Skip to main content

Iraq: US Data on Civilian Casualties Raises Serious Concerns

(New York) – US government documents made public by court order raise serious concerns about the number of civilian casualties caused by American soldiers and contractors in Iraq and the standards under which it pays compensation to Iraqi victims, Human Rights Watch said today. The records, which document compensation claims made by the families of Iraqis killed by US troops, were revealed today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The families of more than 500 Iraqi civilians killed by US soldiers have asked for compensation for their dead relatives, but only around a third has been granted compensation, though they may have later applied for “condolence” payments. The data consists of the claims submitted by the Iraqis requesting compensation and the opinions and memoranda of the Army judge-advocate generals (JAGs) evaluating the cases, though some of the information has been redacted. It is not clear in every case whether the JAG recommendation has been followed. But the documents, revealed under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, paint a grim picture of preventable civilian deaths at the hands of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and raises serious human rights concerns.

“It’s commendable that the US pays compensation to the families of Iraqis killed by American soldiers, but the military should maintain clear and fair standards for making those payments,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. “The US government should also investigate shootings by civilian contractors, compensate for deaths by contractors and hold accountable all personnel who have acted in violation of their duty.”

The files made public today by the ACLU document claims submitted to the US Foreign Claims Commissions by surviving Iraqi and Afghan family members of civilians said to have been killed by coalition forces. The ACLU released 496 files: 479 from Iraq, between 2003 and 2006, the majority in 2005; and 17 from Afghanistan, most in 2006, but with one dating back to 2001. The US Army began a process of internal reporting of civilian casualties in Iraq caused by US forces on a systematic basis in 2005, but has never made that data public.

The documents show 164 incidents resulted in cash payments to family members; in around half of those cases, the United States accepted responsibility for the death and offered a “compensation payment.” In the other half, US authorities issued discretionary “condolence” payments, capped at $2,500, “as an expression of sympathy” but “without reference to fault.”

In a very few cases, incidents have been forwarded for further investigation, suggesting there are concerns of willful violations of military rules or laws. In numerous cases where compensation payments were made, the deaths of many Iraqis were determined by the US military as being due to the “negligent” actions of American soldiers.

Cases where Iraqis were killed by soldiers traveling in US military convoys illustrate the confusion in US policy, which states that deaths in “combat” are not eligible for compensation. One Iraqi family was granted payment for a relative killed because US soldiers fired to clear the road – a violation of the Rules of Engagement, according to the notes of a judge-advocate general in the case file, as well as to another JAG consulted by Human Rights Watch. But similar claims were denied on the basis of opinions by other JAGs that clearing the road ahead of a convoy is a legitimate combat action and therefore not open to payment. Such contradictory statements show the lack of uniformity in the system and inconsistent interpretation by military lawyers.

Other claims are denied, even if witnesses corroborate a claim of death, because the incident is not found in the military’s “significant actions” database, in which soldiers are supposed to log combat actions and civilian casualties after returning from mission. The database should not be used in this way as it is likely to be flawed. There are many cases, such as killings by fire from a moving convoy, in which US soldiers do not and cannot know that they have caused a death, and therefore cannot report it. There is also the possibility of the military simply not reporting incidents.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned by the air of impunity surrounding civilian contractors employed by the US government. Although the claims process covers Department of Defense employees, claims against contractors are denied out of hand on the grounds that they “are not government employees.”

“It’s shocking that the US government doesn’t compensate the deaths of civilians caused by their hired guns,” Garlasco said. “Contractors operating under the US military umbrella, as well as soldiers, should be held accountable when they kill Iraqi civilians without any justification.”

While the documents show the US military is now performing a body count of civilians killed by its forces – though it is likely at least some civilian casualties are still not tallied – it is not applying lessons learned across the board to improve the security of civilians. The two actions the documents most frequently cite in the deaths of Iraqi civilians are killings at checkpoints and in convoy actions. The US Army has improved its checkpoint procedures, but has yet to reform the way troops can fire from moving convoys. While military convoys are at serious risk from suicide bombers, roadside explosive devices and other attacks, the US army should urgently review its procedures to ensure that harm to civilians is minimized, Human Rights Watch said.

“Reforming convoy procedures to cut down on ‘drive-by shootings’ while fighting a violent insurgency obviously presents the army with a formidable challenge,” Garlasco said. “But while the US military has a right to defend itself from attack, it also has a legal and moral obligation to protect civilians.”

Human Rights Watch called on the US government and the US Armed Forces:
• To create uniform standards for determining compensation claims for civilian casualties in Iraq caused by coalition forces, and make public all data collected on the deaths of Iraqi civilians at the hands of coalition forces, including contractors;
• Not to automatically disqualify claims for deaths which are not entered into the “significant actions” database;
• To investigate civilian deaths at the hands of contractors and create effective means of holding contractors to account; and,
• To use the civilian casualty data to apply lessons learned that will enhance civilian protections.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.