[Washington, D.C., May 19, 2022] – Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) urges the U.S. Department of Defense to make public the full review of an airstrike in Baghuz, Syria, in 2019 that reportedly killed dozens of civilians. CIVIC also denounces systemic shortcomings in addressing civilian harm in U.S. military operations. Following the conclusions of the Pentagon’s investigation rejecting allegations that U.S. commanders covered up the killing of civilians, Annie Shiel, CIVIC’s Senior Advisor for U.S. Policy and Advocacy, issued the following statement:
“The Pentagon’s review illustrates again systemic shortcomings in how the U.S. military prevents, investigates, and transparently responds to civilian harm. The review has not been made public, and the published summary does not provide adequate transparency around how the investigation was conducted. We do not know whether and to what extent civilian victims, survivors, or witnesses were consulted; the standards and definitions used for determining civilian or combatant status; or the specific findings of the investigation and how investigators reached their conclusions.
“The U.S. military is asking us again to trust its own investigation of its own conduct. After years of repeated mistakes and flawed investigations, the public, including the civilian victims and survivors of this strike, deserves more transparency. The Defense Department should make the full review public and provide more information about how it came to its conclusions.
“CIVIC also remains gravely concerned with the Defense Department’s repeated failure to presume civilian status in cases of doubt. According to U.S. officials interviewed by The New York Times, the Department’s assessment of the Baghuz strike classified all adult males at the site as fighters, whether they were armed or not. U.S. Central Command also stated that the women and children killed in the strike may have been combatants because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms. This is deeply troubling and fundamentally inconsistent with international humanitarian law, which requires that parties to a conflict distinguish between civilians and combatants and, in case of doubt, presume civilian status.
“We reiterate our and 20 other organizations’ calls for the Pentagon to revise the Department of Defense Law of War Manual and all other relevant doctrine and guidance to reflect the presumption of civilian status.
“Despite reportedly confirming that at least four civilians were killed and 15 civilians injured in the Baghuz airstrike, the Department of Defense has not made any mention of amends for the civilian victims, survivors, and their families. CIVIC calls on the Pentagon to make amends for these civilian deaths and injuries based on the needs and preferences of survivors.”
CIVIC and other humanitarian and human rights organizations have offered concrete recommendations for how the U.S. military can improve its investigations and response to civilian harm. Additionally, CIVIC has endorsed the bicameral Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act and Department of Defense Civilian Harm Transparency Act, which would help address longstanding shortcomings in civilian harm investigations and require additional transparency around civilian harm findings and relevant standards.
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