US: Significant Plan by Pentagon to Protect Civilians

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US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks at the Pentagon, July 20, 2022, in Washington.
© 2022 AP Photo/Alex Brandon

(Washington, DC) – The United States Defense Department plan released on August 25, 2022, has the potential to reduce US military harm to civilians in armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said today. The Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan follows a January memorandum from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directing the Pentagon to address civilian harm caused by US military operations. It is the first effort in the department’s history to create a comprehensive policy and process framework for preventing and responding to such civilian harm.

The Pentagon plan consists of 11 objectives, many of them addressing fundamental flaws in US military operations that have caused civilian deaths, injuries, and other harm in a number of countries around the world. The objectives will be carried out over three years, with some taking effect immediately. The plan envisions hiring more than 150 staff across the department and combatant commands to focus on mitigating harm to civilians. The current number of staff dedicated to civilian harm in the US government is zero.

“This time the Pentagon got it right on civilian protection,” said Sarah Yager, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “The plan is robust, with more staffing, process, and data collection. These are bureaucratic fixes we’ve been seeking to save civilian lives since the US military ramped up operations following the 9/11 attacks.”

A promising provision in the plan is that US military commands should assume that allegations of civilian harm are “more likely than not” accurate, a reversal of previous practice that routinely denied that the US military had caused any casualties or destroyed civilian property regardless of the evidence.

Another noteworthy fix addresses misidentification of targets, a recurring problem in which US personnel mistakenly assume a civilian is a combatant. And new training will be designed to guard against “confirmation bias” – the tendency to seek and interpret information in a way that confirms pre-existing assumptions.

The Defense Department came under renewed pressure to address civilian harm after a US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan unlawfully killed 10 civilians, including 7 children, in August 2021. Several recent credible reports have criticized the US military’s practices on minimizing civilian casualties, and investigations by the New York Times revealed fundamental flaws in US policies and procedures that led to civilian deaths, injuries, and other harm. Nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have for over 20 years documented problems with US military doctrine, training, and operations that led to or ignored civilian casualties.

Pentagon officials who briefed human rights groups on the new plan said the military aims to mitigate harm to civilians from all forms of military operations, whether counterterrorism strikes and raids outside conventional battlefields or in full-scale armed conflicts. This broad scope was a priority recommendation from organizations advocating for the protection of civilians during US operations.

What is missing from the Pentagon’s plan is a path for reviewing past instances of civilian harm that have gone unaddressed, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch is urging Congress to move forward in conference this year with Section 1084 of House Resolution 7900 which would create a bipartisan Commission on Civilian Harm. The commission would provide an independent examination of civilian casualty incidents in US military operations, recurring causes, and lessons learned in both the prevention of and response to civilian harm.

The plan also lacks provisions for an accountability system or procedure for US military personnel whose actions or negligence result in civilian harm. The military held no one accountable for the August 2021 drone strike in Kabul, and has repeatedly failed to hold any personnel responsible for incidents of civilian harm.

The Pentagon said that more details about putting the plan into effect would be forthcoming.

“Defense Secretary Austin’s signature on this plan gives civilian protection the political heft it never had,” Yager said. “We won’t know if civilians are better off until this plan is put into practice, but what’s on paper is promising.”

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