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US-led Coalition in Iraq’s Lame Boast on Civilian Death Inquiries

Media Office Ignores Human Rights Watch’s Offer of Information

Smoke rising from west Mosul where Iraqi Security Forces are fighting Islamic State fighters to retake the city. © May 8, 2017 Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

In its latest civilian casualty report, the US-led coalition in Iraq said that after reviewing “available information” there was insufficient evidence to find civilians were harmed in an April 2017 airstrike it carried out on the Sakkak neighborhood in Mosul. Yet Human Rights Watch previously documented that the strike killed 13 civilians.

I wondered what the “available information” reviewed had been. I wrote on behalf of Human Rights Watch to the coalition’s media contact, asked the question, and offered to share our information – the contact for an eyewitness to the strike, a man who personally knew the victims, and the names of the 13 civilians who he told us were killed.

A spokesperson emailed back and – without taking up our offer of information – claimed they had considered “all reasonably available evidence.”

The email pointed to abuses by ISIS and “the Russian-backed regime” in Syria, noting that “unlike ISIS, the Coalition works extensively to reduce the risk to civilians on the ground.”

Yes, the coalition is clearly more transparent. But since when is ISIS the standard against which coalition countries measure their actions?

Unfortunately, the coalition is not doing all it can to investigate harm to civilians in its military operations against ISIS – investigations that are easier to make now that ISIS has been pushed out of Mosul.

Last month, an in-depth New York Times investigation concluded that one in five coalition strikes resulted in civilian deaths – a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. The reporters found the US-led coalition consistently failed to properly investigate claims or to keep records that would make it possible to investigate claims. Last week, Marc Garlasco, a United Nations military analyst and war crimes investigator and former Human Rights Watch employee, took a deeper look at the issue. He blames this on the fact that “The tiny U.S. investigation team rarely speaks to people on the ground,” while also noting that the US no longer prioritizes, properly staffs, or properly investigates civilian casualties.

The coalition’s methodology for investigating civilian airstrike casualties does not match what was done in previous operations. It is not enough to say, “we’re better than ISIS” or “better than Russia.” Policymakers from coalition countries should take the civilian death toll seriously, as they have in the past, and provide the resources and commitment to ensure investigations are meaningful and that civilians harmed in unlawful strikes are promptly and appropriately compensated. 

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