In late April, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released its 2022 report on civilian casualties caused by U.S. operations – almost a full year past the congressionally-mandated deadline of May 1, 2023. (The report for 2023, due May 1, 2024, has not been released as of this publication.)

Once again, the Department reported that it made zero ex gratia payments to civilians harmed in its operations, following the trend from 2020 (zero payments) and 2021 (one payment). The Department’s failure to make payments is especially egregious given the explicit authorization of $3 million annually from Congress for this purpose and the many requests from civilian survivors whose harm the military has already confirmed, including requests made or facilitated by the authors’ organizations, Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Zomia Center’s Redress Program.

This failure to make amends for civilian harm also stands in stark contrast to recent, and laudable, DoD efforts to overhaul how it prevents and responds to civilian harm. In January 2022, the Department announced its new Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP), and by August 2022, the Department had formally launched the plan. Objective 8 of the CHMR-AP makes the following express commitment: “DoD will also improve its ability to consistently and appropriately acknowledge and respond to civilian harm when it occurs and to treat those who are harmed with dignity and respect.” In late 2022, elected officials sent multiple letters to the Department calling for the Department to follow through on this commitment and take advantage of its $3 million ex gratia authorization.

Unfortunately, that commitment has not yet resulted in meaningful changes to amends practices, including increased responses to requests for ex gratia payments in cases already acknowledged by the military. In the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) alone, the U.S.-led Coalition has acknowledged some 344 separate civilian harm incidents, including 1,410 civilian deaths. (Though civilian harm watchdog Airwars assesses the number of civilian deaths higher at 2,024.) The Zomia Center’s Redress Program brought just two of those incidents to the Coalition’s attention in 2022, submitting ex gratia requests on behalf of eight civilian families to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) for consideration. These include:

  • In June 2022, the Redress Program submitted ex gratia requests on behalf of two families in Mosul, Iraq who were harmed in an April 29, 2016 airstrike reportedly targeting Neil Prakash, an ISIS external operations facilitator, unharmed in the strike. Maha Khalil Ali lost her husband, Professor Ziad Kallaf Awad, in this strike, as reported by the New York Times Magazine. Hassan Aleiwi Muhammad Sultan, 10 years old at the time, was severely disabled with left body paralysis and now uses a wheelchair. X-rays reveal shrapnel in his spinal cord. Hassan’s photo has been published in the Times on three separate occasions. The Department confirmed civilian harm from this strike in a July 28, 2016 press release.
  • In September 2022, the Redress Program submitted ex gratia requests on behalf of six families in Mosul, all of whom were harmed in a June 15, 2016 airstrike in a busy neighborhood near Mosul University, also covered by the Times. Among the most severely injured was Iliyas Ali Abd Ali, who was running a fruit stand; he lost his right leg in the strike and is now deaf in one ear. The strike also hit an ice cream shop; two brothers who worked there were injured by shrapnel and replaced the pricey machinery at their own expense. A man standing near the shop was also killed; the Redress Program submitted an ex gratia request on behalf of his grieving wife. The Department confirmed civilian harm from this strike in a November 9, 2016 press release.

In both cases, it took the victims and survivors years to connect with a journalist who could tell their story, and months more to find an advocate able to submit ex gratia requests on their behalf. As of this writing in April 2024, these requests are still pending.

With the millions of dollars authorized by Congress since 2020, the Defense Department could have made hundreds of payments to civilian victims and survivors of US operations. Instead, with $15 million authorized by Congress to date, only a single payment has been reported publicly. Both of our organizations have significant experience working on the issue of amends, including through grassroots engagement with civilian communities in conflict-affected areas, civilian-centered research, advocacy on amends policy, and directly representing civilian survivors and their demands to the US government. Through this work, we know that ex gratia or condolence payments can provide both tangible assistance and deep symbolic meaning to families grieving and rebuilding from unimaginable loss.

Each of the families submitting the request noted above understands that the U.S. military historically has only offered a few hundred or thousand dollars to civilians injured or killed in its operations. As much as these civilians believe they are entitled to full compensation and accountability for their losses, they know this is not likely under current policy. For some, a relatively small but symbolic payment would still mean something. For others, the possibility of greater transparency around the strike, or of an apology and acknowledgment from the military, is incentive enough to request a response. Yet so far, all their requests have been met with silence.

The Redress Program has received assurances from CENTCOM that the aforementioned requests – as well as others submitted since 2022 – are still under consideration. We are hopeful that once CENTCOM’s expanded civilian harm team reaches full staffing, requests like these can be addressed at last. CENTCOM and other commands now have clearer guidance than ever before that previous requests can be prioritized. The December 2023 Department of Defense Instruction on Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response (DoD Instruction 3000.17, henceforth referred to as the CHMR DoD-I) makes explicit, “responses may be made after time has passed.”

Supporting commanders with clearer guidance from the Pentagon is also necessary. The current Interim Regulations on condolence payments, released by DoD in 2020 to guide implementation of the ex gratia payment authority, need to be updated to reflect the policy commitments of both the CHMR DoD-I and the CHMR-AP. We recommend that the updated guidance proactively encourage commanders to make ex gratia payments in acknowledged cases of civilian harm wherever possible and in line with victims’ preferences, and include explicit approval and encouragement for payments in prior cases deemed credible by the DoD but where no payments were made.

The U.S. military has a projected budget of $849.8 billion for fiscal year 2025. $3 million is a tiny fraction of this amount – 0.00035% of the projected DoD budget, to be precise. Yet for the civilians who have waited years for acknowledgement of the most painful day of their lives, it’s anything but small. The military has what it needs to begin making payments and reckoning with past harms, from the policy commitment, to the funding, to the painstaking requests and documentation from civilian victims. All they have to do now is say yes.

Image: The Pentagon building in Washington, DC. (-/AFP via Getty Images)