indeed the usual objection is that it's in the midst of conflict that it's too difficult. While that isn't strictly true either, if the recording isn't to happen during or after conflict, when is it supposed to happen? "Never" is surely not a satisfactory answer, but then nor is it a necessary one. Much of the best and most lasting work around the world has been carried out post-conflict, with various projects in the former Yugoslavia providing a good example within Europe. NATO countries should make it a priority to learn from and adopt best practises in this field, one of which is to avoid unnecessary delay. Instead of giving up prematurely, we should be taking immediate steps to accord due recognition to each and every casualty of the military intervention in Libya.

NATO Watch director, Ian Davis, added:

The US military and NATO found the political will and resources to jointly investigate the fatal bombing of Pakistani troops and the Alliance has a moral duty to do the same for Libyan civilians. Despite NATO’s belated acknowledgment of civilian deaths in Libya, the Alliance has not expressed condolences or given small payments to victims or their families as it has done in Afghanistan.
There are two ongoing independent investigations of NATO's actions in Libya, one by the UN Human Rights Council which is scheduled to report in March and the second by the International Criminal Court.4 NATO is also undertaking its own lessons-learned process, which is being conducted by the joint alliance lessons-learned centre in Portugal. Inquiries to NATO officials seeking clarification of the terms of reference and current status of this process (including whether the results will be made public) remain unanswered.

In its report, the UK Defence Committee not only calls on the UK Ministry of Defence to clarify the remit, format and schedule of the reviews it has carried out or will be undertaking, but also that it “it expects to see the reports”. The Committee has also requested a briefing from the MoD's Defence Operational Capability on the lessons learned from the Libya operation (Paragraph 148). However, the Committee did not make similar requests or take evidence from NATO officials in relation to the lessons-learned processes being conducted within the Alliance. This was because—as confirmed by correspondence with the Inquiry Manager to the Committee—the Committee does not have the power to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of NATO. Commenting on this peculiar state of affairs, NATO Watch director Ian Davis said:

While the Defence Committee is to be commended for scrutinising the activities of individual UK government departments in the Libyan mission, its inability to do the same for NATO reveals an ‘accountability gap’ within British defence policy. The public will be shocked and dismayed to learn that their elected representatives are unable to scrutinise the inner workings of a military alliance that is the ‘bedrock of our defence’.

The Defence Committee will consider whether to take any further action on these issues when it receives the UK Government’s formal response to the report which is due in April.

Please see the original press briefing for notes, citations, and NATO Watch contact details.