Lackluster Civilian Protection in FY24 House NDAA

Photo Credit: AP

With the NDAA 2024 (National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024) being volleyed from the Republican house to the Democratic senate and back to the house attempting to surreptitiously add or remove socially conservative amendments that deal with cutting military funding for gender reassignment and abortion, the budget plan leaves out a few major provisions in a time where the potential of war seems imminent. These oversights deal with civilian casualties.

Neither H.R. 2670, nor S.2226 provide a complete answer to mitigating collateral damage in the form of human life. However, the FY24 House NDAA comes in the wake of a banner year for civilian protection. After a string of reporting on egregious civilian casualties, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered the Department of Defense (DoD) to develop the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP).

Unfortunately for civilians, several important proposals were never voted on by the full house. Instead, these provisions never made it beyond the House Committee on Rules, a key gatekeeper of which NDAA Amendments are eventually considered by all representatives.

What is addressed in the CHMR-AP:

Modified ex gratia reporting requirements. This would increase transparency as to payments made to civilian survivors.

GAO (Government Accountability Office) assessment of efficacy of training on civilian casualty mitigation.

Improved transparency and accountability for misuse of potentially dangerous technology. This is defense criteria to determine whether AI is being used responsibly. If AI is misused, either now or in the future, the provision would require the Secretary of Defense to remediate issues.

What is not yet addressed in the CHMR-AP:

Continued accountability gaps for past civilian harm. An amendment proposed by Rep Jacobs (D-CA) would have required the Secretary of Defense to “establish procedures to review and re-investigate” allegations of civilian harm from the U.S. military operations between 2011-2023 that were likely incorrectly dismissed.

Insufficient transparency on civilian casualties from certain U.S. strikes: After its sunset in 2022, Rep Jason Crow (D-CO) introduced an amendment to extend until 2027 reporting on U.S. strikes against terrorist targets “outside areas of active hostilities” and resulting civilian casualties. While the DoD currently reports annually on civilian harm caused by its own operations, this reporting requirement was the only window into civilian harm caused by operations by other U.S. agencies, such as the CIA. If it had passed, this amendment would have facilitated transparency that is key to evaluating recent changes in civilian protection as well as broader oversight over the U.S. use of force globally.

Lack of focus on civilian casualties in Nigeria: Despite reports of civilian harm in Nigeria, an amendment by Rep Jacobs (D-CA) proposing a report on U.S. strategy for justice and accountability in the Nigerian Armed Forces also did not receive full House consideration.

Increased funds for humanitarian demining. This would work to remove and destroy landmines, cluster munitions, and other unexploded ordnance from areas affected by conflict.

The $886 Bn DoD budget includes $842 Bn for the Pentagon and another $32 Bn for nuclear weapons programs at the Department of Energy. Also included is the National Defense Stockpile (NDS) program which is to provide for the acquisition and retention of stocks of certain SM (Strategic Materials) such as oil, steel, aluminum, titanium, tungsten, and cobalt.

However, with the armed conflict in Ukraine being the largest conflict in Europe since World War II and a verifiable humanitarian crisis, the continued need to protect civilians seems to be a valid topic amongst lawmakers despite its seemingly marginal consideration in the 2024 NDAA.

The US 2024 fiscal year begins in October, so a compromise between the house and senate will be met by fall pertaining to the domestic social issues.

Civilian casualties of war can be reported directly to the US Government here.