February 8, 2000
Once it made the decision to attack Yugoslavia, NATO should have done more to protect civilians. All too often, NATO targeting subjected the civilian population to unacceptable risks.
Kenneth Roth, executive director

(Washington) - About five hundred civilians died in ninety separate incidents as a result of NATO bombing in Yugoslavia last year.

The Human Rights Watch estimate of the number of incidents is far higher than what the U.S. Defense Department and other NATO governments have admitted. But the Human Rights Watch figures for civilian deaths is much lower than what the Yugoslav government has claimed.

"Once it made the decision to attack Yugoslavia, NATO should have done more to protect civilians," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring organization based in New York. "All too often, NATO targeting subjected the civilian population to unacceptable risks." Roth urged NATO governments to make a serious evaluation of the war's effects on civilians.

Human Rights Watch conducted a detailed investigation of civilian deaths in the Yugoslav war, visiting ninety-one cities, towns, and villages in the former Yugoslavia over a three-week period in August 1999, and inspecting forty-two of the sites where civilian deaths occurred.

The investigation concluded that NATO committed violations of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch called on NATO governments to establish an independent and impartial commission to investigate these violations and issue its findings publicly. NATO governments should also alter targeting and bombing doctrine to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.

The 79-page Human Rights Watch report reveals for the first time that U.S. commanders issued a secret executive order in May 1999 for U.S. forces to cease using cluster bombs, whose use had been documented in a Human Rights Watch report on May 11. As many as 150 civilians died in various incidents involving the use of cluster bombs until May 13. British forces continued using cluster bombs even after U.S. forces discontinued their use.

"For a war with the reputation of being the smartest in history, there is an unfortunate pattern of NATO ignoring many important lessons from previous conflicts," said William M. Arkin, military consultant to Human Rights Watch and the team leader of the Yugoslav bomb damage assessment. He said that restrictions on daylight attacks, prohibitions on the use of cluster bombs, greater care in attacking mobile targets, and more care in identifying military targets could all have reduced the level of civilian casualties during Operation Allied Force, as the NATO bombing campaign was known.

The Human Rights Watch report concludes that a third of all the incidents and more than half the deaths occurred as a result of attacks on illegitimate or questionable targets. Nine incidents were a result of attacks on targets that Human Rights Watch concludes were non-military in function. This includes the headquarters of Serb Radio and Television in Belgrade, the New Belgrade heating plant, and seven bridges that were neither major transportation routes nor had other military functions.

Other cases of illegitimate targeting include seven confirmed and five possible incidents where civilians died as a result of the use of cluster bombs, seven attacks on convoys, and a number of cases where the target was poorly identified or mistaken (such as the Surdulica sanitorium and the Palic weather station).

The report also reveals that after several daylight strikes on urban bridges resulted in civilian casualties, U.S. military commanders issued an order restricting attacks to periods when civilians would be less at risk.

Human Rights Watch concludes that about one-third of the incidents in which civilians died occurred in Kosovo, many of them attacks on mobile targets or military forces in the field. Attacks on convoys were some of the deadliest incidents of the war, and also resulted in NATO tightening rules of engagement so that pilots had to visually identify military vehicles before mounting attacks.

Thirty-three incidents that resulted in civilian deaths occurred as a result of attacks on targets in densely populated urban areas (including six in Belgrade). Despite the exclusive use of precision guided weapons in attacks on the capital, Belgrade experienced as many incidents of civilian death as any other city.

The Pentagon has suggested that only twenty to thirty incidents resulted in civilian deaths during Operation Allied Force. The Yugoslav government has claimed that NATO was responsible for at least 1,200 and as many as 5,000 civilian deaths.

Human Rights Watch is preparing further studies of NATO conduct during the war in Yugoslavia, including an assessment of NATO's bombing of civilian infrastructure.