A few years ago, Somali civilians requested the assistance of an international civil society organization to file a report regarding alleged harm to the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), the Department’s combatant command. of Defense (DoD) for Africa. The organization pointed out that AFRICOM had recently set up a online portal where people could report allegations of civilian harm directly to command.
The citizens lodged their complaint and within the day AFRICOM called to confirm their identity. Full of hope, they waited for further action. However, no information, monitoring or evaluation followed. According to the civil society representative who helped them file the report, “they never heard from AFRICOM again.”
This Somali story is not an isolated case.
Not New: Gaps in Civilian Damage Mitigation and Response
A series of New York Times investigations have revealed continuing shortcomings in U.S. military efforts to prevent, respond to, and learn from incidents of civilian harm, including death, injury, and damage to infrastructure and property.
With the evolving nature of US military action, including aerial warfare and the use of drones, harm to civilians in conflict remains a significant concern. As the military increases their distance from the battlefield, the distance between those who use force and those who experience its effects grows. People in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia whose loved ones were killed in US airstrikes face considerable difficulty in finding information about what happened, let alone seeking redress.
January 27, Sec. of Defense Lloyd Austin order a 90-day action plan to review existing DoD policies and practices to inform the next DoD instruction – a Department-wide policy to minimize and respond to civilian harm in conflict. Civil society organizations like ours have advocated for systemic reform engaging DoD officials and U.S. lawmakers on steps the military should take to increase transparency and accountability for civilian harms resulting from its operations, reforms such as those proposed in two recent congressional bills, the Protection of Civilians Operations Act and the Department of Defense Civilian Harm Transparency Act.
The development of civil harm reporting mechanisms – means and channels through which civil society groups and individuals can directly report allegations to those they believe are responsible – is another important way to begin to bridge the growing gap in accountability, enhance military transparency and learning on civil damages.
In 2020, the DoD launched a new online webpage for external submissions of civilian casualty reports under a NDAA FY19 requirement, a long overdue effort to finally make it easier for affected civilians to report damage. Yet the DoD web page clearly misses the mark. To like AFRICOMan online civilian casualty reporting portal, it suffers from significant shortcomings. Poor design, coupled with limited promotion and follow-up, leaves civilians unaware or unable to use these systems and frustrated by the lack of response to the damage caused.
Adding to the growing body of evidence on DoD shortcomings, new to research by PAX, the largest peace organization in the Netherlands, on Civil Injury Reporting Mechanisms documents how the DoD’s latest innovations to improve transparency and reporting have failed.
New Research Finds DoD Should Do More to Improve Civilian Damage Reporting
pax interviewed a range of experts on user experiences, strengths and weaknesses of reporting mechanisms run by the Pentagon and AFRICOM. Three main conclusions emerged from this research.
First, DoD mechanisms are poorly designed, limiting their use by conflict-affected civilians. DoD Civilian Casualty Reporting Website, for example, simply contains the email addresses of subordinate US commands and a map of the commands, with no concrete guidance on what information people should submit and what follow-up action can be expected. It is also available only in English and buried in the largest Pentagon website, requiring knowledge and resources to access and navigate the Internet. Considering that many civilians injured by US military operations live in rural areas in Iraq, Yemen or Somalia, where internet connectivity may be limited, the feasibility of using such a webpage is questionable. It also betrays a disturbing lack of contextual awareness on the part of the DoD; for civilians in areas controlled by AQAP or Al-Shabaab in Yemen or Somalia, the use of smartphones however, the Internet is dangerous, even outright prohibited, because it is perceived as a means of spying on groups and communicating with their enemies.
Second, PAX found a lack of awareness of these mechanisms among the public, in part due to insufficient efforts to promote their dissemination and use. According to information from private NGO engagements with the Department, the DoD web page has rarely been used to file a civil injury claim. Meaningful advertising strategies were generally lacking for the reporting mechanisms studied. The only apparent effort to advertise the Pentagon website was an English site blog post announcing the existence of the tool. Reporting mechanisms that are not known cannot be used. According to experts interviewed by PAX, this problem could be solved by inexpensive and low-tech means such as advertisements in the most used local languages on traditional and social media or the distribution of brochures and leaflets.
Third, and perhaps most concerning, PAX found that even in cases where reports are filed, the US military rarely seems to follow up on allegations made through their reporting mechanisms. In addition to this lack of follow-up, it is not clear whether the Pentagon or AFRICOM have launched investigations following a report made by one of their mechanisms. Currently, data on the use of the mechanisms or the follow-up to reports is not publicly available, making it difficult for civil society to assess their effectiveness and contribution to accountability. Yet the general impression within civil society – following engagement with the DoD and based on civilian reporting experiences – is that investigations, let alone acknowledging or repairing civilian harm, do not occur in part due to inadequate reporting mechanisms.
The US military must address these limitations. Civilian harm reporting mechanisms must be designed for their target audiences and actively promoted to result in a meaningful response. Additionally, the DoD should improve transparency by regularly posting data on its website about how these reporting mechanisms are used and incorporated into its investigations.
Ways Forward and Recommendations: Civil Harm Reporting and Beyond
Adjustments to civil harm reporting mechanisms to address language, technical and other contextual barriers are needed to facilitate their use at the local level. To this end, we propose that the DoD take the following actions:
(1) Translate the Pentagon’s civilian casualty reporting website into all local languages where the US military has ongoing military operations.
DoD translation efforts should leverage local expertise and knowledge of relevant languages (eg, Arabic, Dari, Somali), rather than relying on Google Translate or other automated tools.
(2) Develop reporting channels and offer low-tech alternative options adapted to the context and accessible.
The US military should provide phone numbers to military commands and advertise the enhanced web page through various means including brochures and flyers, traditional media like radio, etc. In areas with limited internet or high security constraints, the appropriate command or task force may set up a 24/7 reporting hotline. Providing dedicated alternatives will make it easier for affected civilians to report incidents.
(3) Provide detailed guidance for reporting incidents causing harm to civilians across all mechanisms.
The DoD should provide detailed guidance on what information should be included in reports civilians make, including what types of damage might be relevant (e.g. damage to civilian property in addition to civilian casualties), how confidentiality of information is maintained, what supporting evidence is required, and the DoD process for investigating allegations of civil harm.
(4) Engage with other U.S. government agencies and civil society organizations on ways to raise awareness of civilian harm reporting mechanisms in conflict-affected areas.
The U.S. military should seek input from the Department of State and civil society organizations on contextual variables affecting accessibility, as well as proactively engage with these actors to promote the dissemination and use of channels online and offline reporting at the local level.
It is important to note that technical fixes will not resolve systemic issues related to civilian harm if the DoD does not incorporate local reports into its assessments and investigations. The DoD should go beyond current practice to consistently embrace the evidentiary value of external information about civilian harm incidents and make a serious effort to facilitate accessible reporting to civilians living in affected areas. The DoD should also expand engagement with civil society groups to develop practical solutions to improve civilian harm mitigation and long-term response, including on the implementation of the long-awaited DoD policy orientation. In addition to its legal obligations, the United States has a moral imperative to ensure the protection of civilians in its military operations and to respond to the harm they cause. Ultimately, civilians affected by conflict should have the right to report on the human toll of war and be able to trust that their reporting will lead to concrete actions to redress the harm inflicted.