Removing Muammar el-Qaddafi from power is widely considered to have resulted in Libya’s way to creating a democratic country. However, some North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) actions against Libyan civilian are receiving strong condemnation form Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the leading US human rights organizations.
The just released HRW report (Unacknowledged Deaths: Civilian casualties in NATO’s Air Campaign in Libya) comes shortly after three distinguished jurists chosen by the United Nations Human Rights Council conducted an investigation whose results were released last March. As a result of that investigation, while acknowledging the serious human rights situation previous to the NATO actions, the jurists accused the anti-Qaddafi forces of war crimes and breaches of international law that continue after the fall of the dictator.
The UN group accused the anti-Qaddafi militiamen of Misrata of practically wiping out the neighboring town of Tawergha off the map, and of hunting down and killing many of its residents, regardless of where they had fled across the country. The UN group suggested at the time that according to some evidence the militiamen who captured Qaddafi beat him and killed him with gunfire.
During a trip to Libya on a health-related mission in 2006, I became aware of the oppressive nature created in the country by the Qaddafi regime. And one cannot ignore the serious difficulties facing the revolutionaries after removing Qaddafi from power. However, the creation of a democratic environment demands that basic respect for human rights are followed from the beginning.
The UN group report had acknowledged some important steps taken by the interim government aimed at improving the human rights situation in the country, such as the creation of the National Fact-Finding and Reconciliation Commission. But the new Human Rights Watch report shows that some basic precautions not to hit civilian targets were not followed during the NATO campaign.
According to international law, attacks such as those carried out by NATO in Libya should be directed only at military targets. It is a widely accepted fact that attacks such as those conducted by NATO in Libya cannot be indiscriminate nor cause disproportionate loss of civilian lives. However, as the HRW report stresses, NATO has failed to acknowledge civilian casualties and how and why they happened.
NATO claims that all its targets were military objectives, and that it took extensive measures to minimize civilian casualties. However, HRW states that despite repeated requests, NATO failed to provide information about those claims. NATO air strikes caused at least 72 civilians deaths, including 20 women and 24 children, and left dozens of wounded civilians.
The most serious incident investigated by HRW occurred in Majer, a village located 160 km east of Tripoli, Libya’s capital. NATO air strikes hit two family compounds, killing 34 civilians and wounding more than 30. Dozens of displaced people were living in one of those compounds. A second strike outside the compounds killed and wounded several civilians who were searching for victims, according to family members and neighbors.
What makes HRW findings relevant is that at seven sites documented in the report, it hadn’t uncovered any strong indication that Libyan government forces, weapons, hardware, or communications equipment were present when the attacks happened. At the eight site investigated, where three women and four children died after the NATO attack, the target could possibly have been a military officer.
Although civilian casualties occurred during the NATO campaign against Qaddafi, they were relatively few during the seven-month long campaign. Still, according to HRW, NATO should compensate the victims’ families and address this issue at the NATO heads of state summit which will take place in Chicago on May 20-21.
Fred Abrahams, the principal author of the HRW report, says, “The overall care NATO took in the campaign is undermined by its refusal to examine the dozens of civilian deaths. This is needed to provide compensation for victims of wrongful attacks, and to learn from mistakes and minimize civilian casualties in future wars.”
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.