Amnesty International is calling upon the U.S.-led military coalition combatting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Syria to conduct a thorough investigation into the full scale of civilian deaths that occurred during its 2017 campaign to liberate the city of Raqqa.
The international watchdog’s “War of Annihilation” report, published in June, accused the coalition of killing and injuring thousands of civilians during its attacks on Raqqa — ISIL’s de-facto “capital.” In response, a spokesman for the coalition, which is made up of U.S., British, and French forces, criticized Amnesty’s methodology in producing the report claiming that the NGO “was out of line” for accusing the coalition of violating international law, according to CNN.
“They are literally judging us guilty until proven innocent,” Col. Thomas Veale told reporters at the Pentagon via a video briefing from Baghdad, Iraq. “That’s a bold rhetorical move by an organization that fails to check the public record or consult the accused.” Moreover, he said, “They never asked us for a comment, an interview or a courtesy check of the draft. They also failed to check the public record thoroughly.”
When the Amnesty report was originally published, Veale stated that the military was also looking into the claims: “people are looking at that article and trying to correlate those claims to the strike log . . . and how the battle of Raqqa unfolded, as our participation went in it, and so that will continue to be evaluated.”
While the coalition initially deplored the Amnesty report, it recently acknowledged the watchdog’s findings as credible: Amnesty’s findings matched the coalition’s own casualty report released late last month.
“The investigation assessed that although all feasible precautions were taken and the decision to strike complied with the law of armed conflict, unintended civilian casualties regrettably occurred,” the coalition report stated.
“Throughout our air and ground campaigns, we have used deliberate targeting and strike processes to minimize the impact of our operations on civilian populations and infrastructure. Our assessments of civilian casualties are transparent, and we hold ourselves accountable through regularly published strike press releases and civilian casualty reports,” the report continued.
On July 26, the coalition acknowledged that the aerial bombardments that had occurred in Raqqa between June and October, 2017, had killed 77 more civilians than it had previously reported. However, Amnesty claimed that this admission was just the “tip of iceberg” in a statement published on Tuesday.
With the support of the coalition, Kurdish-led Syrian forces conducted the four-month-long offensive in Raqqa, which fought to retake the city street by street. During that period, the coalition unleashed a series of airstrikes and shell fire, which ultimately drove ISIL fighters out of Raqqa in October, 2017.
While the coalition originally claimed that the civilian death toll during the Raqqa offensive was 32, Amnesty’s interviews with 112 civilians at the sites of 42 coalition airstrikes prompted the coalition to add 77 civilians to their original death count. The international rights group also stated that 49 of the 77 civilians killed were women and children.
Amnesty is urging the coalition to conduct an investigation in order to determine how and why civilians were killed in Raqqa, and to ascertain who was responsible for their deaths. The international watchdog also believes that the probe is necessary to seek justice for Raqqa’s fallen, and to obtain compensation for its surviving residents.
“Every family I met in Raqqa has one question which was ‘why did the coalition bomb us?’,” said Amnesty’s adviser, Donatella Rovera, in the statement.
“Nothing can ever bring back the dead or wipe away the unimaginable trauma. The least the coalition can do right now is provide restorative measures — including compensation and rehabilitation — to victims’ families and survivors. It is time that the coalition stop [sic] being in denial and does [sic]the right thing: a proper independent investigation,” Rovera added.
Amnesty’s statement demanded that the coalition release “meaningful and verifiable information” about how targets in Raqqa were chosen and how the strikes were carried out. The international rights group has also criticized the coalition’s monthly reports for being too generic in how they documented the strikes.
“How can the coalition avoid inflicting high civilian death tolls in the future without accounting for what went wrong?,” asked Rovera in the statement.
Amnesty’s vigilance in reporting on the atrocities perpetrated during the offensive in Raqqa highlights the important role that international non-governmental organizations play in defending human rights — especially in conflict zones. While it is not always possible for nation states, international organizations, and human rights groups to prevent war and destruction, they have a moral responsibility to call for states to uphold the rule of law whenever possible, and to highlight infractions when it is flagrantly violated.