The revelation that dozens of Libyan civilians were killed in NATO air strikes, contrary to earlier claims by the military alliance that the campaign had incurred minimal civilian casualties, has prompted a muted response from Canadian politicians and military leaders.
A New York Times investigation, which involved visits to more than 25 Libyan bombing sites – as well as interviews with survivors, doctors and an analysis of munitions – found that at least 40 civilians were killed during the seven-month campaign, which has been held up by NATO as a model for future interventions. As recently as November, the secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said: “We have carried out this operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties.”
The discovery of previously unrecorded deaths garnered sympathy, but not ire, from the Canadian government, opposition politicians and the Libyan-Canadian community.
A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he could not confirm any of the numbers as reported by the Times. (NATO acknowledged to the Times, after reviewing the newspaper’s findings, that there had been unaccounted civilian deaths.)
“Of course, we always regret the loss of innocent life, but note that the people of Libya have praised NATO for the care it took in protecting civilians from the Qadhafi regime,” Mr. Baird’s spokesman, Joseph Lavoie, said in an e-mailed statement.
Adel Esayed, president of the Canadian-Libyan Council, which was formed during the revolution to bring awareness to the rebels’ cause, said he was not surprised by the deaths even if they had been omitted from the war’s official record.
“We believe that NATO did their best to target the military installations,” said Mr. Esayed. “If anything went wrong, I don’t blame them. They were there for the Libyan people.”
The Department of National Defence declined to comment, explaining it was a matter for NATO to address. Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, the Canadian who served as commander of the mission in Libya, had previously acknowledged in an interview with The Globe and Mail in October that civilian deaths must have occurred. “Any time there was a civilian death and we caused it, it got to me,” he said.
Gen. Bouchard is on leave and could not be reached for comment Sunday.
The Times investigation raised questions about the effectiveness of NATO’s post-conflict reporting and its capacity to investigate allegations of civilian casualties. Commanders are expected to file a “lessons-learned” report to NATO headquarters in February, but it’s unclear how the alliance can address mistakes it has never acknowledged.
Kristele Younes, a field director for Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, investigated the errant bombing of a three-storey house in Tripoli that killed a couple and their two children, aged 2 and 7, in June. When Ms. Younes reported the casualties to the alliance, she says she was told that the deaths would still go unrecognized because NATO hadn’t confirmed the deaths itself – even though it declined to investigate.
“The position was absurd,” Ms. Younes told the newspaper. “But they made it very clear: there was no appetite within NATO to look at these incidents.”
Roland Paris, an international security expert at the University of Ottawa, said the deaths are, on their face, not a large number of casualties for a campaign that saw more than 7,000 combat sorties. “There is no such thing as a clean and surgical war,” he said.
But Mr. Paris said NATO has an obligation to investigate, in order to determine if mistakes were made that can be avoided in any future bombing campaign.
The NDP said it plans to raise the issue when Parliament resumes, and that the party believes NATO should fully investigate. Liberal defence critic John McKay said the revelations are a reminder of the “unhappy calculus” of the Libyan campaign, with civilian casualties an unfortunate result of the need to displace a dictator.
With a report from Les Perreaux