Human Rights Watch (HRW) has finally decided to contribute its weighty word in the dramatic disputes over how many civilians were killed in NATO’s air campaign in Libya. HRW experts worked on the report “Unacknowledged Deaths” for a year and published it on May 14. It will probably disappoint some Russian analysts, at any rate, those who talk about thousands of Libyan civilians who were killed. HRW experts who personally visited the regions hit by NATO bombing cite a much smaller figure: 72 people.
This figure is accompanied by the qualification, “at least.” In other words, it's possible that not all victims have been accounted for. But the tragic list will not become much longer in any event. NATO representatives told Human Rights Watch that their organization “did everything possible to minimize risks to civilians,” including the exclusive use of precision-guided munitions. This is sometimes possible in modern wars but God forbid anyone strays into the margin of error.
The NATO summit as a pretext for admitting hard facts
HRW mentions an internal NATO inquiry into the Libya campaign last February 2012 that reportedly failed to mention civilian deaths. HRW is urging NATO to give up this attitude of denial and start an inquiry into each tragic case. Moreover, NATO executives will have a good pretext for their public statements in the near future – the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20 and 21.
HRW believes that “NATO is also obligated to investigate credible allegations of laws-of-war violations, appropriately punish those responsible, and provide compensation to victims of unlawful attacks.” One of HRW’s recommendations for NATO is to “conduct a general investigation into NATO strikes that resulted in civilian casualties with the aim of minimizing civilian casualties in future armed conflicts.” If a war cannot be avoided, it is essential to at least minimize civilian casualties.
Every life is priceless, and it is impossible to read calmly the report’s quotations of the testimony of eye-witnesses and relatives of how 72 people (more than 20 of whom were children) were killed. There is only one conclusion: a war is the worst large-scale disaster.
“I’m wondering why they did this, why just our houses?”
The village of Majer 160 km east of Tripoli was hit during the Muslim fast of Ramadan at about 11 p.m. on August 8, 2011. Contrary to the assertions of the allied command about strikes at exclusively military targets, NATO aircraft dropped bombs on four houses in this village.
Carroll Bogert, deputy executive director for external relations at HRW, told me that Fred Abrahams, an HRW employee, visited the village on August 9, the day of the funeral. She said they were in Libya at that time and the local authorities were very helpful when they wanted to visit some of the NATO-bombed sites.
The surviving residents of the destroyed houses testified that refugees from other parts of Libya had been there at that time. They had visited their relatives in a village that was considered safe because it had no Gaddafi troops or military equipment. However, no place is safe in a country that is engulfed by war. Mohamed El Raqeeq lost three of his children in the attack, Hana, Abdu Allah and Ahmed, as well as his wife Salima, not to mention his other relatives.
The owner of another house, Muammar al-Jarud, lost four family members: his wife Hanan al-Fargani, 30, his mother Salma, 53, his sister Fatima, 29, and his eight-month old daughter Salma. He was in the street at the time, but rushed over when he heard the explosion and was wounded in the leg by a splinter from the bomb that hit outside the compound. His neighbors rushed to clear the ruins, and the second strike came about 20 minutes after the first, killing 18 men and wounding another 15. “I’m wondering why they did this, why just our houses?” said Muammar al-Jarud.
The authors of the report ask a different question: Why did the pilots strike again if they had infrared guiding systems that must have detected a crowd of people around the wreckage. This question remains unanswered.
The village of Majer lost 34 people on that day, all ordinary civilians without exception. More people died in this tragedy than in seven other cases during NATO’s air attacks registered by HRW. NATO’s operation ran from March 19 to October 31, 2011.
10,000 euros for every dead person
HRW admits that at the time Libyan government representative Musa Ibrahim spoke about 85 deaths in this village, but they could not confirm this figure over the course of several visits there. The report mentions that the Gaddafi government claimed that over a thousand civilians died but HRW considers this figure to be exaggerated.
In some cases NATO struck houses of senior Libyan military or officials and sometimes their relatives, but they cannot be regarded as military targets. Nevertheless, on September 25, 2011 NATO bombed a housing compound in Sirte on Libya’s northern coast, killing three women and four children. The house belonged to Brig. Gen. Musbah Dyab’s brother. The civilians who were killed were his relatives.
The house of another military figure, Ret. Gen. El Khweldi El Hamedi, was destroyed by bombs three months before. Thirteen people staying in his house, including five children from eight months to eight years, were killed. The general himself was unharmed. Now his family is suing NATO. His son Haled filed a lawsuit in Brussels, where the NATO headquarters is located. He demands 10,000 euros for every dead person. The trial was launched last October. The next hearings are scheduled for September 17, 2012.
Russian diplomats are incredulous
It will be recalled in connection with these new figures on civilian casualties in Libya that the Russian Foreign Ministry repeatedly demanded an investigation into this. They were not satisfied with the data of the UN commission that was published in March 2012.
The UN International Commission of Inquiry on Libya included reputable lawyers: Asma Khader from Jordan, Cherif Bassiouni from Egypt and Philippe Kirsch from Canada (head of the commission). They established that 60 civilians lost their lives in Libya during NATO bombings. In the report to the UN Human Rights Council, they mentioned 55 wounded persons.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s ombudsman for human rights, Konstantin Dolgov, advised them to “be more persistent in receiving information from NATO and the new Libyan government.”
The figures quoted by HRW in the new report almost align with those of the UN – fewer than 100 deaths in more than eight months of the military campaign. Is this a big number?
Let’s just point out that these are not Libyan military losses, including those in which rebels were killed by “friendly fire.” These losses show that it is hardly possible to live a calm life in Libya today. This is just one side of the multi-faceted tragedy that is war.
Yelena Suponina is a political commentator and expert on Oriental Studies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.