Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) this week introduced a bicameral bill meant to improve reporting, investigation and, ultimately, prevention of civilian casualties.
On Wednesday, Khanna introduced the Protection of Civilians In Military Operations Act, which he said will "ensure that the Pentagon provides accurate data not only on civilians killed in direct US military operations, but also on civilians killed by US partner forces, such as the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen."
"This bill also takes the essential step of requiring the Pentagon to establish a publicly accessible database of its investigations into civilian casualties," he added. "Maximizing transparency will prevent further loss of life."
On Thursday, Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced the bill in the Senate. The former Democratic presidential candidate said that protecting civilians was not only "a national security priority" but also a "moral and ethical imperative."
As it is currently written, the bill requires military commanders to appoint officers from outside their unit or chain of command to investigate civilian casualties caused by their unit. It also requires personnel involved in investigating civilian casualties to stay away from troops directly involved in military operations. Each commander of a geographic combatant command must also establish uninterrupted lines of communications between their command and the chief of mission in any country where they are operating.
The bill also requires the secretary of defense to create a publicly accessible and searchable database of all Pentagon reports of investigations of civilian casualties, including the results of such probes. Furthermore, it requires the appointment of at least two designated officials in seven of the 11 US military combatant commands – Central Command, Africa Command, Special Operations Command, European Command, Southern Command, Indo-Pacific Command and Northern Command – who will oversee casualty prevention and response. It allocates a modest $5 million annual budget for casualty prevention training and response, and for maintenance of the investigation database. Finally, the bill requires the Pentagon to include in its annual civilian casualties report a list of each advise, assist and accompany mission on which such casualties or human rights abuses by foreign partner forces are observed.
The Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act is supported by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Human Rights First, Common Defense, Human Rights Watch, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) and Amnesty International USA.
Since waging the world’s only nuclear war at the end of World War II, the United States military has killed more foreign civilians than any other armed force on the planet, by far. Poor accounting and accountability mean that no one can say for sure how many innocent men, women and children have been killed by US bombs and bullets in the more than 20 nations subjected to American attack, invasion or occupation over the past 75 years, but the number is certainly in the millions. Estimates of the number of civilians killed in the current war against terrorism, now in its 19th year, range from hundreds of thousands to over 2 million. But again, nobody knows for sure, because, as General Tommy Franks said during the early years of the war in Afghanistan, "we don’t do body counts."
Accountability, which was already lacking during the Bush and Obama administrations, has been rolled back even further under President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to "bomb the shit out of" Islamic State militants and "take out their families," a war crime. The president has kept his promise, and civilian deaths have soared in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia during his tenure. The Trump administration has also loosened rules of engagement meant to protect civilians, and last year the president revoked an Obama-era rule that required the government to disclose annual estimates of civilians killed by US air strikes outside of conventional war zones.
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace.