April 25, 2022

Van Hollen, Warren Pushing Pentagon on Accountability for Civilian Harm

"It is imperative that the United States Armed Forces uphold the highest standards of conduct, including consistent standards for protecting the lives of civilians and requiring accountability when harm does occur."

U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) joined Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), alongside Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in sending a letter to Secretary Lloyd J. Austin, III, urging the Department of Defense (DoD) to consider certain issues in its ongoing efforts to address systemic weaknesses regarding instances of civilian harm. After the Senators and bicameral colleagues called on the Biden administration to overhaul its counterterrorism policy to prevent civilian harm, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin, III released a directive on January 27, 2022, instructing the United States military to strengthen its efforts to prevent civilian deaths. In the letter, the lawmakers highlight several priorities and issues that should be addressed in the DoD's review to improve the way it protects civilians in war zones. In March, nearly 50 members of the House of Representatives sent a similar letter calling on Secretary Austin to implement these much-needed changes.  

"We appreciate and welcome this commitment to address the harm caused by U.S. counterterrorism operations and welcome this long-overdue step. However, we remain concerned that twenty years of Pentagon pledges to hold itself accountable and correct fundamental flaws that lead to civilian harm have gone unfulfilled. As such, we request that you brief Congress on your progress on repairing systemic flaws related to civilian harm," wrote the lawmakers.

U.S. military operations have resulted in alarmingly high numbers of civilian casualties. It is estimated that since 2001, up to 48,000 civilians have been killed by U.S. air and drone strikes in seven countries. Earlier this year, a number of reports detailed DoD's failures to prevent, respond to, and hold itself accountable for civilian casualties. Following these reports and pressure from Congress, Secretary Austin announced that he would be directing the Department to submit to him a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP). The directive required DoD to, within 90 days, implement a plan to establish a Center of Excellence for civilian harm, develop standardized civilian harm reporting, and develop and incorporate improved guidance for avoiding harm. The letter requests DoD brief Congress on its progress in preventing civilian harm and highlights a series of issues and priorities that the DoD should focus on in the CHMRAP, including: 

  • Adequate resources and staffing, including staff dedicated to civilian harm prevention and response; 
  • An examination of targeting processes; 
  • Empowerment of the Center of Excellence, 
  • Improvements in the distribution of ex-gratia payments and;
  • Improved tracking, analysis, accountability, and investigations of civilian harm.

A copy of the letter can be found here.