May 10, 2024

Van Hollen Statement on Administration’s NSM-20 Report

Today U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) released the following statement in response to the Administration’s report to Congress required by NSM-20:

“NSM-20 was put into place as an accountability mechanism intended to ensure U.S. security assistance is used in line with American interests and values. Among its requirements was the report produced today, which is meant to track our partners’ compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL), U.S. best practices for civilian harm reduction, and standards for facilitating the delivery of U.S.-supported humanitarian assistance. Per NSM-20, the intent of this report was not just to look at the facts on the ground today – but to provide an unvarnished account of the facts and the law since January 2023, including the full period of the war in Gaza.

“While the report acknowledges that ‘it is reasonable to assess that defense articles covered under NSM-20 have been used by Israeli security forces since October 7 in instances inconsistent with its IHL obligations or with established best practices for mitigating civilian harm’ – it largely fails to meet the mark of what NSM-20 requires.

“According to the NSM, this report had three areas to investigate: whether recipient countries used U.S. weapons in line with international law, followed established best practices to limit civilian harm, and fully cooperated with U.S.-supported efforts to deliver humanitarian aid. The NSM requires a full accounting of each of these measures, from day one of the conflict to now.

“On whether weapons were used in line with international law, this report essentially ducks the critical question at hand. In addressing only 10 incidents of possible misuse of U.S. weaponry by the Netanyahu government, the Administration fails to comply with the NSM-20 requirement that ‘any credible reports or allegations’ be assessed. The President himself has described the IDF’s bombing campaign as ‘indiscriminate,’ thus implying this conduct violates the IHL principle of distinction. We’ve seen clear reports of violations from credible organizations that the Administration often relies on – including Amnesty International, Oxfam, and Human Rights Watch – as well as the report produced by the Independent Task Force on NSM-20. These reports created a yardstick by which we’ve been able to measure the scope and credibility of the Administration’s report – and yet in comparison, despite having access to broader resources, the Administration failed to review all the available evidence. There’s no excuse for this lack of in-depth review, and the report provides no justification for why it did not reach the same conclusion as these independent analyses. What’s more, these independent reports underscore a concerning trend: the Administration cites the important work of these organizations when it suits their purposes but ignores them when it does not.

“On whether U.S.-developed best practices were followed to limit civilian harm, the report falls woefully short of its mandate, failing to identify and examine any specific cases. As acknowledged by Sec. Austin in April of this year, protecting civilians is both ‘a moral duty and a strategic imperative.’ Though this task is made more difficult by Hamas’ tendency to operate from among the civilian population, the IDF still has a responsibility to comply with the rules of distinction, precaution, and proportionality. Credible organizations and experts on civilian harm have clearly shown the IDF has taken actions that the U.S. would not find acceptable on the grounds of anticipated civilian harm. While the report indicates the Intelligence Community concludes that Israel could do more to prevent civilian harm, it provides no examples based on the overwhelming evidence.

“Lastly, on whether humanitarian aid has been obstructed, the Administration has again chosen to disregard the requirements of NSM-20 to look at the full conduct of Israel throughout this war, and instead has chosen to take a very limited approach based on where we are today. Whether or not Israel is at this moment complying with international standards with respect to facilitating humanitarian assistance to desperate, starving citizens may be debatable. What is undeniable – for those who don’t look the other way – is that it has repeatedly violated those standards over the last 7 months.

“The Administration created a tool to promote accountability but has come up very short in its implementation. When it comes to applying international law and human rights, you can’t cherry-pick the facts and the law. Today’s report also indicates a continuation of a disturbing pattern where the expertise and analyses of those working most closely on these issues at the State Department and at USAID have been swept aside to facilitate a predetermined policy outcome based on political convenience. 

“For a country that bases its foreign policy on the values of human rights and the rule of law, we weaken our credibility when we don’t apply that standard to friend and foe alike. Applying a double standard will boomerang on us. While I appreciate the fact that the Administration has used this tool to push the Netanyahu government in the right direction, that was not the purpose of this report – it was to give an unvarnished accounting of the facts as they are. In order to stand up for our values and principles, we need to be honest about the realities at hand.

“Simply put, while this is a step forward, this report does not meet the requirements of NSM-20. It also risks establishing a dangerously low bar for the permissible use of U.S. weapons and the acceptable standard for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”