Promising transparency, US Africa Command to begin reporting civilian casualty claims

African civilians still have few ways to report deaths of relatives in US strikes

U.S. Africa Command unveiled a new policy on Tuesday, promising to regularly report on allegations of civilian casualties resulting from its operations.

Beginning in April, AFRICOM will issue quarterly reports detailing new allegations as well as updates on internal command assessments of such claims, including both ongoing and concluded inquiries, it said.

Tuesday’s announcement follows years of criticism from rights groups and researchers and comes amid efforts to standardize civilian casualty investigation procedures across the U.S. military.

AFRICOM, which conducted its first airstrike in Africa in 2007, has admitted responsibility for a single incident of two civilian casualties in the command’s 13-year history, despite dozens of other allegations deemed credible by human rights organizations.

“Since I took command last year, we have been reviewing and revising our CIVCAS tracking, assessment and reporting procedures,” AFRICOM’s commander, U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, said in the statement.

“To demonstrate our transparency and commitment to protecting civilians from unnecessary harm, we plan to publicize our initial report by the end of this month [April] and we will provide quarterly updates thereafter.”

AFRICOM oversees the U.S. military campaigns against Islamist militants in Africa, such as al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya and Boko Haram and Islamic State in the western part of the continent.

The command also presided over the U.S. military’s role in the bombing of Libya in 2011. It did not report any civilian casualties from that operation.

It’s not clear what further steps AFRICOM intends to take to allow civilians to report the death or wounding of their loved ones, a point of contention with rights groups.

Lead researchers from groups such as Amnesty International and the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) have pushed Pentagon and command officials to open an office in Somalia in coordination with the Somali federal government to allow people to report claims in person.

Senior NGO representatives have told The Defense Post that both the Pentagon and AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany have turned down the idea, citing possible false claims and the risk of attack by al-Shabaab.

Earlier this year, AFRICOM introduced a link on its website for local people to report claims of civilians having been killed or wounded by U.S. military action, despite reservations put forth by researchers that most Somalis in Shabaab-controlled areas do not have access to the internet.

On paper, AFRICOM’s procedures for investigating allegations of civilian casualties resemble those carried out by the military in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. In practice, however, the command’s internal assessments rarely deem allegations credible and AFRICOM has declined to reveal details about how it identifies targets.

AFRICOM representatives have also failed to contact family members who have spoken out publicly about relatives’ deaths, even after admitting responsibility in one case.

In Somalia alone, the U.S. has declared more than 220 airstrikes, more than half of which have occurred since President Donald Trump loosened engagement restrictions by declaring Somalia’s south an “area of active hostilities” in 2017.

Airwars, a U.K.-based NGO that investigates civilian casualties, has concluded that between 74 and 146 civilians have been killed by American strikes in Somalia, though some deaths may be the result of covert CIA strikes, which the U.S. does not announce.

The U.S. has declared half as many airstrikes in Somalia in the first three months of 2020 as it did in all of 2019. But local reports of civilian casualties are emerging at a slower rate, suggesting the command may be adjusting targeting procedures in response to public criticism, according to Chris Woods, the founder of Airwars.

“Militaries have been too reliant on their own internal assessments, and not paying enough attention to what local communities are telling them,” Woods told The Defense Post last month. 

NGO representatives who have met with AFRICOM and Pentagon officials have said the command has disregarded what researchers say are credible claims of civilian casualties simply because the reports were included on pro-Shabaab websites.

AFRICOM is preparing to adopt a new, U.S. military-wide civilian casualty assessment and reporting policy later this year, which aims to standardize the best practices from across the various combatant commands.

Slow admissions of civilian harm in Somalia raise questions about US transparency

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