A few years ago, Somali civilians approached an international civil society organization for help with filing a report regarding alleged harm experienced at the hands of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the Department of Defense’s (DoD) combatant command for Africa. The organization pointed out that AFRICOM had recently implemented an online portal where people could directly report civilian harm allegations to the command.

The citizens filed their report and, within a day, AFRICOM called to confirm their identity. Hopeful, they waited for further action. However, no information, follow-up, or assessment followed. According to the civil society representative who helped them file the report, “they never heard from AFRICOM again.”

This Somalia story is not an isolated case.

This is Not New: Shortcomings In Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response

A series of New York Times investigations have revealed persistent gaps in U.S. military efforts to prevent, respond to, and learn from incidents of civilian harm, including civilian deaths, injuries, and damage to infrastructure and property.

With the evolving nature of U.S. military action, including aerial warfare and the use of UAVs, civilian harm in conflict remains a significant concern. As militaries increase their distance from the battlefield, the distance between those who use force and those who experience its effects grows. People in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia whose relatives were killed in U.S. air strikes face considerable difficulties finding information about what occurred, let alone seeking redress.

On Jan. 27, Sec. of Defense Lloyd Austin commissioned a 90-day action plan to review existing DoD policies and practices to inform the forthcoming DoD Instruction—a Department-wide policy for minimizing and responding to civilian harm in conflict. Civil society organizations like ours have advocated for systemic reform by engaging DoD officials and U.S. lawmakers on steps the military should take to increase transparency and accountability for civilian harm resulting from its operations, reforms such as those proposed in two recent congressional bills, the Protection of Civilians Operations Act and the Department of Defense Civilian Harm Transparency Act.

The development of civilian harm reporting mechanisms – means and channels by which civil society groups and individuals can directly report allegations to those they deem responsible – are another important way to start to bridging the growing accountability gap, strengthening military transparency, and learning about civilian harm.

In 2020, DoD launched a new online webpage for external submissions of civilian casualty reports pursuant to a FY19 NDAA requirement, a long-overdue effort to finally make it easier for affected civilians to report harm. Yet, DoD’s webpage clearly misses the mark. Like AFRICOM’s online civilian casualty reporting portal, it suffers from significant flaws. Poor design, combined with limited promotion and follow up, leave civilians unaware of or unable to use these systems and frustrated by the lack of response to harm caused.

Adding to the growing body of evidence on DoD shortcomings, new research by PAX—the largest peace organization in the Netherlands—on civilian harm reporting mechanisms documents how the latest innovations by DoD to improve transparency and reporting have fallen short.

New Research Finds DoD Should Do More to Improve Civilian Harm Reporting

PAX interviewed a range of experts on user experiences, strengths, and weaknesses of reporting mechanisms run by the Pentagon, and AFRICOM. Three key findings emerged from this research.

First, DoD mechanisms are poorly designed, limiting their use by civilians affected by conflict. DoD’s civilian casualty reporting website, for instance, merely contains email addresses of subordinate U.S. commands and a map of the commands, without concrete guidance on what information people should submit and what follow-up action can be expected. It is also available only in English and buried within the larger Pentagon website, requiring knowledge and resources to access and navigate the internet. Considering that many civilians harmed by U.S. military operations live in rural areas in Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia, where internet connectivity may be limited, the feasibility of using such a webpage is questionable. It also betrays a concerning lack of contextual awareness on the part of DoD; for civilians in AQAP or Al-Shabaab controlled areas in Yemen or Somalia, the use of smartphones or the internet is dangerous, if not downright prohibited, because it is seen as a means to spy on the groups and communicate with their enemies.

Second, PAX found a lack of awareness of these mechanisms among the public, partly due to insufficient efforts to promote their dissemination and use. According to insights from private NGO engagements with the Department, DoD’s webpage has rarely been used to file a civilian harm allegation. Meaningful advertising strategies were generally lacking for the reporting mechanisms researched. The only apparent effort to advertise the Pentagon website was an English-language blog post announcing the tool’s existence. Reporting mechanisms that are not known cannot be used. According to experts interviewed by PAX, this problem could be addressed through low-cost and low-tech means like advertisements in the most used local languages on traditional and social media or the dissemination of brochures and flyers.

Third, and perhaps most concerning, PAX found that even in cases where reports are filed, the U.S. military appears to rarely follow up on allegations made through their reporting mechanisms. In addition to this lack of follow up, it is unclear whether the Pentagon or AFRICOM have launched investigations following a report made through one of their mechanisms. Currently, data on the mechanisms’ use or follow up to reports is not publicly available, which makes it difficult for civil society to evaluate their effectiveness and contribution to accountability. Still, the general impression among civil society—following engagement with DoD and based on civilians’ reporting experiences—is that investigations, let alone acknowledgment of or amends for civilian harm, do not occur in part due to inadequate reporting mechanisms.

The U.S. military must address these limitations. Civilian harm reporting mechanisms should be designed for their intended audiences and actively promoted to lead to a meaningful response. Moreover, DoD should improve transparency by regularly publishing data on its website about how these reporting mechanisms are used and incorporated into its investigations.

Ways Forward and Recommendations: Civilian Harm Reporting and Beyond

Adjustments to civilian harm reporting mechanisms to remedy language, technical, and other contextual barriers are needed to facilitate their use at the local level. To that end, we propose that DoD take the following steps:

(1) Translate the Pentagon’s civilian casualty reporting website into all local languages where the U.S. military has ongoing military operations.

DoD translation efforts should harness local expertise and knowledge of relevant languages (e.g., Arabic, Dari, Somali), rather than relying on Google Translate or other automated tools.

(2) Expand reporting channels and provide low-tech alternative options that are context-appropriate and accessible.

The U.S. military should provide phone numbers at military commands and advertise the improved webpage through various means including brochures and leaflets, traditional media like radio, and other. In zones of limited internet or high security constraints, the relevant command or task force could setup a reporting phone line with 24/7 accesibility. Providing dedicated alternatives will make it easier for affected civilians to report incidents.

(3) Provide detailed guidance for reporting civilian harm incidents across mechanisms.

DoD should provide detailed guidance on the information that should be included in reports that civilians make, including on what types of harm might be relevant (e.g., damage to civilian property in addition to civilian casualties), how the confidentiality of information is ensured, what supporting evidence is required, and DoD’s process for investigating claims of civilian harm.

(4) Engage with other U.S. government agencies and civil society organizations on ways to increase public awareness of civilian harm reporting mechanisms in conflict-ridden areas.

The U.S. military should solicit input from the State Department and civil society organizations on contextual variables affecting accessibility, as well as proactively engage with these actors to promote the dissemination and use of online and offline reporting channels at the local level.

Importantly, technical fixes will not address systemic problems with civilian harm if DoD does not incoroporate local reporting into its assessments and investigations. DoD should go beyond current practice to systematically embrace the probative value of external information on civilian harm incidents and make a serious effort to facilitate reporting that is accessible for civilians living in affected areas. DoD also should expand engagement with civil society groups to develop practical solutions for improving civilian harm mitigation and response in the long term, including on the implementation of the long-awaited DoD policy guidance. Aside from its legal obligations, the United States has a moral imperative to ensure the protection of civilians in its military operations and respond to the harm it causes. Ultimately, civilians affected by conflict should have the right to report the human toll of war and be able to trust that their reporting will lead to concrete actions to remedy the harm inflicted.

Image: Yemeni men look at graffiti protesting against US drone strikes on September 19, 2018 in Sana’a, Yemen (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images).