Report says NATO ignoring civilian deaths in Libya campaign

“NATO took important steps to minimize civilian casualties during the Libya campaign, but information and investigations are needed to explain why 72 civilians died,” the report's main author, Fred Abrahams, said in a statement accompanying the report. “Attacks are allowed only on military targets, and serious questions remain in some incidents about what exactly NATO forces were striking.”

The report recommends that NATO conduct post-operation investigations into civilian casualties in Libya. NATO says it has no mandate to operate on the ground, but Human Rights Watch counters that it has not asked Libya’s transitional government for authority to examine incidents of civilian deaths and should do so promptly.

“The overall care NATO took in the campaign is undermined by its refusal to examine the dozens of civilian deaths,” Abrahams said. “This is needed to provide compensation for victims of wrongful attacks, and to learn from mistakes and minimize civilian casualties in future wars.”

The report is likely to rekindle criticism of Western powers' interference in other countries' affairs ahead of this weekend's NATO summit in Chicago. Russia, for example, has said NATO “grossly violated” its mandate in Libya and has used the March-October 2011 campaign to justify blocking U.N. action against Syria.

The Human Rights Watch report singled out Russia as having made “grossly exaggerated claims of civilian deaths from NATO air strikes … without basis.”

“The countries that have criticized NATO for so-called massive civilian casualties in Libya are trying to score political points rather than protect civilians,” Abrahams said.

NATO for its part responded Monday by praising the “unprecedented care and precision” of a campaign that “saved countless lives.”

“NATO did everything possible to minimize risks to civilians, but in a complex military campaign, that risk can never be zero,” the organization said in a press statement. “We deeply regret any instance of civilian casualties for which NATO may have been responsible.”