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Victims of US military violence are getting stiffed

Victims of US military violence are getting stiffed

Sen. Warren wants to know when civilians claim abuses and how much they are compensated, if at all

Reporting | Washington Politics

This year’s defense policy bill is a bit of a mixed bag for critics of American military adventurism. The compromise version of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — which passed the House and Senate this week — added more than $40 billion to the Biden administration’s funding request, resulting in an eye-popping $886 billion top-line.

The final bill left out a bipartisan, Senate-passed amendment to expand compensation for people affected by U.S. nuclear testing, which caused a range of cancers and radiation-related diseases among Americans living downwind of explosive tests, as RS reported on last week.

But one measure could make a big difference for activists hoping to hold the Department of Defense accountable for killing civilians in far-off war zones. The amendment, first introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), would force the Pentagon to tell Congress why it denied any requests for compensation from civilians harmed or killed by American troops abroad.

“When U.S.-provided weapons or military action results in civilian harm, the Department of Defense has an obligation to investigate what happened and make amends to families who lost their loved ones,” Warren told RS. “I’m concerned the Department of Defense is not fully meeting these obligations, so I’m changing the law to provide transparency and accountability.”

A 2020 law set up a $3 million annual fund for payments to victims, but the process for actually securing compensation has been shrouded in mystery. As Warren noted in a 2022 letter, the Pentagon only made one payment in all of 2021 “despite the large number of cases that DoD has confirmed as credible,” not to mention the cases of civilian harm identified by journalists and researchers but denied by the military.

When the U.S. has made payouts, they’ve only gone to people in Iraq or Afghanistan despite credible reports of civilian harm from U.S. strikes in Syria, Somalia, and other War on Terror hotspots. The payments are considered “ex gratia,” meaning that they are not mandatory and can be given at the discretion of military officers on the ground.

Even high-profile cases often fall through the cracks. Take the infamous 2021 strike in Kabul that killed 10 Afghan civilians, most of whom were children, despite initial reports that the attack had targeted ISIS fighters.

In an uncommon move, DoD apologized for the strike and “made a public commitment to condolence payments and pledged to help survivors relocate,” according to Alice Speri of the Intercept. The family did get to relocate to the U.S., but as of this May, they have still not received the compensation they were promised. In fact, a volunteer resorted to a GoFundMe fundraiser to help the survivors make ends meet. When Speri asked the Pentagon to explain what had gone wrong, officials declined to comment, “citing the family’s privacy.”

In another case, the U.S. badly wounded a man in a 2018 strike on a car in Yemen, leaving him permanently disabled and killing four other passengers. Despite evidence that none of the victims were military targets — and a letter from multiple members of Congress calling for an investigation into the incident — the Pentagon has never even looked into the attack.

The new measure “helps ensure that the ex gratia payments are being made as they should and that people who have been harmed in U.S. military operations are able to receive the amends payments they deserve,” said John Ramming Chappell of the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

Another Warren-backed amendment that made it into the final NDAA could also have a positive impact on civilians abroad, according to Chappell. The measure will require the Pentagon to brief Congress on its implementation of a series of recommendations from a 2022 Government Accountability Office report on issues with “end-use monitoring” (EUM) of U.S. weapons.

The report tells a stark story. According to the GAO, Guatemalan officials had used American jeeps multiple times between 2018 and 2021 to intimidate international NGOs and even U.S. embassy staff. Remarkably, neither the State Department nor the Pentagon had “policies governing how to record allegations of misuse in their internal tracking documents,” leaving U.S. officials unaware of Guatemala’s systematic misuse of American military equipment.

The amendment will force DoD to brief Congress on how it has implemented the report’s recommendations, which include creating a tracking system for allegations of misuse. If implemented, these suggestions would be an important step for improving EUM efforts, which currently “don't actually monitor how U.S. weapons and equipment are used,” Chappell told RS.

“Efforts to create processes to track and respond to the misuse of U.S.-origin weapons and equipment are absolutely vital to ensure accountability for misuse,” he said.

While the term “misuse” gives officials significant room for interpretation, the recommended changes to EUM would likely force the U.S. to examine whether Israel has violated the terms of U.S. arms sales in its bombing of Gaza, which even President Biden has at times called “indiscriminate.”

Officials would also likely have to report on whether U.S. rifles went to Israeli settlers in the West Bank, as Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir promised in October.

The U.S. already has much of the information necessary to open such inquiries, according to Politico, which reported yesterday that State Department officials have asked government lawyers to determine whether the U.S. faces “potential international law exposure as a result of approving” arms sales to Israel despite growing evidence of misuse.

Rich Koele/ Shutterstock

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