Lawmakers push to prevent civilian harm in US military operations

Two newly introduced US bills aim to increase transparency at the Pentagon and reduce civilian harm in conflict.

Kabul drone attack
The bills come eight months after a United States drone attack in Kabul, Afghanistan killed 10 civilians, including seven children [File: Wakil Kohsae/AFP]

Washington, DC – Progressive United States lawmakers have put forward legislation to prevent civilian harm during US military operations and increase transparency around such incidents, stressing that the death of innocent people should not be inevitable in war.

Members of the House of Representatives and Senate on Thursday introduced the two bills, dubbed the Department of Defense Civilian Harm Transparency Act and the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act.

The bills would require the Pentagon to improve investigations into civilian deaths, establish a database for such probes and create a centre to advise the US government on “best practices for preventing, mitigating, responding to civilian harm”.

The legislation also calls for an unclassified report on how the Department of Defense “distinguished between combatants and civilians in United States military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen since 2001″.

“We cannot continue to accept the deaths of innocent civilians as an unavoidable cost of war – the Department of Defense has a moral responsibility to prevent civilian harm from its military operations and investigate if civilians are harmed,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is leading the legislative effort, said in a statement.

She added that the two bills would put “significant guardrails and transparency requirements in place” to prevent civilian suffering.

If passed into law, the bills would designate an official at the Pentagon to coordinate investigations into civilian harm.

The proposals come eight months after a US drone attack in Kabul killed 10 civilians, including seven children.

US military leaders initially insisted that the August 2021 raid targeted ISIL (ISIS) operatives planning an attack on the airport in Kabul, where American troops were conducting a massive evacuation operation.

“At this point, we think that the procedures were correctly followed and it was a righteous strike,” Mark Milley, the top US general, told reporters in a briefing on September 1, 2021.

The Pentagon eventually acknowledged that the bombing killed civilians, after US and international media outlets interviewed survivors who insisted that only innocent people died in the attack.

“They were innocent, helpless children,” Aimal Ahmadi, whose nieces and nephews were killed in the attack, told Al Jazeera the day after the bombing.

Still, an internal Pentagon review concluded last year that while the bombing was a “regrettable mistake”, it did not rise to the level of misconduct or criminal negligence. No one was reprimanded for the attack.

Elizabeth Warren
‘We cannot continue to accept the deaths of innocent civilians as an unavoidable cost of war,’ says Senator Elizabeth Warren [File: Bloomberg]

Reporting by The New York Times earlier this year also documented how the Pentagon has discounted civilian casualties in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan over the past years.

“Protecting civilians during conflict is not only a cornerstone of international law, it is imperative for our national security,” Senator Jeff Merkley, a co-sponsor of Thursday’s bills, said in the statement announcing the legislation.

“By improving reporting and investigating civilian harm of our own military operations, and those of our allies, these two bills increase transparency to help prevent needless loss of life.”

Senator Bernie Sanders is also backing the legislation, while on the House side, co-sponsors include Ro Khanna, Jason Crow, Sara Jacobs and Tom Malinowski – all Democrats.

Human Rights Watch, Win Without War and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are also supporting the legislation, among other rights groups.

“These bills come at a critical moment of reckoning on civilian harm,” Annie Shiel, senior adviser at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) advocacy group, said in the statement. “Over the last twenty years, the US government has repeatedly failed to prevent, meaningfully investigate, publicly acknowledge, and make amends for civilian harm.”

Source: Al Jazeera