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.(1)

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,(2) 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.(3)

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”.(5) 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’.(6)

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 notes below for further details. Please call Dr Ian Davis direct on 07887 782389 for further comment and for interviews on this important defence committee report and its possible ramifications



1. In October last year NATO Watch called for a “full, frank and independent evaluation of lessons learnt” from NATO’s seven-month ‘Operation Unified Protector’ mission in Libya. Among other questions, we asked how many people (not just civilians) did NATO operations kill?  How might the techniques to lessen civilian casualties in Libya be applied in other theatres and how could NATO improve its investigation and monitoring of alleged civilian casualties?

Overall, NATO destroyed more than 5,900 targets and carried out 9,700 strikes during the seven-month bombing campaign. Warplanes from France, Britain, the United States, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Canada took part in the bombing. NATO’s response to allegations of mistaken attacks has long been carefully worded denials and insistence that its operations were devised and supervised with exceptional care. “We have carried out this operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties”, the secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said in November.

In January, the incoming UN Security Council president—South Africa's UN Ambassador Baso Sangqu—called for an investigation into human rights abuses committed during NATO's bombing campaign "We were alive to the fact that the implementation of the resolution itself would have its own problems, but we now hear strong voices that talk about many mistakes that were made," Sangqu said. "They were supposed to be precision strikes, but it was clear that those were not that precise." Russia has also called for an independent UN investigation of civilian casualties.

Prior to the investigation by the New York Times, two independent organisations—Human Rights Watch and the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (Civic)—provided credible evidence of civilian casualties. Of course, civilian casualties are a product of any war. And the fact that so few deaths occurred given the extent of the bombing suggests careful selection of ordnance and targets to minimize those deaths. However, if NATO truly "deeply regrets any loss of life", then it should establish some guidelines and protocols for investigating each and every suspected death.

2. The Charter for the recognition of every casualty of armed violence is an initiative from a group of NGOs concerned with states’ ongoing failure to record violent deaths. The Charter, which was launched at the British Academy in September 2011, contains a set of three core demands on states to ensure that every person killed by armed violence is: promptly recorded, correctly identified, and publicly acknowledged. These core demands are premised on a long-standing need for greater truth and accountability regarding the human costs of armed violence. They also reflect and would reinforce the work of organisations already documenting these costs around the world.

3. The US Central Command released an unclassified 30-page version of its report on 26 December 2011 into a ‘friendly-fire incident’ on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in November 2011 that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead. The report blamed major communications delays by American officers for the continued attacks on the Pakistani positions but still asserted that American forces were responding to Pakistani fire. Pakistan's army almost immediately rejected the report's findings, asserting that their forces did not fire first and rejecting offers of compensation. The strike worsened already tense US-Pakistan relations. Pakistan closed its border after the attack, shutting off a supply line to troops in Afghanistan, which has yet to be re-opened. NATO issued a separate apology.

In Libya, in contrast, initially NATO officials said that throughout the seven-month air campaign, they knew of no confirmed civilian casualties on the ground as a result of NATO air strikes (see note 1 above).

4. In addition, an Independent Civil Society Mission to Libya was established by the Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR) in cooperation with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). The Mission’s investigation published in January revealed significant evidence concerning possible violations of international law. Due to a number of constraints documented in the Report, the Mission was unable to reach definitive legal conclusions regarding individual incidents. In terms of NATO’s role, the report cites evidence that in addition to NATO air strikes, the Alliance deployed troops on the ground, which coordinated the offensive of the so-called “rebels” with the bombing campaign. “NATO participated in what could be classified as offensive actions undertaken by the opposition forces, including, for example, attacks on towns and cities held by Gaddafi forces,” the report states. “Equally, the choice of certain targets, such as a regional food warehouse, raises prima facie questions regarding the role of such attacks with respect to the protection of civilians.” The mission found its strongest evidence of war crimes in the coastal city of Sirte, a centre of support for Gaddafi, which was the last major area to fall to the NATO-backed forces.

5. The Defence Committee report is not the only UK government/parliamentary review of the Libyan mission. In a statement to the House of Commons on 5 September 2011, the UK Prime Minister announced that Sir Peter Ricketts, the National Security Adviser, would lead a lessons learned exercise in respect of operations in Libya. His report, Libya Crisis: National Security Adviser's Review of Central Co-ordination and Lessons Learned, was published on 1 December 2011. The review focused on "how the central co-ordination mechanisms worked through the crisis" and covered seven key functions: Strategic direction/decision making; Operational co-ordination and implementation; Humanitarian response; Stabilisation planning; Co-ordination with Allies; Informing Parliament; Strategic communications. The review did not focus on the NATO campaign in any detail, other than with regard to the UK’s command and decision-making roles within the Alliance.

6. The UK SDSR describes NATO as the ‘bedrock of our defence’: Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review, UK Government, October 2010, p.59.


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