On Tuesday, the same day that 23 civilians were killed in suspected US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria, the Trump administration missed two deadlines for reporting civilian casualties from Ameican military and counterterrorism operations.
“The failure to report on civilian casualties is a failure of accountability on the use of deadly force by this administration,” says Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International’s director of security with human rights. “The public has the right to know when and how military operations have caused civilian casualties, where these operations took place, what weapons were used, and if lethal force was used lawfully.”
Last November, amid headlines that civilian deaths from US airstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan had surged, Congress added a provision to the National Defense Authorization Act requiring the White House to issue an annual report outlining all military operations that may have killed civilians. The Trump administration has also apparently ignored an executive order issued by President Barrack Obama in 2016 that requires the White House to report on the number of civilians and combatants killed by drone strikes and other counterterrorism activities. Both reports were due on May 1.
Eviatar says Congress added the reporting requirement to the defense bill because “it was clear there was a huge increase in the number of strikes and civilian casualties under the Trump administration, but they were producing very little information about them.” For each incident, the report must include the date, location, the number of civilians and enemy combatants killed, and whether it occurred in a “declared theater of active armed conflict.”
In 2017, the British watchdog group Airwars tracked 601 confirmed civilian deaths from US-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and more than 3,300 alleged civilian deaths. Last fall, an 18-month investigation by the New York Times Magazine exposed the massive gap between the number of officially acknowledged civilian deaths in the war against ISIS and those documented by the reporters, who found that civilians were killed in 20 percent of coalition airstrikes—a rate more than 30 times higher than that reported by the coalition.
Official reports routinely underestimate the number of civilians killed in attacks conducted by the United States and its allies. In June 2017, US Central Command reported a total of 484 civilian deaths as a result of US-led coalition airstrikes against ISIS since August 2014. However, Airwars put the number at 3,800; it has since revised the number to least 6,200.
The Washington Post reports that Trump has not rescinded Obama’s executive order requiring more casualty reporting, though a White House spokesman told the paper that it could be withdrawn. “The executive order that requires the civilian casualty report is under review,” the spokesman said, without saying who is conducting the review or when it might be finished.