New WikiLeaks releases, accessed by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, continue to embarrass the Norwegian government as well as the US’, with latest revelations suggesting that Norway’s ambassadors joined their US-led NATO allies in attempts to avoid a messy debate on civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
Leaked cables from the American delegation to NATO, written in September 2008, allege that “Norway’s ambassador emphasized the need to avoid a public debate about the reporting of the number of civilians killed.” They claim to record then-Norwegian ambassador and former deputy foreign minister Kim Traavik pouring scorn on the UN’s civilian death toll figures, stating that “UN employees themselves in Kabul doubt the method that is used.”
Traavik – currently Norway’s ambassador to the UK – denied any conscious suppression, telling Aftenposten the US embassy cable account revealed in the WikiLeaks documents “must be a misunderstanding.” He claimed Norway was one of the countries that “most strongly argued” that NATO and ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force, NATO’s missionin Afghanistan) had to implement measures to reduce civilian losses. “We did this for humanitarian reasons,” Traavik told Aftenposten, “but also with consideration to pubic opinion in member nations and Afghanistan.”
Reacting to the allegation that he was critical of the UN’s approach, Traavik responded that “we wanted to avoid a situation where important actors like NATO, ISAF and the UN disagreed and operated with a completely different basis,” adding that “Norway has pushed so that NATO, as soon as possible, would come forward with public statements after episodes of civilian losses.”
Criticism was nonetheless swift from prominent Norwegian human rights organizations, with the secretary general of the Norwegian branch of Amnesty International, John Peder Egenæs, saying that “it is completely unacceptable that Norway has gone along with covering up the death toll.” He described the revelations as “contrary to what we expect of Norwegian authorities, and the impression the government wants to give of itself.”
The anxiety of Norway and the country’s allies over the difference between UN and NATO death toll figures led to NATO demanding that the UN work with them on joint studies of the civilian deaths. This was met with firm opposition by the then-UN Special Representative to Afghanistan, Norwegian Kai Eide, who believed such cooperation would, in the words of the US minutes, “compromise the UN’s independence and lead to uproar in the human rights community.” Eide was reportedly already considered too independent by the NATO allies, and Victoria Nuland, the US ambassador to NATO, asked the experienced Norwegian diplomat to “be on the same side as ISAF in public, and to defend the mission when unavoidable tragedies in a conflict, like civilian losses, take place.”
‘Out of touch’
Eide has been heavily critical of NATO’s stance on the subject since, commenting that he “experienced that discussion in NATO was out of touch with reality in relation to what happened on the ground in Afghanistan.”
One incident over which Eide was particularly angry was the Bala Baluk bombing; documents also released over the weekend purport to show that the US hid a report from the Red Cross suggesting that 89 civilians were killed in the incident, while an official US report instead claimed that only 26 had died. Eide’s soon-to-be released book will apparently go into more detail on his disagreements with the US, in particular on the reporting and avoidance of civilian fatalities.
Other WikiLeaks’s documents have shown that NATO’s standard response to civilian casualties been, at the urging of the Americans, to apologize for the loss of life, promise an investigation and put the blame on the Taliban.