US understates civilian casualties in Pakistan, makes no amends
İSTANBUL – An American NGO working to raise awareness of the civilian victims of conflict has argued, in an extensive report, that the number of civilians killed or injured because of US airstrikes using unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones,” is larger than the US government admits.
The Washington-based Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) authored the nearly 70-page report, titled “Civilian Harm and Conflict in Northwest Pakistan,” which presents the NGO’s findings following a year of research into how civilians have been affected by the US-Pakistan war against militant elements in Pakistan’s troubled northwest. While researching the report, CIVIC gathered the verbal testimony of more than 160 Pakistani civilians who had suffered under the effects of violence, interviewed humanitarian workers and, crucially, met with Pakistani and US policymakers.
The report said that the US did not have a policy of compensation for the innocent victims of its drone strikes and had not made amends to these victims. The report argued that the US maintaining that civilian casualties caused by its drone attacks were “minimal” was divorced from the facts on the ground:
“US drone strikes, in particular, have touched off intense public debate. Neither the US nor Pakistani governments officially deny the program exists but tacitly concede its existence. Anonymous US officials insist that civilian casualties caused by drone strikes are minimal. CIVIC’s research and that of other independent nongovernment organizations indicates that the number of civilians killed and injured by drones is higher than the US admits,” the report said.
Since 2004, a small number of US troops have been involved in the Pakistani government’s war against a number of militant groups, including Al-Qaeda, in the northwest regions of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. The report also said that civilian casualties were “significant” because of the Pakistani military operations, but that the country’s government was trying to compensate civilians affected by military action.
“Of the warring parties involved in the conflict, the Pakistani government is the only one making some form of amends to war victims. For example, the Pakistani government maintains compensation programs for some civilian deaths and injuries as well as housing destruction. While these programs need improvement in practice, amends like these can restore a measure of dignity through recognition of losses and provide much-needed help, while also mitigating anger and enhancing the perceived legitimacy of the Pakistani government and military,” CIVIC said in the same report, adding that “after nearly a decade of conflict and billions of aid channeled into Pakistan, more can and should be done to address the civilian cost of the conflict.”
The NGO’s research also contained specific recommendations to the international community and the parties engaged in the hostilities: the US, Pakistan and the militant groups. While calling on the UN to form a body to investigate the conflict’s civilian casualties and to pressure all sides to recognize and develop measures to compensate them, the report urged the all parties to comply with the relevant laws of war to sustain proportionality in their attacks, while distinguishing combatants from non-combatants. The report urged the US to work in cooperation with the Pakistani government to compensate all civilian victims of the devastating conflict.
CIVIC’s Executive Director Sarah Holewinski is also critical of the media for ignoring the humanitarian aspects of the war in Pakistan.
“We, meaning the public wherever you go, have such a short attention span. I don’t expect a front page news story every day, but I do expect that the public and policymakers will pay more attention to war victims than they do — whether those victims are in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, or Somalia and Sri Lanka, for that matter. When you consider the suffering they’re going through, the way their lives have been devastated in the blink of an eye, more compassion and outrage, both, are appropriate. And when you consider that in many of these places the suffering of war victims’ creates mass, and long lasting, instability, the media is missing a big story that is the root of later problems and conflict,” she said in a written statement to Sunday’s Zaman.
Currently, the clashes between the Pakistani military forces and the militant groups are continuing at a concerning level in four provinces in the country’s northwestern region, while the US continues to bomb two more provinces in the area with its drones. In addition to civilian deaths and according to the latest available data of the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), an estimated 2 million people have been displaced in the country because of the violence.