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Pentagon report whitewashes civilian deaths in Yugoslavia

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(Washington, February 8, 2000) -- The U.S. Defense Department review of the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia shows that the alliance has failed to learn from its mistakes in killing civilians, Human Rights Watch charged today.
The Pentagon review, released today in the course of Defense Secretary William Cohen's testimony before Congress, states that the bombing campaign was "the most precise and lowest-collateral-damage air operation ever conducted" (p. xvii), but provides no evidence to substantiate this summary assertion, nor any discussion of how many civilians died, why, or whether these deaths could have been avoided.

Meanwhile, a 79-page Human Rights Watch report released yesterday documents that the number of incidents in which civilians were killed in the NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia is at least three times as high as what the Pentagon has claimed.

"Congress should insist that the Pentagon produce a franker and more critical self-assessment," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Roth noted that for every bomb dropped and missile launched, civilians were roughly twice as likely to die in Yugoslavia as they were during the 1991 allied bombing campaign in Iraq.

"The Pentagon failed to draw some important lessons about minimizing civilian casualties in the Gulf War," said Roth. "And it doesn't appear to have learned anything from the Yugoslav experience, either. Unfortunately, the lack of critical self-scrutiny in the Pentagon report means that the many needless deaths in Iraq and Yugoslavia may well be repeated in the next war."

In its report on the Yugoslav bombing, Human Rights Watch identified four areas in which NATO fell short of its obligation to minimize civilian deaths. These included: its use of cluster bombs in populated areas, its attacks in populated areas during the day when civilians were most likely to be present, its attacks on mobile targets without ensuring that they were military in nature, and its decision to strike some targets of little or no military value despite a substantial risk of civilian death, such as Serb radio and television headquarters in Belgrade. Roughly half of the 500 civilian deaths in Yugoslavia are attributable to such conduct, which violated international humanitarian law.

During the war, NATO tacitly but belatedly admitted several of these errors. In mid-May President Clinton secretly ordered an end to the use of cluster bombs. NATO commanders also ordered an end to daytime strikes in populated areas and insisted on greater certainty that mobile targets were military in nature before attacking them. These operational changes were welcome, but the Pentagon's report contains no acknowledgment of any need for changes in NATO doctrine or practice.

"Both targeting doctrine and bombing practice need to be updated immediately to improve civilian protections," said William Arkin, military consultant to Human Rights Watch. "This was a war advertised as humanitarian in purpose, in which the Pentagon stressed that it was doing everything possible to minimize civilian casualties. Yet its report does not mention one measure taken or one lesson learned."

To the contrary, the report contains a feeble justification of the ongoing utility of cluster bombs without acknowledging their unacceptable danger to civilians (p. 90). Similarly, in commenting on the Human Rights Watch report, Secretary Cohen and other NATO and Pentagon officials have made diversionary references to the more murderous conduct of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and to the fact that the 500 civilian dead is supposedly smaller than pre-war Pentagon estimates.

"Those arguments are besides the point," said Roth. "NATO has an absolute duty to minimize civilian costs regardless of the conduct of its adversary and regardless of the accuracy of its pre-war predictions."

Many of the lessons to be drawn from NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia should also have been drawn from Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, including lessons regarding the hazards of cluster bombs, the danger of daytime bombing in populated areas, and the importance of positively identifying mobile targets.

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