The whole basis of the UN mandate for the NATO air campaign over Libya last year was that it was necessary to protect civilian lives and since it was clear to everybody from the beginning that any such air campaign would inadvertently take civilians lives, the question of just how many civilians NATO killed while protecting them has been hotly debated.
During the war, the Qaddafi regime tried to make it sound as though they were suffering under the type of massive assaults we have seen on civilians in Vietnam and other earlier wars. This view was echoed here by many in the anti-interventionist and pro-Qaddafi left as they protested the "massive civilian causalities" caused by NATO "saturation bombing."
The NATO campaign over Libya started on March 19, 2011 with a French strike on a column of Qaddafi tanks just as they were entering Benghazi. Now in Homs, Syria, the world is seeing what happens when the it fails to act and there are no air strikes against a dictator's artillery as he decides to turn them against his civilian population. So the release, March 2, 2012, of the UN International Commission of Inquiry on Libya Report, is a very timely one.
I have already discussed a NY Times study that put the number of civilians killed by NATO in Libya at between 40 and 70 and how they and Democracy Now tried to spin that. And while this UN report deals with many topics that I may have occasion to write about later, in this dairy I want to focus on NATO bombs, so let's just cut to the "money shot" on this question of Libyan civilian causalities caused by NATO.
611. The Commission documented five airstrikes leading to a total of 60 civilians killed and 55 injured.908 The Commission also investigated two NATO airstrikes which damaged civilian infrastructure and where no military target could be identified
They also talked about some of the steps NATO apparently took to avoid civilian casualties in this conflict:
The vast majority of NATO airstrikes did not result in civilian casualties or collateral damage to civilian objects, even where there was a significant potential for civilian harm. 609. For example, from 24-25 May 2011 NATO aircraft struck the Bab-al-Aziziyah facility, a large military compound and barracks in central Tripoli used by Qadhafi as a residence and headquarters. Numerous multi-story buildings used by Qadhafi's security forces were destroyed. The collapsed buildings show damage consistent with 2000lb bombs using delayed fuses: some of the buildings show clear entry holes extending through multiple floors, indicating an aerial bomb with a delayed fuse had exploded inside or underground, collapsing the buildings upon themselves and thus minimizing collateral damage. Several of the security buildings destroyed were less than 300 meters from civilian apartment buildings, close enough to be at risk of collateral damage from the strikes. While civilian apartment buildings were well within the collateral damage radius of the attack, not even the glass on these apartment buildings was broken. Weapons appeared to impact at angles pointing away from civilian housing to ensure flying debris did not impact them. Finally, many strikes were at night. This meant fewer civilians would be on the street and reduced the likelihood of civilian casualties.About the methods used to compile this study, the report said:
the Commission's military expert, a former head of high-value targeting with a NATO member state government, investigated a total of 20 NATO airstrikes in Libya. This included a visual inspection of each site; detailed crater analysis; analysis of ejecta (material thrown out by the blast); and, where available, examination of the remnants of the munition itself. The Commission also looked for military signatures, in other words evidence that the site had been used for a military purpose. This might include, for example, the remains of weapons stored there, or military equipment such as communications aerials. The Commission also conducted 34 interviews with victims and witnesses. p.161On the inflated claims of civilian causalities reported by the Qaddafi regime, the report said:
Findings i. Libyan Government claims 617. During the first visit of the Commission to Tripoli in April 2011, the Commission met with a Government health official who stated that 64 civilians had been killed by NATO bombardments. The Commission also received written reports from the Libyan authorities stating that strikes had resulted in the death of 500 civilians and 2,000 injured and that NATO had targeted schools, universities, mosques, and others civilian locations. According to the same sources, 56 schools and three universities were directly hit by these strikes. Furthermore, it was claimed that NATO airstrikes had resulted in the closure of 3,204 schools, leaving 437,787 students without access to education.910 The authorities did not provide any evidence of this at the time and the Commission was not in a position to assess the veracity of the information received.911 As stated in its first report, the Commission had not seen evidence either to suggest that civilian areas had been intentionally targeted by NATO forces, nor that it had engaged in indiscriminate attacks on civilians. 618. The Commission took account of subsequent claims by the Government in regard to civilian casualties, but testimony from former Government members and others, as well as its own interviews at the sites, confirmed to the Commission that the Government deliberately misstated the extent of civilian casualties.912 In some cases the Commission found the Libyan government claimed civilian casualties in airstrikes in areas where there had been no attacks at all. In one case, the Commission received a credible report of Libyan forces removing the bodies of children from a hospital morgue and took them to the site of a NATO airstrike.913
On August 8, at the height of the Libyan revolution, and the NATO air campaign in support of it, the Qaddafi regime made the claim that NATO planes had killed 85 civilians in the town of Majer. If true, it would have been the biggest such NATO mishap of the war. At the time I spent not one, but two, diaries casting doubt on the claims of the Qaddafi regime about this because they were being widely repeated by the anti-interventionist and pro-Qaddafi left.
Did NATO kill 85 Libyan Villagers As Qaddafi Regime Contends?According to the UN report, this air strike on civilians did, in fact, take place, but the number killed was 34, not 85 as the Qaddafi regime claimed:
SCOOP: My Lai or Qaddafi Lie? More on the 85 Civilians presumed killed by NATO
Cases i. Majer 619. The single largest case of civilian casualties from a NATO airstrike took place in the town of Majer in the area of Al Huwayjat on 8 August 2011. On August 9 2011, Libyan state media claimed 85 civilians had been killed.914 620. The Commission found that at approximately11:30pm six buildings were struck. Four of the buildings were unoccupied. However, five women and seven children were killed in one building. Moments later, four men were killed in a second building. Neighbours and family members from the area, some who were attending evening Ramadan prayers at the local mosque, arrived at the site to evacuate wounded. After the rescuers arrived and had removed the four bodies from the second residential dwelling, another bomb struck, killing 18 rescuers. Victims estimated the time between initial strikes and the final restrike that killed rescuers as between 10 and 15 minutes. It is not clear whether the second strike was a restrike (a strike made shortly after the first in order to target military forces moving in) or simply a second strike to hit targets missed in the first. 621. The Commission conducted a site survey on 4 December 2011. It was able to identify bomb fragments from multiple GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs, as well as the guidance section for at least one GBU-12. There was no sign of the type of weapon debris or military signatures in the ejecta which might suggest the buildings were weapons storage facilities, communications hubs, or had any military function. The buildings struck appeared to have been residential dwellings. The Commission examined the remains of the vehicles driven by the rescuers and confirmed they were civilian-type vehicles with no provision for weapon mounts. The Commission conducted interviews of witnesses and survivors of the attack and reviewed hospital records of those killed and wounded in the strike. The Commission documented a total of 34 civilians killed and 38 wounded.915 622.Sixty civilian deaths is a relatively low number for an air campaign that involved thousands of strike missions in a war that took 30,000 lives on all sides. Now with Assad's bloody assault on Homs and other Syrian cities showing us what happens to civilians when a ruthless dictator applies tanks and artillery to a dissident population and there is no air cover, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the NATO mission over Libya resulted in saving many civilian lives.
Still, over half of those 60 tragic deaths were the 34 killed in this one strike, and even though there is no evidence that NATO specifically targeted them or any civilians, the UN did find evidence that their deaths were the result of the usual imperialist lack of concern for human life and capitalist willingness to cut corners so as to maximize profits:
Bomb remnants show that the guidance system on at least one of the bombs used in this attack was more than five years past its warranty date (October 2005).