In a landmark development, Denmark has acknowledged its involvement in the 2011 NATO airstrikes in Libya, which resulted in the deaths of 14 civilians. This admission, a first by any of the ten countries involved in the NATO bombing campaign, came to light following the release of previously secret documents.
The Danish Defense Ministry’s announcement to launch a review came after evidence emerged showing that Danish air force F-16s participated in attacks linked to civilian deaths. These documents, obtained under freedom of information laws, revealed that as early as 2012, the Danish air force had privately acknowledged its role in two specific airstrikes. These incidents included a June 2011 airstrike in Surman, resulting in 12 civilian deaths, and a September 2011 bombing in Sirte, where two individuals, including a pregnant woman, were killed.
This long-withheld acknowledgment prevented relatives of the Libyan victims from seeking compensation or redress, as they were unaware of the responsible country. The Danish admission follows an investigation by Altinget, a Danish news site, the civilian harm watchdog Airwars, and The Guardian.
The Danish internal review from 2012, previously marked secret, mentioned that “Danish aircraft participated in a number of the specific attacks” identified by UN investigators, Human Rights Watch, and the New York Times as having caused civilian casualties. Despite this, the review also stated there was “no evidence or indication that Danish aircraft have caused such casualties,” attributing this uncertainty to the absence of NATO troops on the ground to assess the effects of the attacks.
The disclosure of Denmark’s role is significant in the context of modern aerial warfare, where civilian casualties are often a contentious issue. For instance, the UK claims only one civilian casualty in its nine-year campaign against IS targets in Iraq and Syria, a record that has been questioned by experts.
Responding to the Danish disclosure, a NATO official maintained that the Libyan campaign was conducted with “unprecedented precision,” and that all locations bombed were “legitimate military targets.” NATO’s policy of not sending personnel into Libya to review strikes was also highlighted.
The participation of ten nations, including six from Europe, in the NATO-led Operation Unified Protector, was instrumental in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. However, this intervention also led to prolonged instability in Libya. The Danish acknowledgment has implications for other nations involved in the operation and raises questions about military accountability and the protection of civilians in conflict zones.
Khaled al-Hamedi, whose family was killed in the Surman strike, exemplifies the struggle for justice faced by many victims’ relatives. His efforts to bring a claim against NATO were thwarted by the alliance’s immunity from prosecution. The recent revelations have prompted him to consider legal action against the Danish military.
Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV, said of the news “This admission by Denmark is a crucial step towards transparency in military engagements, highlighting a much-needed shift towards accountability for civilian casualties in modern warfare.”
In conclusion, Denmark’s admission of its role in the fatal 2011 NATO airstrikes in Libya marks a significant step towards transparency in military operations. It highlights the need for nations to acknowledge and address the civilian impact of their military actions, fostering a culture of accountability in international conflict resolution.
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