ANALYSIS: A few thousand dollars - the price of life for civilians killed in war zones

Wednesday, 16 July 2014 13:30 GMT

Afghan women visit a cemetery in Kabul June 11, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

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Is a cow worth as much as a man? Thomson Reuters Foundation examines how the U.S. and its allies value grief and damages inflicted on Iraqis and Afghans

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When U.S. soldiers still patrolled the streets of Mosul in northern Iraq, a local man went for a walk to get some ice cream. Gunfire broke out and he was shot dead by U.S. troops. 

Documents released by U.S. forces do not say why he was shot but show they gave his wife $2,500 and his child a “condolence gift” of $1,000.

Those payments, following the shooting on May 2, 2005, are among thousands the United States and its allies have made to civilians caught up in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to deaths, wounds or property damage involving Western forces.

While local people have sometimes complained that the payments are too low, rights activists have praised the military for making them. But they say such payouts have often been inconsistent and done on an ad-hoc basis.

Campaigners are now pushing to make permanent, fair systems for payouts to civilian victims of conflict a legacy of the post-9/11 wars as the U.S. winds down its involvement in Afghanistan, having pulled the last of its troops out of Iraq at the end 2011.

 “The lesson will have been learned once the U.S. and NATO have a standing system to address civilian harm so that in 20 years’ time if we enter into another conflict, we're not caught on our heels as we were in 2001 when we went into Afghanistan,” said Marla Keenan, managing director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), a Washington-based advocacy group.

To examine how nations and organisations try to put a value on grief, injuries and property damage, especially in war zones, the Thomson Reuters Foundation has drawn on a range of government documents, official reports, laws and other sources.


At first glance, the figures show big variations.

The United States frequently paid $2,500 in response to the death of a civilian in Iraq, and continues make payouts around this amount in Afghanistan. In contrast, the U.S. government pays families of U.S. soldiers killed in those countries a death gratuity of $100,000.

The picture changes, however, when average incomes in the different countries are taken into account.

The $2,500 payout is equivalent to just over twice the average annual income in Afghanistan – and $100,000 is just under twice the average income in the United States, based on International Monetary Fund estimates for GDP per capital in 2014, adjusted for differences in cost of living and inflation.

However, a low-cost life insurance scheme for U.S. service personnel pays out up to $400,000 in addition to the death gratuity.

Even the basic amounts paid upon death represent very different concepts. Death gratuities are paid to the next of kin of soldiers who take a certain risk in their job on the understanding that their families will receive money from their employer if they die. The sums paid to civilians are meant to recognise distress or loss but are not regarded as compensation.

Yet even these payments can throw up striking contrasts. Leaked spreadsheets show the United States in one case paid as much for the loss of a cow "caught in crossfire and razor wire" as it routinely pays following the death of an Afghan civilian. 

Military forces are under no legal obligation to pay civilians for any harm caused by combat operations, according to experts in international law. But they do sometimes make payments, even while not admitting legal liability, if they determine this is the local custom.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military initially ruled there was no such custom, only to reverse that position in the face of anger from the families of civilians killed or wounded in incidents such as checkpoint shootings, botched air raids and crossfire.

Militaries call these payouts solatia (from the same Latin root as “solace”), ex-gratia (“out of kindness”) or condolence payments.

Britain has paid out more than $6 million to Afghans for fatalities, injuries and property damage since 2006, according to data obtained by the Foundation via a freedom of information request.

The data released by Britain’s Ministry of Defence show at least 550 claims by Afghans for fatalities. Just over a third have been paid or settled, while around half have been rejected.

Individual claims for payment are catalogued in colour-coded spreadsheets. A red box marked “F” for fatality stands next to entries such as “Father Immolated” for an incident in July 2006 in the Nawzad district of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

A claimant in Nahri Saraj district requests payment for a daughter and son-in-law killed when a bombardment “took out” a boat they were travelling in. The claim, from December 2009, is marked “I” for under investigation.

The Ministry of Defence declined to provide details of individual payouts.


British forces, who serve in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), use a table of standard injury and death payments to guide them. It includes suggested awards of $200 for minor injuries, $240 for the loss of a toe, $1,000 for the loss of an eye and $7,000 for the amputation of both feet.

The table, released by the ministry, shows the severity of an injury and the number of a victim’s dependants play a big role in determining how much to pay. The document advises troops also to consider the “sex of the injured party in relation to their earnings capacity and family responsibilities”.

It recommends payouts for the death of an Afghan child of between $2,000 and $5,000, and between $5,000 and $8,000 for the death of an adult, defined as someone aged 12 or older. Deaths of working men with large families are likely to result in the biggest payouts, it says.

Lawyers who have represented Afghan and Iraqi civilians in cases against the British government said the current system was unsatisfactory.

“Where individuals are prevented from bringing legal proceedings against members of foreign armed forces who have caused them harm, there ought to be an independent mechanism where those injured individuals could go and have their case carefully considered,” said Gene Matthews, a partner at London law firm Leigh Day.

“If it was held that the foreign armed forces were responsible for the harm, a decent level of compensation could be paid,” he said.

The British government said it took account of local circumstances in Afghanistan when deciding on payments.

“Providing restitution for civilians who have suffered in these circumstances is the right thing to do. The levels of payment made reflect local custom, practice and economic factors as well as being broadly comparable to the practices adopted by other ISAF nations,” a Ministry of Defence spokesman said.


The U.S. military has had the power to make condolence payments since the Korean War of the 1950s, if it deems they are customary in the region where it is operating. U.S. forces have used them in countries including Vietnam, Haiti and Somalia.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation requested details of these payouts for conflicts including the war in Afghanistan several months ago under freedom of information legislation. U.S. authorities have yet to provide any data.

But leaked spreadsheets of a military spending programme in Afghanistan, which appear complete for the three years between 2008 and 2010, offer an insight into U.S. practice.

The average payment following the loss of an Afghan life was $2,500 while the most frequent was $2,000, according to the Foundation's analysis of the files uploaded to the website

The highest recorded payment for the death of a single civilian in the files appears to be $4,700, to the family of an interpreter killed on a military base in Khost province in September 2008. The lowest was the $1,000 for the killing of a woman’s son paid in Kabul in October 2007.

In one case, U.S. forces paid $4,500 to two men for the lives of seven relatives killed in an air strike in Helmand in August 2010.

Researchers have found significant differences in how different ISAF nations handle condolence payments and the United Nations mission in Afghanistan has urged them for years to adopt a uniform compensation system.

In contrast to the $2,500 per death paid by U.S. forces, Germany gave $20,000 in cash and a car worth $5,000 to the family of three civilians shot dead by German troops at a checkpoint in the northern province of Kunduz in 2008, according to research by the campaigning group CIVIC.


The group said the fact that Western forces were making such payments at all was an important step forward.

"I think over the past decade and particularly over the last five to six years the U.S. and ISAF have made great strides in the way they address civilian harm," said CIVIC’s Keenan.

“I see the U.S. military as a leader on this issue, but they have more work to do to inculcate these current practices into standing policy.”

The U.S. Congress passed legislation in January which campaigners say should prompt the Pentagon to adopt a system for making payments to civilian victims of conflict. The law allows the U.S. military to make payouts without having to reach a legal determination that it is customary to do so.

Activists and academics say it is not just the amount of a payout that is important. Civilians also want an explanation and a genuine expression of regret.

Emily Gilbert, a Canadian academic who has studied condolence payments, expressed concern that Western forces were currently paying out to avoid hostility from locals rather than accepting real responsibility for causing harm.

“There’s a danger that this may turn into a belittling of the ways we value life,” said Gilbert, director of the Canadian Studies Programme at the University of Toronto.

“It becomes standardised, a routine practice and it may be just another way to shuffle off civilian harm and to put it out of sight, out of mind.”

((Editing by Andrew Gray))



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