Current Events

The Issue of Civilian Casualties Revisited
Human Rights in Post-Invasion Panama
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

Human Rights Watch Report, April 7, 1991

In January 1990, Americas Watch conducted a mission to Panama and later published a report on violations of the laws of war by both sides during the short-lived hostilities that followed the December 20, 1989 invasion by the United States.4 A version of that report, written by Kenneth Anderson and Juan E. Méndez, was published in a scholarly magazine.5 With respect to the United States forces, our report concluded that the tactics and weapons utilized resulted in an inordinate number of civilian victims, in violation of specific obligations under the Geneva Conventions. In the devastation created in the neighborhood of El Chorrillo, which lies next door to what used to be the general headquarters of the Panamanian Defense Force, American forces violated the rule of proportionality, which mandates that the risk of harm to impermissible targets be weighed against the military necessity of the objective pursued.

The attack on El Chorrillo, and a similar attack in an urban area of Colón, were conducted without prior warning to civilians, even though the outcome of the attack would not have been affected by such a warning. Under the Geneva Conventions, attacking forces are under a permanent duty to minimize harm to civilians. We concluded that the command of the invasion forces violated that rule.

We have urged an examination of the military operations in Panama to determine individual and collective responsibilities for these serious violations of the laws of war. No such inquiry has taken place, and none is contemplated, as far as we can tell. In mid-1990, the House Committee on the Armed Forces was preparing to hold hearings on the Panama invasion, which would have included an examination of this question, but the Committee's attention was diverted by the events in the Persian Gulf. Now that the war in the Middle East is over, it is our hope that Congress will again take up the Panama issue. The success of military efforts should not postpone a careful and reasoned examination of the way combat is conducted. Failure to conduct a self-critical analysis may foster repetition of violations of the laws of war, and promotes the perception that accountability for such violations is something only the vanquished, not the victors, need fear.

As we said in our May 1990 report, Americas Watch believes that the way Panamanian civilians died is at least as important as the issue of the number of those casualties. Unfortunately, insupportable claims about thousands of civilian casualties have obscured the debate about how they died. Since the publication of our report, that muddled controversy has not been clarified, in large measure because neither the Panamanian government nor the U.S. Department of Defense has provided a fair and accurate response to those claims. The government of Panama has callously ignored the need to identify carefully each of the corpses that were buried in haste in December 1989. After many requests, the Office of the Prosecutorordered two exhumations. The first one took place in the Jardín de Paz cemetery in Panama City, on April 28, 1990, and 124 corpses were exhumed. The second one was conducted in Mount Hope cemetery in Colón on July 28, 1990, and it yielded fifteen unidentified corpses. These exhumations were done with bulldozers and in disregard for the need to preserve evidence. Some corpses were identified (presumably with the aid of records kept at the time of their burial; see our May 1990 report) and given to the families. The majority of the 139 bodies exhumed, however, remain unidentified.

In any event, the two exhumations were conducted solely for the purpose of finding remains and delivering them to relatives. Panamanian officials maintain that some of the bodies buried in the common graves were not actually victims of the invasion, but died in hospitals from other causes and were mixed together with invasion casualties by hospitals when their morgues exceeded their capacity. No attempt has been made to sort out this distinction and, most important, there has been no attempt (by autopsy or otherwise) to establish with any precision the cause of death for any of the bodies found in the common graves. The attempt to establish the cause of death in individual cases would likely have gone a long way to clarify the circumstances under which so many civilians died.

In addition, these two exhumations account for less than half of the minimum number of Panamanian deaths admitted by the Endara government. No further exhumations have been conducted since last July and, to our knowledge, none is contemplated even though the association of relatives of victims of the invasion has insisted on renewed efforts to account for them. By the Panamanian government's own count, issued on June 26, 1990, 47 remains are still unidentified, and there are 93 unresolved complaints about missing persons. There is no reasonable explanation why these outstanding humanitarian questions could not have merited greater attention in the fifteen months that have elapsed by since the invasion.

The U.S. Southern Command has also failed to honor fully its obligation to collect the dead, identify them and provide available information to their next of kin.6 Whatever the responsibility and role of the Panamanian authorities in this matter, the U.S. forces have an obligation to do that which emerges from their part, first as a belligerent and then as an occupying force in the conflict. American troops did take some part in the gathering and identification of corpses, but soon gave up that task. For the most part the matter was placed in the hands of the Medical-Legal Institute of the Panamanian government (Instituto de Medicina Legal, or IML), an agency that was ill-equipped to handle such a catastrophe to begin with, and that (like so many other Panamanian institutions) was further weakened by the invasion.

To this date, the Pentagon has refused to pay any attention to this matter, except to respond --inadequately -- to controversy generated by the press. Throughout 1990 there were many complaints in Panama and in the United States about the number and identity of the casualties, but the Pentagon remained largely oblivious to them. On September 30, 1990, "Sixty Minutes," a news and commentary program of CBS News, carried a segment titled "Victims of Just Cause." The program, anchored by Mike Wallace and produced by Charles C. Thompson II, charged that the Pentagon had deliberately covered up the number of civilian casualties in the invasion.7 It also gave credence to claims of much larger figuresthan those to which the Pentagon has admitted. In this respect, the most significant new detail contributed by Sixty Minutes was an internal Department of Defense document which stated: "The payment of individual combat-related claims under a program similar to the U.S.A. program in Grenada would not be in the best interest of the Department of Defense of the U.S. because of the potentially huge number of such claims."8

A flurry of articles and opinion pieces were published as a result of the Sixty Minutes segment.9 In November, the Pentagon finally saw fit to answer.10 In general terms, it stood by the figures given in January 1990, as amended by the IML later in the year. It acknowledged the authenticity of the internal document, but argued it had no significance to prove a higher number of casualties, since it was written by a property-claims officer who had no knowledge or information about Panamanian civilian casualties. In January 1991, a segment of "L.A. Law," a well-known television series, presented a fictionalized account of the invasion, based on published reports, dramatizing both the issue of weapons and tactics used and the Army's lack of interest in clarifying the controversy about civilian casualties.11

During the many months that the Panamanian government claimed that it lacked the resources to address the need for a better accounting of the casualties, the United States government offered no tangible assistance for this purpose. Only in late February 1991, when the issue had all but died down and the relatives of the missing were no longer pressing for exhumations, did the American Embassy declare its willingness to contribute funds or equipment to the effort.12 The United States Embassy in Panama recently stated that the Bush Administration will make no further independent effort to investigate or count the number of casualties, and that it is content to rely instead on whatever figures are provided by the Panamanian government.13 Even if the internal Department of Defense document does not establish that the number of casualties is higher than admitted, it does highlight a separate but related problem: the unwillingness of the United States to compensate victims of the invasion. Some United States funds have been given to Panamanian families who were displaced from El Chorrillo, but more than a year later most of those families are still living in shelters because construction of replacement units is not yet complete.14 As for the dead and wounded, some American lawyers have filed claims for compensationon behalf of those Panamanian families, and have even tried to persuade Congress to institute a compensation program. To date, the Administration refuses to consider these claims.

Since the flurry of press report that we describe above, there have been some minor revisions of the casualty figures, even though the press attention has not resulted in serious new inquiries. Dr. Humberto Más, the Director of IML, said in mid-1990 that his official figures were that a total 373 Panamanian citizens had died in the invasion; he admitted that this is lower than all estimates, including the one offered by the Pentagon early on. In February of this year, he told Americas Watch that the total figure was 342 to 346; the reduction was based on information from hospitals as to the number of bodies buried in the mass graves who were not actual invasion casualties.15 (It is important to note, however, that Dr. Más believes that there are likely to be additional casualties that have not come to the attention of the authorities.) The IML has identified only 63 as military casualties, and an insurance company that covers former members of the Panamanian Defense Force has received only 68 claims.16 It would seem, therefore, that all others, including 47 unidentified and 93 "missing" during the invasion, are all civilians. These figures appear to indicate, therefore, that at least 280 to 305 civilians, and possibly more, died in Panama, which is very near our estimate of 300, and about 50 percent higher than the Pentagon originally claimed.17

The figures are necessarily "soft" because some of the common graves have not been exhumed; the delays in gathering the evidence resulted in the loss of important information; the evidence from the interior of the country, some of it anecdotal, has not been gathered adequately in the capital; and some families have not come forward to identify their dead. We have no basis to conclude, however, that the actual casualty figures could be much higher than those reported, as some groups in Panama and elsewhere have stated.18 The graves that have not been exhumed are thought to be much smaller than the ones dug up in April and in July, and claims that other common graves exist have not been supported by evidence. Similarly unsupported are reports that bodies were deliberately burned, thrown to the sea or shipped abroad. Even if all of these things had taken place, the number of bodies affected would have had to be relatively small, or they would not have avoided detection. At the same time, if hundreds or thousands of families were still without any information on the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, by now there would be long lists of missing persons, gathered by official and non-governmental groups. To our knowledge, no such lists exist, except for the 93 cases that the IML has been unable to solve.19

Though we remain skeptical about larger numbers, we stress that the updated figures are still troublesome. They reveal that the "surgical operation" by American forces inflicted a toll in civilian lives that was at least four-and-a-half times higher than military causalities in the enemy, and twelve or thirteen times higher than the casualties suffered by U.S. troops. By themselves these ratios suggest that the rule of proportionality and the duty to minimize harm to civilians, where doing so would not compromise a legitimate military objective, were not faithfully observed by they invading U.S. forces. For us, the controversy over the number of civilian casualties should not obscure the important debate on the manner in which those people died.

Now that the Persian Gulf war has ended, the American government appears bent once again on disregarding the fate of foreigners -- military and civilian -- who die in wars fought by the United States. There seems to be no interest in any examination of the bombing raids into Iraq to see if any of them violated the rules of warfare, and again the U.S. forces have refused to comply with their obligation to collect and count the enemy dead. Many years after the end of the Vietnam war, the United States rightfully continues to press for full accounting for each of the 2,300 Americans missing in action. No similar zeal is exercised in making available everything that can be known about those who have died as a result of American fire in more recent wars.20 In little over a year, the United States has been engaged in two wars, and in both of them it has refused to comply with important humanitarian obligations. It is a matter of great concern to us that military triumphalism appears to be inhibiting the American public from examining this troublesome trend. Americas Watch shall support efforts to induce the United States government to take seriously the duties incumbent upon any country when that country decides to wage war.


4 "The Laws of War and the Conduct of the Panama Invasion," An Americas Watch Report, May 1990.

5 Juan E. Méndez and Kenneth Anderson, "The Panama Invasion and the Laws of War," in Terrorism and Political Violence, Volume 2, Autumn 1990, Number 3, pp. 233-257.

6 Article 15, I Geneva Convention of 1949.

7 CBS News transcript, Volume XXIII, Number 3.

8 Ibid.

9 See, for example: "What's the Truth on Panama Casualties?," The Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 1991; "Estimates of Panamanian Casualties Not a Secret," The Christian Science Monitor (letters to the editor), November 16, 1991; Kenneth Freed, "Panama Tries to Bury Rumors of Mass Graves," The Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1991; "Casualties in Panama," (letters to the editor), The Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1990; Lee Hockstader, "In Panama, Civilian Deaths Remain an Issue," The Washington Post, October 6, 1990.

10 Cnl. Joseph S. Panvini, USAF, Southern Command and Michael P. W. Stone, Secretary of the Army, each wrote a letter to the editor of the Christian Science Monitor, November 16, 1990.

11 L.A. Law, "Rest in Pieces," Script #7L11, written by Patricia Green and John Robert Bensink (transcript).

12 Interview with Americas Watch, February 22, 1991.

13 Interview, cit.

14 During our most recent mission, displaced Chorrillo residents complained bitterly to Americas Watch about the inadequate temporary housing where they have lived for fifteen months, and expressed their dissatisfaction with the extremely small size of the replacement units under construction in El Chorrillo.

15 Karen Cheney, "How Many Died in Invasion? Nobody Knows," The Tico Times (San José, Costa Rica), August 10, 1990, p. 9; Americas Watch interview with Dr. Más, February 22, 1991. On January 11, 1990, the Southern Command had released the figures of 202 civilians and 314 "enemy" dead. By March, 1990, the second of these figures had been revised down to about 50. See Americas Watch, "The Laws of War and the Conduct of the Panama Invasion," May 1990, pp.12-13.

16 Lee Hockstader, "In Panama, Civilian Deaths Remain an Issue," The Washington Post, October 6, 1990.

17 "The Laws of War...," cit., p. 11, citing a similar estimate by Physicians for Human Rights.

18 See for example, statements by Olga Mejía, of the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos de Panamá (CONADEHUPA) quoted in the article by Karen Cheney in The Tico Times, cit., and Comisión de Derechos Humanos de Centro América (CODEHUCA), "Exhumation Process in Panama. General Findings of CODEHUCA Delegation," August 6, 1990.

19 In January 1990, the Endara administration ordered the newly created Public Force to receive complaints and to create a record of missing persons. In another example of neglect and lack of interest, the list thus created was transferred from office to office and finally abandoned. Most families obtained the information they needed through the temporary delegation of theInternational Committee of the Red Cross, or by appealing to the services of non-governmental organizations. The PF office seems to have left 300 to 500 cases unaccounted for. Peter Eisner, "Debate Rages Over Invasion Toll, Newsday, December 12, 1990, page 13. It could be that the PF could not account for them because of sheer incompetence or neglect; if the list represented genuinely disappeared persons, those names would surely come up in other lists as well.

20 Holly Burkhalter, "Some Bodies Don't Count," The Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1991.

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