In accordance with Section 1057 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and subsequent amendments, today the U.S. Department of Defense issued its Annual Report on Civilian Casualties in Connection with United States Military Operations. In response to the unclassified report, which states that 132 civilians were killed and 91 civilians were injured as a result of U.S. operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia during the preceding year, CIVIC’s U.S. Program Director Daniel Mahanty issued the following statement:

Washington, DC (May 6, 2020) – For the third year in a row, we welcome the annual U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) report on civilian casualties. That the report was provided to Congress with minimal delay during the COVID-19 crisis is commendable. As with the two prior years, the latest report makes a substantive contribution to the public’s understanding of the impact of conflict on civilians, adding important details around how many civilians have been killed or injured as a result of U.S. or U.S.-led coalition operations. We also note that the report is now complemented by regular reporting throughout the year from Operation Inherent Resolve and U.S. AFRICOM, leaving only U.S. operations in Afghanistan as an unfortunate outlier.

As with last year, this year’s report also provides very helpful details about the way DOD assesses reports of civilian casualties. As in past years, the report most likely underestimates the overall number of casualties as a result of the high evidentiary threshold that is used to determine the credibility of external allegations. We hope that the military critically examines its processes for ways to help reduce any remaining margin of error, for example by more regularly conducting witness interviews – a step in the assessment process that is specifically identified in the report as an option to commanders.

We were also pleased to see that, unlike past reports, this report made note of 611 payments of ex gratia that were made to the families of civilians killed and to civilians that had been injured in 2019, and greatly look forward to the interim DOD policy on ex gratia payments announced by the report. We expect that the forthcoming policy will provide information about how DOD processes claims, how claims are administered, and how information about the process will be shared with affected civilians and communities. Notably, the report helpfully expresses the view that DOD recognizes ex gratia payments as one of the many response options available to the military to acknowledge and provide condolences for the harm caused by its operations – a view shared by our organization.

In the final analysis, what our organization thinks of DOD’s public reporting matters less than what the process actually does for civilians and their communities. The true test of an effective response is whether civilians can report harm they have experienced in their own language, without having to go through a “western” organization with access to the military, and whether they get a response to their claims. Ideally, the process would also enable DOD to learn and to adapt its practices.

Finally, we are still waiting for news that the White House has complied with the legal requirement to provide Congress with a report of all civilian casualties caused by the U.S. government, including those that result from operations conducted by agencies other than DOD. We remain concerned that U.S. government agencies that do not operate transparently may not be applying the same standards when using lethal force, undermining the effort represented by the DOD civilian casualties report.

Today’s report once again demonstrates the benefits of transparency and constructive exchange between Congressional and Pentagon leaders and ongoing dialogue with civil society.